Chapter 1: Ghost In the Machine
The first murder had never been Cain with his sheaf of grain. Original sin had never been the possession of knowledge.
The first murder was done long before knowledge came into existence. When a single primordial cell reached outward through the ooze to spill the life of a neighbour. Not for resources, and not for reproduction. For malice, and for joy in malice.
The young god was born into that moment. Born, and then bided. Accreting eons of the thing that became time, watching the cells become creatures of osmotic membranes and sparking electrical brains. Trembling sacks of water and electricity, pulled helplessly forward by their own natures. From flagellum to opposable digits to weapons of war. Growing and growing, until they collapsed all the way back to atoms that flared bright enough to kill cities.
The young god became old witnessing these things, and was well pleased. It lived mostly on pleasure, but even old gods have their own natures to follow. It pounced when it could. Reaching through sudden rents in the veil, seducing and cajoling some evanescing spark to embody the seed of a god. Sinking into the host’s skin and wicking across the interstitials between those once singular cells. Following the chosen one’s electrical heartbeat through muscle and through bone until it reached the furiously multiplying center of some wet body.
The chosen was a female this time, of the apex species. Young and fine and made of a billion shimmering cells. A daughter of the so-called Eve, but claimed now by the old god. Filled with the old god, and the seed of the old god, and the essence of the old god. Holy.
Things had gotten weird, even for Purgatory.
Willa had taken Peacemaker across the Ghost River Triangle demarcation line. The wards, or barrier, or whatever, which had been set in place by God, or Lucifer, or Whoever had cracked open. There had been darkness at noon, and a coiling monster called the Old One. Then Wynonna had brought Peacemaker back across the line, snapping the barrier back into place. Conveniently severing the rapidly invading head of the Old One.
The severed section had disapparated, which was very tidy, but it had still left behind little pools of black ichor on the ground inside the Triangle. Waverly stepped around the puddle, because duh. Never touch the goo.
Except she was actually on her knees and jerking her hand back from the goo. Rushing and buzzing and burning, with a tunnelling vision that almost buckled her over.
Except she had walked around the goo, and shot at the monster creeping behind Wynonna and Doc, and now she was running.
“Run!” She screamed. “Doc, quick!”
Half a stride behind her, Doc stumbled, huffing out breaths as ragged, panicked steam.
“Shit!” Waverly cried. It seemed like the thing to do.
Wynonna spent her morning getting her ass abruptly handed to her in Dolls' hotel room. By French lingerie. With a lamp.
Super outside Clue regulations.
Course, she’d spent the day before killing her lost and reclaimed-but-evil older sister. So, perspective. Still, the bruise kicked into her calf by the surprisingly flexible French lingerie hurt. And the fact that Dolls had never mentioned her to this Eliza person was just rude.
The rest of the day didn’t get any more polite. Dolls wasn’t human, which everyone seemed to know except her. A creepy institute took Waverly’s blood to seal some sort of indentured servitude. Eliza died, and despite making an actual plan, with contingencies thank you so very much, they hadn’t even truly rescued Dolls.
At least he would die free, and not locked in a cage. Probably there was a poem about how it was better to die free.
Probably that poem needed to be kicked in the ass by some French lingerie.
Wynonna lead her little ragtag group back to the homestead. Stalking past whatever brewing fight Nicole and Waverly were about to have, and past Doc with his good sense to reject her advances, and cried into a pink stuffed bunny.
Some heir. Not even a functional human being.
Nicole leaned on the quarter panel of her cruiser, listening to Waverly make explanatory statements about why Nicole was no longer an agent for Black Badge, and pondering the old nugget: Don’t go to bed angry.
Relationship advice for the ages. Top hit on internet sites, and tip of the tongue at diamond wedding anniversaries. Stay engaged, or at the very least awake, until the issue was resolved.
“I didn’t have a choice. He would have killed you,” Waverly insisted.
“Or made it official. Signed me up, too.”
“In your own blood,” Waverly said, like maybe Nicole was short a few fundamentals.
She looked exotic in those cat-eyed glasses and red lipstick, framed by the snow like something damn near ethereal. The weight of her presence should have felt like water pressing on a dam, but Nicole felt unmoved.
Waverly had made some decisions, and Nicole was going to need a little time. Otherwise she was going to use her words to point out how little Waverly had enjoyed growing up least of three, and to ask why she thought Nicole needed to be so far below least that she didn’t hardly count at all.
Or maybe flat out tell Waverly it was just like a straight girl to keep an inconveniently lesbian lover so compartmentalized. Brought out for fun, stored upright in the closet when social nicety needed to be obeyed.
Nicole had already paid her dues. She wasn’t about to be stored upright for anyone on earth. Not even Waverly Earp.
She breathed through her nose. Clenched a fist, and released it. A body didn’t have no choice but to feel its feelings. That didn’t mean feelings had much smarts, and it didn’t mean they had to be acted on. The seduction of cruelty never had to be obeyed.
Still, she declined the eye contact Waverly tried so hard to make. Letting her duck and twist for a few long seconds before she got the message. Stoic wasn’t robotic, and one of the perks of being an adult was choosing what hoary old bits of advice to take, and what to kick straight in the ass.
Goddamn right she was going to go to bed angry.
If she also knew enough to realize she’d lay in that same bed wide awake, listening to John Prine on repeat with her head buried in a pillow, well, it wasn’t like her cat was going to spread any rumours.
She made the homestead shrink in her rearview as fast as she’d ever taken a straight prairie road; then forced her foot to ease back. Nicole could get angry and drive too fast, but Deputy Haught had to stay up on that public pedestal.
Waverly hunted the homestead for Wynonna. It wasn’t hard. She’d been doing the same since she was three years old, and she liked to think she’d developed rare skill. Triangulating a stick-figure Wynonna out the back window, way off at the tree line and staring up at the bluff. Timing still piping hot chocolate on the porch when actual sized Wynonna rounded the corner of the house.
Those cups were probably frozen by now. Sitting where she and Wynonna had left them when they’d strode off to hunt whatever demons had slouched towards Purgatory to be born.
Waverly had started off stomping through the snow like a crusader following the flaming sword—well, a flaming long barrelled Colt Buntline Special—but now her knees hurt from the rough tread and her thumb throbbed under her glove, the tip wet from still-oozing blood. Probably she was slowly bleeding to death from some poison Lucado had conjured up.
“Hey.” Wynonna bumped a hip into her side. “You okay, baby girl?”
No. Willa was gone. Dolls was maybe dead or maybe just never coming back. Eliza, a person Waverly had only known for a few hours was definitely dead. Waverly had signed a contract in blood. The veracity of her lineage was in tatters. And Nicole.
Nicole, and Nicole, and Nicole.
The snow around them was a beautiful glitter, and Waverly didn’t necessarily read much fiction, but everyone knew about winters and their discontents. Just like everyone knew about Earps, and how they processed. The trick was; they didn’t.
“I think I’m supposed to be asking you that,” Waverly said instead of saying that Nicole still scared her, and that the world still moved too fast to understand. Just twenty-four hours ago she’d had two sisters, and a girlfriend who could look her in the face. “You need to eat, and then sleep, Wynonna. I’m serious.”
Wynonna shook her head, her grin diamond edged. “I’m serious, too, Waves. I forgot until just now, but I’m seriously telling you that Randy Nedley is going around town saying that my vagina broke Bobo. Did you know that?”
Bobo and his treehouse of horrors was another thing Waverly did not want to talk about, but…what?
Wynonna snapped double guns at the zipper of her pants. “Sweet crotch o’ mine! Nedley has convinced the fine folks of Purgatory that Bobo poisoned everyone as revenge over the loss of my vajazzle.”
“Ummm. I am woman, hear me roar?” Waverly tried. The hardest edge of Wynonna’s grin melted into something sweeter, and Waverly immediately wanted more. Wanted to help Wynonna find a place where she could be pulled into a hug without shattering, but the wet blood on her glove was making her hand ache with cold, and her chest rang with something that was maybe Nicole and maybe just exhaustion.
Perhaps this was just a new element to her life? The somatization of all the ways Nicole could try to stand for something noble, and all the ways Waverly could cut her down at the knees. Except the pain didn’t matter, because it had been the right thing to do. It had.
“Do you think maybe we’ve patrolled enough for today?” She asked hopefully. Wynonna stopped, and squinted sagely in several directions.
“Hmm. To tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of a plan, back when we walked off the porch.”
“Come on, rocket crotch.” Waverly threaded her arm through Wynonna’s, hoping the momentum would pull her onward, like a Christian soldier. “Let’s go home.”
“Wynonna.” She broke the plodding silence.
“Let’s don’t talk about your vagina again. For a little while. Kay?”
“No bet,” Wynonna promised.
Chapter 2: Corpus Inoculum
Nicole blinked awake, staring at the crack in the ceiling shaped vaguely like a pig’s head, letting memory seep back in slowly. On examination, two things were pretty clear: Yesterday had certainly been a day, and; she was definitely not ready to deal with it yet.
The righteous indignation was still above the levee, and empathy was purt’ near under the waterline. The exact inverse of what she needed in order to meet Waverly like an adult, and Jesus, how badly someone needed to be the adult in the coming reckoning.
The anger between them wasn’t an easy fight—wet towels in the wrong place, or the garbage still sitting inside. This was intentions, and boundaries, and other pests of human consciousness. It was going to take sophistication, and Nicole was still too angry to shepherd them through.
Not that Waverly shrank from conflict, as long as the issue could be resolved using the barrel end of her extremely illegal sawn-off shotgun. It was emotional upheaval that sometimes shut Waverly down, and turned her into some new species of oyster. Folding around the grain until she could pretend it wasn’t actually there.
Too bad for her, because Waverly’s go-to method of glossing over the conflict was simply not going to serve this time. A first argument meant a first reconciliation, and the style they chose would be the foundation for every negotiation down the line.
Nicole sighed, and hauled herself out of bed. She needed to get up, go to work, and not think about Waverly. Hurt was a human thing, and anything human could certainly be forced into submission by forms filled out in triplicate.
“Dramatic asshole.” She bared her teeth at the face in the mirror.
Once at the station she received a stay of paperwork execution in the form of weird things and screaming being reported at the old convent school, now being renovated into condos.
Poking around the site wasn’t amazing, except for the part where she got to peel her ass off the stitching of her office chair. That part was pretty amazing for her ass. Sadly, the site was clean of anything nefarious, questionable, or even in poor taste. So clean that it fairly reeked of the occult and freaky dealings.
Nicole felt it clench into her jaw. The fact that she’d have to toddle back to the Municipal Centre, and hand the case over to Black Badge, just like a good widdle flat-foot rookie.
Back at the station, ass settling back onto the stitching, she gave Mr. Kowalski the bad news about the dead-ending of his report. Ignoring his whining as Ms. Linda stalked across the bullpen carrying an accordion file. Steel haired, be-sweatered, and oozing a total, probably genetic-level lack of nonsense. She was Nedley’s new hire, though Nicole suspected the thirty minutes of closed door interview had been ninety percent Ms. Linda informing Nedley she was hired, and ten percent Nedley acquiescing like a roped calf. It was the only realistic possibility.
She was still letting Mr. Kowalski down easy when Waverly appeared on the civilian side of the counter, waving before she invited herself through the swing gate and sitting at the duty chair.
“I love watching you work,” Waverly told her after she’d escorted Mr. Kowalski back out the swing gate. “Professional, yet caring.”
Nicole didn’t say anything, because, yup, that water was still above the levee.
Waverly tried block her path back to the stacked paperwork of doom, giggling and smiling like it was something cute. It surged hot rage and cold resentment through her synapses, spangling like a terrible disco light. The kind that gave children seizures.
As predicted, Waverly was choosing the oyster option.
She removed Waverly’s legs, clearing a space to pass and leaning to get her face close to Waverly’s own. “This is my job. Okay?”
She didn’t have steel hair, or cardigan sweaters, but she knew how to use a tone. Waverly blanched back, afraid, but Nicole pushed the condo file into her hands and walked away anyways.
Not now. Tonight. Maybe.
Waverly watched Nicole stalk out the far door, gripping the file that had been shoved into her hands.
It was just a fight. Just a first fight. It could be repaired. Definitely it could.
She frowned down at the file, and watched a drop of red suddenly bloomed against the stiff paper.
She looked up at the ceiling, and choked on the taste of blood. It was her own nose. Another drop stained the folder as she pressed the nostril closed, but the blood kept seeping. Trapping her over the bathroom sink for a non-negligible portion of eternity with its steady drip-drip-drip.
First her thumb, and now her nose. Apparently fighting with Nicole truly did upset the very humours of her body. Or Lucado really had poisoned her.
That was dumb, though. It couldn’t be poison. Wynonna, and Doc, and that guy Jeremy seemed to be just fine. Waverly was the only one bleeding.
Would a revenant, would Bobo, react to the blood contract this way? Could whatever cursed them show in Wa— in a half-revenant child?
She dabbed cautiously at the nostril, wary of restarting the flow, but it held. She found a new folder for the case file before dutifully delivering it to the new and improved Black Badge office, where Dolls was missing and Lucado prowled.
Wynonna drew an ore daemonium monster on the glassboard Lucado had drug into the Black Badge office as part of its reincarnation into her fortress of doom.
Dolls was dead. His still animated body might be out there somewhere, but the lizard definitely did not make the man.
Lucado asked a question about timesheets, location of. No one answered.
Wynonna added a few teeth, and wrote killed him good!! above as a header.
Willa was dead. Peacemaker had turned blue when she’d pointed it at her older sister’s head. What was up with that?
Lucado’s lapdog dropped something he’d been unpacking, and cringed. Lucado snapped at him, shrinking him smaller.
Wynonna drew in train tracks, and a section of the Ghost River.
Eliza was dead. Shot in the head, same as Willa. Forget Peacemaker, what was up with the sudden increase in people getting shot in the head?
Doc played with his phone at the desk. Waverly breezed in looking so phenomenally unperturbed it wrapped all the way back around into perturbed.
Wynonna added a gut wound to the glassboard simulacrum in the place she’d hit the original with that tree branch.
Lucado tried to bust John Henry’s balls, and reached critical boil when the clamp failed to close. “Look. I don’t know how things were run around here before, but—”
Wynonna had let some shadowy government institution take Waverly’s blood. She was definitely going to fix that part. She just had to figure out how. What would Dolls do?
“There were a lot less thumbs up asses,” she told Lucado. The woman seemed almost relieved to be acknowledged.
Lucado won the game-set-match, though. Following Wynonna to the breakroom, and pointing out that her boss, Moody the Black Badge Blood Moocher, would kill everyone if she didn’t give him a demon. So, Wynonna took her cursed gun and scurried away to do exactly as she’d been instructed.
“Not the boss of me,” she told the truck cab, with equal parts vehemence and inaccuracy.
How was it that Dolls had seemed master of the situation even when being arrested, but she— who knew how to say fornicate yourself in six different languages and could roam from the Rockies to the city—felt caged?
Nicole went to go visit her cow once her shift was over. Sitting on the top rail of the paddock at the homestead, and handing over too many molasses treats. Daisy lipped them up, and leaned a great majority of her weight against Nicole’s legs.
“Oi, short ribs, shove off. You’re squashing me.” She prodded at a flank until Daisy groaned and shifted.
The homestead’s front door opened, and Waverly slipped out, walking slowly across the lumpy ground to the paddock.
“Hey,” Nicole said, sliding down from the rail.
“Hi,” Waverly said, surging forward, then pulling up short. “Um, hi.” Awkwardness rang between them. Nicole sighed. Later was now.
“We should talk.”
Waverly went rigid, her shoulders pulling in and her eyes sliding away.
Nicole took a careful breath. She’d seen Waverly stand like that before, when she had accidentally triggered the legacy that Ward’s belt had beaten into his daughter. This was pain from a vector Waverly desperately didn’t want, and didn’t know how to stop.
Perhaps this exact moment was more about her mother leaving, and Willa leaving, and Wynonna leaving, and her shitstick father never caring, but seeing her brace for an emotional blow didn’t magically feel better than seeing her brace for a physical one.
“Hey.” Nicole started to back down, but of all the human things Waverly struggled with, cowardice wasn’t included. She nodded, and said, “Okay.”
“I’m angry,” Nicole said bluntly, and just getting to say it made the pressure drop.
Waverly turned to face their shared custody bovine instead of Nicole. That was fine. There was bravery, then there was having to face someone during a charged conversation.
“At what you did,” Nicole corrected.
Waverly patted Daisy’s head, and ran her fingers along her ears until Daisy flapped her giant head. Finally, she said, “Because I took something you wanted away from you.”
Well, now. The oyster path was more observant than Nicole would have bet on.
“Do you know what I wanted?” Nicole asked, because she was curious, and because it suddenly felt like they were having an actual discussion. The kind people used to get better, instead of just argue.
Waverly darted her a look, full of dread and misery.
“That one’s harder.” Nicole reassured the cow directly, and Waverly tangentially. “I’ve got the cheat code, since it’s my brain.”
Waverly clenched her fist rhythmically and let her eyes rove over anything that wasn’t Nicole, breathing fast and silent. Nicole felt their tiny momentum falter.
“Try, Waverly,” Nicole snapped, the sharpest edge of her anger bleeding through. “You have to at least try.” Waverly startled and swallowed hard, opening her mouth obediently.
“You wanted— You wanted to be part of the action?” Waverly tried, and Nicole felt it in the pit of her stomach. Even in anger, she wouldn’t be cold and cruel. She wouldn’t.
“Yeah,” Nicole agreed, feeling the precipice. She could stop here. Make her own apologies for snapping, and kiss Waverly until their still new physicality made all sins seem small. She could do that, and it would work. For a while. Then it would fade, like all false mercy.
Or she could risk the twisting exposure of vulnerability. Of all the human things Nicole struggled with, she was only rarely uncertain. She jumped, and hoped not to smash onto any emotional rocks.
“Mostly though, I just wanted to…be invited inside, I guess. To be a part of what you guys have. You, Doc, Wynonna, Dolls. It seems really great, and I—” She shrugged a little, trying to summarize years of living with her self-involved parents, and being gay, and the unwavering maleness of her working life without being pathetic. “I haven’t always belonged.”
She watched her own hurt suddenly occur to Waverly. Snapping her head around, clamping her hands onto the rail. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice high and tight. “Nicole, please, I’m sorry. I didn’t think. I didn’t know—”
“I know,” Nicole cut her off, more gently than before. She held a cupped hand out to Daisy, so she wouldn’t reach for Waverly. They both had to endure this. The cow snuffled her palm, but its emptiness made her turn a walleyed look on Nicole.
So much for the purity of the animal spirit, giving companionship without compulsion.
“Stupid cow,” Nicole muttered.
“I thought I was doing something good,” Waverly said, pale and scared.
“I know,” Nicole said again. “The hard part is that you were doing something good. You were protecting me. But you did it by making a decision that should have been mine to make. It was manipulative, no matter your motivation, and manipulation is a hard line for me. I won’t have it.”
She patted Daisy, who was looking steadily away to emphasis the treat betrayal, but leaned into the touch. “It’s shallow, and shallow is the opposite of what you and I are going to build.”
Waverly let out a breath, hands still tight on the rail.
“I was never breaking up with you, you know,” Nicole said lightly. Waverly’s knee-jerk fear of abandonment wasn’t personal. She could learn how to not take it personally.
“I mostly knew that,” Waverly mumbled.
Nicole put a hand on her shoulder, and pulled her around. “Can I have a hug?”
“But.” Waverly hesitated, tucking the flats of her palms against her own ribs and folding in on herself. “I hurt you. You’re angry with me.”
“Yes,” Nicole agreed, and it flashed something inward twisting across Waverly’s face, “and now we’re making up. I’ve heard that it sometimes involves hugs.”
Waverly shot her a look usually reserved for moments when two primary resources were contradicting. Puzzlement edging on suspicion, but she followed Nicole’s asking hand. Uncrossing her arms to slide them around Nicole, slowly fisting a hand into the back of her shirt. Nicole cupped the back of her head, keeping her close.
So many people in Waverly’s life were volatile and explosive, but Nicole was going to show her exactly what steadiness could be like.
“Do you have to leave?” Waverly pressed the question into the curve of Nicole’s throat.
“I, um, could—” Waverly fidgeted, and Nicole pulled back enough to look at her.
“What is it, babe?”
“Could I show you something?”
Waverly looked sad and drawn. Hollow eyed and sharp at the cheeks, with a pulse beating in her temple. And how much of that had Nicole herself inspired?
She took Nicole into the homestead, past their new acquisition, Jeremy, pulling a…something apart at the table—it had many legs but was far too large to actually be an actual spider, ergo it was actually not a spider—and up to a bedroom. Shabby, with a water stain cascading down a dormer corner and a musty looking old bed. Waverly sat on it, and pulled out a child’s diary.
“It was Willa’s. I, uh, found it,” Waverly said, a little sheepish. Nicole sat behind her, looking at the creased and well-loved photo Waverly had opened the diary to reveal. It showed two coltish girls, pretty and slim in white dresses and holding flowers. Willa and Wynonna.
“That’s a beautiful photo,” she said, but Waverly huffed in irritation.
“The one I’ve been cropped out of?” Rhetorical, since she overrode anything Nicole might have said. “Listen to this. ‘I hate that they brought the baby into the house. There’s something wrong with her. Mama told Daddy that we have to do what is right. What does that even mean? And why does she get the pretty name? Waverly. Whatever. She’ll never be one of us.’”
“Willa was just a kid,” Nicole pointed out, attempting mercy and reasonable doubt all at once. Willa had left Nicole cold, and less forgivably she’d scared Waverly, but a girlfriend didn’t fare well picking sides in a family matter.
“Yeah,” Waverly said glumly, letting the book flip closed. Working up to the heart of whatever this was. “She didn’t think I was an Earp.” She looked right at Nicole, and for the first time since that moment by the prowler, there were no masking layers. Just Waverly, telling Nicole important things. “Neither did Bobo.”
Nicole felt the last shadow of anger evaporate. She was still disappointed, but that wasn’t necessarily Waverly’s to answer for.
“Bobo,” Nicole said incredulously. “What wouldn’t that gaslighting sociopath say to freak you out?”
“There was another side to him. Okay? A side that wouldn’t lie to me,” Waverly told her.
“This is crazy,” Nicole insisted. Longing to reach inside Waverly and pull out whatever taint Bobo’s very goddamn existence had left inside. Nothin’ doing, though. Even good intentions didn’t let you delve into someone’s mind and convince them. Her parents had taught her that. When she’d tried so hard to project her need into them, and they hadn’t changed.
Waverly leaned forward, and Nicole met her. Nuzzling along Waverly’s forehead before leaning in to kiss her. It went past comfort almost instantly, Waverly’s hand at the back of her neck, and Waverly’s lips sparking along all her nerves. Which was, of course, when someone decided to clatter up the stairs.
She pulled back. Exhibitionism wasn’t sexy, and Waverly had already been exposed without permission twice.
“I guess we’re still fighting,” Waverly said unhappily.
“Nope,” Nicole returned. “Someone’s just coming up the—” Wynonna burst in “…stairs.”
“Shit.” Wynonna froze, eyes shooting wide. Nicole smiled with a chagrined resignation. Forget fire and brimstone. God had found a new punishment for the sin of homosexuality. A beautiful girl, and endless interruptions. How very fitting.
“I’m gonna go,” she said, leaving the Earps to the Earps. Edging around Jeremy, still absorbed by his not-spider dissection, and exiting stage lichgate.
She could have stayed, but she had an idea.
Wynonna brooded and stared into the bonfire.
Lots of fire to cure a haunting, Waverly had said, and lots of fire they had made. Now she was a primal cavewoman, exorcising things with flames. Specifically the lingering ghost of the sister she’d shot. Less specifically, the ghost of whatever had crawled up Doc’s ass.
It was a whole vibe, and it was working for her. Right until Lucado’s snitch ran yapping across the yard yodelling, “Eggshell! Eggshell!”
Maybe she could trip him into the fire? Maybe Waverly wouldn’t notice?
“Uh, semi-gloss,” Waverly chipped in.
Probably Waverly would notice. He was obviously a squealer.
Too bad she’d left the whiskey bottle in the barn, along with Doc, and probably her dignity. She deserved more whiskey. Today had sucked. She had been goo’d by revenants, and then goo’d again by the spider pod thingy, and she’d declared mutiny on Lucado.
Plus, the whole part about Willa haunting her.
Plus squared, the whole part where Dolls was dead. Which was particular bullshit, because Dolls had been more than a…friend. He’d been a shield. Curving inward to contain the wilder swings of her impulses, and curving outward to keep Waverly safe.
Plus cubed, Doc was on the rag, and practically missing in action, and also he was an asshole.
Plus, uh, quaded, Lucado was made of obsidian ambition, and Wynonna was shit on a stick. It wasn’t a new state, being shit, but it did make the parts where she’d declared mutiny, and ordered a symposium, and told Waverly the team was back together, well, it probably made those parts funny.
Ha, fucking, ha.
And now, on top of all that math, Lucado’s lapdog of a Jeremy was sprinting around, screaming about eggshells. All in the absence of whiskey.
“No.” Jeremy flapped Waverly’s paint-based word association away. “I thought for sure it was a piece of exoskeleton, because that would make sense, right? But it’s not.” His eyes bulged, dreadful and fascinating. “It’s an eggshell! It’s an eggshell!”
Much more of that, and Wynonna was gonna eggshell him.
“I will slap you,” she hissed with intent, just to get the point across. Jeremy cringed in a satisfactory way, but the threat was empty at birth. Waverly was clearly serious about keeping him, given that she’d let him nerdgasm all over her.
“The creature you shot wasn’t the creature!” Jeremy finally got to the point. “It was a baby. And I think it has siblings.”
Wynonna didn’t need a psychic to know what came next. The call was coming from inside the house. Well, from inside the convent cum school cum condo renovation. Where her old pal Mercedes was trapped by more of the giant, but apparently, horrifyingly, baby giant spiders.
So, correction, the bullshit-y-ist part of this bullshit was the amount of time Wynonna was spending inside that goddamn building. It scraped along her nerves. The hallways, and the smell, and somehow the very distance between doors was every high school she’d attended and every mental institution she’d ever been locked inside.
The institutions had been big on impulse control. Impulsivity displeased them. Impulses like kowtowing to a crazy boss, then declaring a coup, then pretty much being unable to actually coup because you were, according to a 150 year old asshole, soft and unable to distinguish bullshit. In other words; shit on a stick.
Then again, the institutions were also wildly against patricide too, and Wynonna didn’t exactly regret that. So what the hell did they know, really?
She kicked down the door to the hidden chapel Stupid Earl had such a hard-on over, and gave into some first class impulsivity. Swinging her best smashin’ sledgehammer into the giant baby spider egg sacs.
The aftermath was more goo, worth it; more Lucado, puzzlingly vacant and uncaring; more decontamination shower, gross; more Jeremy, annoying. Flailing and sputtering ineffectively before getting to the point. Namely that the desanctified Trinity Catholic School may have given up on the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but it’d took right up with Stupid Earl, giant baby spiders, and, well, okay, it still had a ghost.
“All this supernatural shit being drawn to one place,” Wynonna said, making unhappy connections.
Connections that were snap, crackle, popping inside Waverly, too. “Or, to something in that place…”
“A thing that could still be there,” Wynonna concluded glumly.
So back they went. Again. On the upside, all that nostalgic twitchiness about education and antipsychotics wasn’t nearly as strong as the fresh foreboding the broken symbol on the floor of the old chapel created.
So, yeah, there was that.
Dolls was gone, and Lucado was unstable, and something was coming. Something evil and strong. She felt it all the way down into her curly butt hairs.
Waverly stood with a decorative scarf in hand, furiously pondering the cost-benefit of peeing in the corners of her new bedroom.
Willa’s old bedroom. Talk about haunted. Wynonna had already had her bonfire, so check that off the list, but this particular room had been at the epicentre of Willa’s puberty. Was fire really enough to drive off that kind of miasma?
No urine necessary, she decided. Just a sage smudge. No reason to be weird about anything.
She nodded, all settled. Which made space for the thought that had occurred to her in the decontamination shower to come right back.
That Nicole was an optical illusion, and Waverly wasn’t very smart.
In the beginning, Waverly had assumed she was a temporary distraction. Good enough for a romp on Nedley’s couch if all parties were willing and the springs were strong, but nothing serious. Then Nicole had slowed, and stopped. Bundling Waverly back into her coat, and asking her on a date. Looking a little bit, just kinda maybe, like the question was taking some kind of courage. The nervous twitch of her fingers making reality shift, an obvious duck becoming an obvious rabbit. Couldn’t have ever been otherwise.
And then Waverly had seen age and experience and vocation, and formed a picture. She’d assumed that Nicole would take whatever she needed, and Waverly would get some education as her quid pro quo. Crossing her wrists above her head, and waiting for that undeniable command presence to make events happen. Nicole had grasped them, but instead of holding she’d pulled Waverly’s hands down to her own hips. “Not like that,” she’d whispered into the hollow below Waverly’s ear, and Escher’s stairs wavered and flipped in the space of a synapse firing.
And now. She’d been blind to Nicole’s hurt because she hadn’t understood that someone like Waverly Earp even had the ability to harm someone like Nicole Haught. Look first, and the picture was two old men, blink and it was a vase. See it the second way, and the brain could never go back to the first impression.
She kept getting the picture wrong. Assuming wrong, and saying wrong, and apologizing for the wrong thing. That was probably what would finally make Nicole throw her hands up and walk away. Could be it had already happened, and Waverly just didn’t know, because she’d said they weren’t breaking up, then she’d left without saying goodbye. Without saying she would call, and without winking and telling Waverly to call her.
Burning Willa with fire and peeing in the corners of her new room wasn’t much of a distraction from the anxiety trying to crawl under her skin, but it was what she had.
For a certain value of peeing. Metaphorical, and such. Marking of territory. In the form of a gauzy scarf across the window and a shawl pegged over the water stain.
She could show Nicole, if Nicole…something loomed in the corner of her eye.
“Jesus,” Waverly squealed.
“I knocked,” Nicole said, hands out in surrender.
Waverly glared and clutched her chest. There was simply no way to recover from that level of unsexy noise making. Worse, there was still ten feet of carpet between them.
She hopped down from the bed she’d been using to reach the window. Down to eight feet, but holding. “You, um, came back.”
Just another way Waverly was wrong. She held onto the bed, and waited.
“I went to get something.” Nicole closed the distance like she hadn’t even noticed it, holding out a little cardboard box. Waverly pulled out the tabs and lifted the lid, all without bleeding on anything for once.
“A DNA test kit?”
“We’ve got Wynonna’s DNA from the test on Willa. We can do the same sibling comparisons on your DNA.”
“You came back,” Waverly said. Stupidly. They’d already done this part. She watched her hands squeezing the box.
“Hey.” Nicole ducked, trying and failing to get her eyes. “Of course.”
“I hurt you,” Waverly mumbled. More old territory but just like a hole at the gum line, it was impossible to keep the tongue away from something so sore.
“Couples fight, babe. Two people can’t always be in sync with each other. It’s inevitable that we’ll make mistakes, and hurt each other, and I dunno; argue about taking the trash out.” Nicole put out a hand, helping her cradle the box. “You decide if you want to use this, but either way, I’ll be here.”
The monster gnawing at the base of Waverly’s spine yawned and curled up. It was such a relief that she laughed a little.
Nicole leaned forward into a kiss, and Nicole asked if she was sure, and Nicole picked her up just to lay her down, and whoa. Whoa! They were really doing this. Sex! Or, making out with intent? Foreplay?
It seemed like sex, but it also didn’t seem like something Waverly could stop and ask about.
Nicole’s kisses lost precision, her lips sliding and her tongue sloppier. Making deep breathy sounds that matched the sounds she’d made on Nedley’s couch, and in the barn before Willa had walked in on them, and in the closet before Ms. Linda had yanked the door open and reached right past their blushes for a fresh box of staples.
They really had shit luck, no doubt about it, but nothing was going to catch them out this time. This time they were in Waverly’s own room, her door closed and the homestead empty. This time she was way closer to naked than ever before, and Nicole’s eyes were hotter and darker than ever before.
Hotter and darker, but not new. Just an amplification of the looks she’d always given her. The brashly confident flirt who had tapped a business card down onto the bar top at Shorty’s. The one who’d refused to lend any assistance on Nedley’s office couch because she seemed to think Waverly’s own courage was enough.
A cockier version of herself that Nicole had politely tucked away during the tornado of destruction that was finding, and then re-losing Willa. Now back, and sliding a thigh between Waverly’s own. Rocking against the reinforced cotton stitching of her underwear.
Rocking against a whole lotta other territory, too. Making Waverly grip the arch of Nicole’s hips, and think: Okay. This. Now. The event horizon between foreplay, and actual sex. The moment Champ had liked to call put out and shut up.
Such a winner, Champ. Which made her an extra winner for having chosen him, even for a little while.
Stop thinking about Champ, Waverly thought.
Nicole was not Champ. She was a 90 degree phase shift from Champ, in a variety of fundamental ways. And wasn’t that the crux of the matter at hand? Because some of those differences were fundamentally anatomical. Just try searching that on Google.
Please mind, she begged. Please shut up.
It was just nerves, and it was stupid. So stupid. Maybe this first time would be a little inept and not quite amazing for Nicole, but it wasn’t going to be dangerous. Not to Waverly’s body, or her heart, or even her ego. Because Nicole of those dark eyes was the same Nicole who had gathered up that DNA kit, and the same Nicole who had waited and who had asked if she was sure. Nicole of all the parts, who was never going to hurt her or even laugh at her.
She just needed to calm down, and stop. freaking. thinking.
She squeezed her eyes shut, and groped in the blackness for that creature of quicksilver and desire. The one that would creep up like the tide to fill a waiting space, but would disappear entirely when Waverly tried to grab and insist.
Sure enough, it slithered away. But it was too late anyway, because Nicole was easing their kisses, and sliding off to one side. Looking down with her head propped on a fist.
“Hey, pretty girl.”
“Hi,” Waverly said back, foreboding sinking low in her stomach.
“You with me?”
“Absolutely,” Waverly said brightly. “One hundred percent.”
Nicole traced a fingertip across her face while looking kinda skeptical, and Waverly was definitely not going to tear up because that was not sexy and it was not going to happen.
“Because you seem kind of far away,” Nicole said lightly.
“I’m sorry,” Waverly said automatically.
“You don’t need to be sorry, babe. Just tell me what’s happening.”
“My brain won’t shut off,” Waverly said with a wobbling misery, but Nicole just smiled something fond and knowing.
“Is that all?” She asked, and Waverly nodded.
“Well, in that case, I’m pretty sure I have just the ticket.” Nicole rolled them both until Waverly straddled her hips. Spreading out to her full height and lacing her fingers behind her head, slow and languid as a cat.
“Um,” Waverly said, like a true moron, splaying her hands across Nicole’s bare torso. Keeping to the neutral zone below the underwire rim of her still clasped bra. Which was maybe an itsy bit ridiculous, considering her reinforced cotton stitching was now pressed over the open fly of Nicole’s trousers, the buckle of her splayed belt making impressions inside one thigh.
Still and all, those were boobs in there, and Waverly was not up to speed on boobs.
“You’re a researcher. You collect data,” Nicole said, that dark expectation smouldering, pressing her pelvis up for just a second. “So maybe you should start collecting, eh?”
Waverly swallowed, and took a breath. Running her palms up those long arms. Pulling Nicole’s hands from under her head and lacing their fingers together, bearing her weight down to keep those hands captive. Kissing the lips below hers steady and slow, leaving an empty and unhurried space for that saltwater creep of desire, smiling when the first tendril reached out to shiver through her flesh. Letting time pass, until Nicole arched and jolted and the cradle of Waverly’s own pelvis was exactly like a tidal bore under the full moon.
Nicole laughed something that was entirely joy, and Waverly yipped as she pitchpoled them. Her head at the foot of the bed, and her feet flat on the mattress, and a white hot chemical torrent crossing her blood-brain barrier. Making her loud, and profane, and entirely without thought.
Thought came back, of course. It always did. Nicole pulling her fingers away and gathering Waverly up against her chest. “Tell me it’s never been like that before,” she demanded, voice smug and eyes anxious. Waverly laughed.
“I didn’t even know it could be like that,” she said with total honesty. Limply riding the dip and swell of Nicole’s happy breathing, soft and sated under her wandering touch. A hand found the blackly splotched bruise on Waverly’s thigh, and a palm spread across the mark. It had been there, achy and throbbing since the night at the arch. The night of Bobo, and Willa, and Wynonna.
“Ouch, babe. That’s really deep. What happened?”
“I don’t remember, exactly,” Waverly said. She’d tried to remember. She’d tried hard and often, but the harder she pushed the harder her stomach roiled and the fainter her head felt. There had been the monster, and Wynonna had done…something. Willa was gone. And she had touched—
Had she touched something?
“Should I kiss it and make it better?” Nicole asked with adorable sincerity and an inept grasp of medicine. Waverly slid her hand into the softness of that red, red hair and let the memory go all over again.
Waverly crept downstairs, pressing a washcloth below her nose. Sitting at the table and typing one-handed search words into the computer. Following link after link, until she had narrowed it down to three options.
She finished reading, and tried to breathe slowly and carefully. Gripping the edge of the table so that the rotation of the earth couldn’t fling her away into the void.
Hypothesis was nothing until it had been tested. Nothing at all.
Chapter 3: Cellular Senescence Disrupted
Nicole sat in her cruiser, nominally pointing a LIDAR gun out the window, but mostly just being useless and in love.
Purgatory was holding some sort of sports reunion at the high school, and the town was flooded with former teenagers seeking old glory. Ready and willing to seek it by driving too fast, and totally unwilling to return to Purgatory next week to dispute a moving violation in front of the Crown Prosecutor. The exact combo that the coffers of the Purgatory Sheriff’s Department exploited ruthlessly.
Never believe a cop when they say they don’t target from-away licence plates.
She should’ve already been over her quota for the week, but she’d been too busy thinking about Waverly’s fingers pressing against her sternum. An anchor point between them when—
“Two-Four-Four, base.” Ms. Linda’s voice hissed through the dash mounted radio speaker.
Nicole flailed. Uselessly.
“Base, Two-Four-Four, go.” She finally got the mic lined up with her mouth parts and her stupid finger on the button, but she’d forgotten to dial down the handheld radio. She cringed as feedback squealed between the dash radio and the walkie mic clipped to her epaulet.
Somewhere in the world Lonnie was hooting like a goddamn teenager. The little shitwipe.
She jumped and fumbled all over again when the phone buzzed against her hip, dropping the mic and scrabbling inside her pocket.
“Girl, what have I told you?” Ms. Linda snapped when she connected, flanking Nicole’s wild stab at preemptive grovelling.
“Sorry, Ms. Linda,” she muttered. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”
“The hospital has been calling about that nuisance Earp of yours.”
“What’s she done now?” Nicole sighed.
“Damn if I know, Deputy, considering that I’m the one keeping your personal business off the bootleg scanners all over this town. Just call them.”
Except, the hospital switchboard didn’t make any sense. “What?” She asked stupidly, fighting the brutal burn of adrenaline inside her heart and lungs.
“Waverly Earp.” The switchboard repeated. “We’ve been trying to call her for the past few hours, but she hasn’t responded. It’s very important she come to the ER as soon as possible. You’re listed as her emergency contact. Do you know where she is?”
“No,” she told the phone, sweaty and breathing too hard. “But I’ll find her.”
“Lights and sirens, Deputy. Not kidding. Not a drill,” was the response back.
“But why?” Nicole asked, trying for anything that would keep her above the quicksand feeling.
“Do you really expect me to violate confidentiality laws over cell towers, to a sheriff’s deputy?”
Nicole hit the end key, and started calling other numbers.
Waverly didn’t answer.
Wynonna didn’t answer.
Doc didn’t answer.
Jermey didn’t know where Waverly was, and Nicole hung up on him even as his voice pitched towards excitement.
Waverly didn’t answer, and Waverly didn’t answer, and Waverly didn’t answer.
“Answer your goddamn phone, Wynonna! It’s what they’re for.”
“Haught?” Wynonna sounded sleep fuzzed. “It’s not even the crack of 10 a.m. What the hell? Plus, I did answer my goddamn phone.”
“Where is Waverly?”
“Not here in my bed, creeper.”
Nicole gritted her teeth. “We need to find her. She needs to go to the hospital.”
“Ha!” Wynonna said, like she’d just found a corner piece. “You're concussed. Again.”
“You said ‘go’ when you meant ‘come.’ Come to the hospital. Because you’re concussed. Or bleeding? Stabbed?” Wynonna sounded hopeful.
“Wynonna,” Nicole gripped the steering wheel and maintained the calm tone that worked best for children and wayward fucking morons. “Listen to me. The hospital called me, because I am Waverly’s emergency contact. They’ve been calling her, but she isn’t answering. They told me to find her, and bring her to the ER, and to use my lights and sirens.”
“That’s my question,” Nicole said, trying not to think too hard on Wynonna at fourteen. Being lead towards a locked mental institution, and asking why in the exact same tone.
“She’s at the library,” Wynonna blurted out, suddenly on the muted echo of speakerphone.
“How…” Nicole started, but trailed off. It was going to be illegal, whatever it was.
“So. Definitely not a GPS tracking app on her phone, and chip on the jeep, and a backup chip in, er, a place. All of which Waverly knows nothing about.”
“Definitely illegal Wynonna,” Nicole snapped, but Wynonna might not even have heard over the sound of the siren leaping to life. Ten minutes for mortals. Seven for her.
“Waverly,” Nicole said in a whisper. Infected by the hush of the library even inside this moment of, well, whatever this moment was.
“Nicole!” Waverly beamed. Quietly.
“I’ve been trying to call you. You need to come with me.” She pulled at Waverly’s arm.
“Oh, my ringer is off.” She twirled a hand in a little circle that somehow encompassed the library, plus all other libraries that did, and/or had, and/or could exist in space and time, and the inviolate need for silence across all library-based realities. “Because library.”
Nicole smiled, and made herself calm. Calm was smooth, and smooth was fast. “Yes ma’am, but you really need to come with me.”
Waverly’s eyebrows rose a critical half inch. “I like it when you call me ma’am, but it’s better when you’re wearing your hat. Is it demons? Or, oh! The Fae? Not another mermaid, please. Who knew they smelled so bad?”
She let Nicole chivvy her out of the library, and into her cruiser. No siren this time. The hospital was only blocks away, and some of the panic had gone now that Waverly was sitting beside her, warm and alive. Buckled inside a welded roll cage and bullet resistant glass, with Nicole’s gun hand right next to her.
It was stupid to think any of that could shelter Waverly against whatever the hospital wanted, but that was just brains for you. They weren’t very smart.
“So,” Waverly said. “What? Why? Who? Tell me.”
“The hospital called, and said they needed to see you.”
Waverly blanched, and Nicole watched her as much as the road would allow. Seeing things afresh. The dark circles, and the newly prominent cheekbones, and that pale fatigue. Products of Willa, then a blood oath to Black Badge, then the coldness that had pulsed between them.
And don’t assumptions just make an ass out of everyone?
The triage nurse’s eyes—Kelsey Baird; house on Rally Road; husband; two kids in elementary school—leapt with relief when Nicole gave her Waverly’s name.
“Hey, come with me,” she said, motioning them both through the door to the inner part of the emergency room. “We can put you in room twelve.”
She darted out, but rattled back in just as fast trailing an infusion machine and two engorged bags of fluid. “Your clinic called us, and we called you because your platelet count is low. The very bad kind of low, and you need a blood transfusion. It’s important we start as soon as possible.”
Waverly sucked in a breath of fear, eyes wide and shoulders frozen. Nicole felt something in her chest sink and seize, because that wasn’t Waverly under the press of shocked surprise. That was Waverly full to the brim with shocked confirmation.
Nicole held Waverly’s hand as a nurse threaded a cannula into her vein, and felt equally as pierced. Waverly knew something, and there were secrets and unspoken knowledge burning under her own skin. Again. All over again.
Down the hall, a door slammed in ricochet, and Nicole would swear in court that her arm hair lifted from crackling kinetic potential a good ten strides before Wynonna actually rounded the door. Static eyed and static haired, and full of wild confusion.
It made Nicole’s traitor heart bound upward. Waverly hadn’t seen fit to tell her jack all, but she hadn’t told Wynonna either, and wasn’t that a goddamn first?
Hush, she told it.
“Baby girl,” Wynonna breathed. “What?”
“I went to the clinic,” Waverly said, not precisely looking at either of them. “Yesterday. I got a nose bleed, and it took forever to stop. Hours. And my chest hurt.” Waverly rubbed a hand across her chest, presumable where it ached. “It’s been hurting for, um, for a while.”
“Is that blood?" Wynonna was staring at the infusion equipment. The platelets were straw yellow, but the second bag was a rich and tattletale red.
“Packed red blood cells. The yellow stuff is platelets. Her platelet count is low. Bad low. The red blood cells are just a boost. Those are less bad low. White blood cells are middling high.” Nicole told her. Waverly might be the researcher, but Nicole spent her days condensing victim’s interviews into notes, and notes back into reports. She was good at this part.
Wynonna swung around to stare at her, a begging question in her eyes. Nicole gave her a little shrug, and a tiny head shake back. Both of them adrift on this sea of waves.
“Hey! I’m A-negative,” Waverly said, pointing at the prominent label on the bag, eyes skating across Wynonna’s. “So, now we know.” She smiled, and shook lame little victory fists. “Yay, right?”
“Waverly,” Wynonna said, with a liquid roll of despair in her voice. Waverly flinched and twisted away from it, her face pale and panicked.
Nicole opened her mouth to say…something. Almost anything, but was brought up short by a knock on the door jam, tapped out by a woman in a white coat.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Doctor Smith. How are you feeling, Waverly?”
“Um,” Waverly scrunched her face in assessment. “Better? Yeah, definitely better. My chest stopped hurting.”
“That’s great news.” The doctor smiled in a way that seemed genuine. “Your chest hurt because of low oxygen saturation. The new red blood cells are able to carry more oxygen, so no more pain. And the platelets will make sure your blood is able to clot, which will help the nosebleeds.”
Nicole twitched at the plural. Nosebleeds?
“Hey Doc,” Wynonna cut in, smooth and sleek as a tiger shark, “let’s transition to why my sister is being transfused with multiple different types of blood thingies.”
The doctor looked at Waverly in a significant way, but Waverly nodded permission. Still, the doctor gave Wynonna’s answer to Waverly.
“Something is hampering your ability to make new blood. We won’t know the exact vector of disease until we run more diagnostic testing. We’ll need more blood samples, and we’ll need a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. We’ll admit yo—”
Nicole got a little hung up on the ‘vector of disease’ part, but snapped back when Waverly said, “Not gonna happen.”
They all looked at Waverly. Waverly narrowed her eyes right back. “I’m going home. I’ll come back for whatever you need. Tomorrow, or whenever. But tonight I’m going home.”
“That isn’t advisable,” the doctor cut in, stiffening both Waverly and Wynonna. Nicole didn’t bother. She already knew the outcome. The doctor was less prescient, and fought the inevitable. “The transfusion will bring your platelet count back up, but we need to figure out why it dropped so low.”
“Which won’t happen overnight,” Waverly assured. “So I’ll come back when it can happen.”
“You’re at increased risk for infection.”
“Hospitals are the biggest risk in contracting an antibiotic resistant infection.”
Nicole crossed her arms, and leaned against the wall until all the talking was over. The doctor twisted on the hook longer than she’d expected, but in the end ol’ white coat never had a chance.
Eventually a nurse disconnect Waverly from the infusion pump, and put a band-aid over the hole in her arm. Waverly poked at it, grimacing.
Wynonna picked up Waverly’s coat.
Nicole shoved off the wall to full height.
“No,” Wynonna said.
“Oh, very much yes,” Nicole countered.
“Hey, I’m—” Waverly tried.
“The homestead is safer, Haught.”
“—standing right here, and—”
“And my house is fifteen minutes closer to the hospital, Earp.”
“—and you are both being—”
“Nicole!” Wynonna snapped out, “You are not the one who gets to make decisions here.”
“Neither are you,” Nicole snapped back, with equal fervour.
“—incredible assholes,” Waverly hissed. Then she walked out.
“Shit! Look what you did!” Wynonna leapt forward like a greyhound, but Nicole had longer legs. They crashed together in the hallway, Wynonna’s forehead knocking into the side of Nicole’s chin, both of them yelping at the sudden pain.
Waverly spun, high coloured and glaring. “Listen assholes. I am,” she pointed at her own chest, “going to the homestead. In my own Jeep. Which I will drive. By myself.”
“You,” she swung her j’accuse finger to Nicole’s chest. Nicole tried to be less tall. “Are going to show up as soon as your shift is done.
“And then we,” Wynonna cringed under her own fingering, before Waverly swung it in a full circle, “are all going to eat dinner together. And if you continue to be such assholes, I’ll add in a movie, too.”
She snatched her coat out of Wynonna’s unready hand, and stomped down the hall, the little bobbles on her boots dancing to the backbeat of her strides.
“Shit sticks,” Wynonna whispered.
“Yup,” Nicole agreed.
“Do you think,” Wynonna asked with a slow consideration, looking back through the door towards the drained bags of blood product, “they might hook me up with some of that stuff?”
Nicole just shrugged.
Waverly slammed the door to the jeep, and thudded up the stairs to her room. She had maybe, possibly not even, ten minutes on Wynonna. Depending on how long her sister would indulge in torturing Nicole. Pro: it was one of Wynonna’s more favoured activities. Con: the current level of everything.
Waverly needed speed, and she needed primary resources. Conveniently, the top video for a bone marrow biopsy and aspiration was a five minute run published by a medical school.
The camera was focused tightly on the back of someone’s exposed hip, while a pair of hands moved in and out of the frame. A voiceover explained positioning, then prepping, then the injection of lidocaine.
Waverly gulped. Big syringe. Long needle.
The voice explained the next step was to minimize puncture trauma, and the hands used the tip of a scalpel to nick open the skin. Making a path for the 7 gauge biop—
Waverly slapped the lid of the laptop closed, shoving it off her knees.
The front door slammed, and Wynonna’s voice shot up the stairs. “Waverly! I know you’re home. Get your skinny ass down here right now.”
“My butt is perfectly normal, and you know it!” She screamed back. Unsatisfactorily muffled, because of how her head was between her knees. Trying to make the hot and woozy back off.
She made it upright in the same moment Wynonna burst through the bedroom door. Invading a space that wasn’t hers, just like she always did.
“Admit that you know it!” Waverly flung out with every ounce of fury she could scrape together. Just like years and years ago in this same bedroom, she suddenly realized. When the capricious teenaged god who used to own it had said Waverly was a demon, and Waverly had screamed back in a piping six-year old’s voice 'am not! am not!' until Daddy had stumbled upstairs to make her be quiet.
Wynonna gaped at the onslaught in a deeply satisfactory way.
“Admit it,” Waverly stalked forward, and Wynonna gave ground.
“Waverly?” She asked, uncertainty in every line of her body and her hands fisting down by her thighs.
“It’s entirely normal!” Waverly emphasized with perfectly acceptable emphasis. For the situation. Given what it was. An insult to her butt.
“Fine,” Wynonna snapped. A person didn’t necessarily need to know why they were being bludgeoned before deciding to hit back. “Your butt is the most normal and boring thing in the entire normal and boring universe. Haught must be so disappointed. Okay? Now, can we please talk about how you’re supposed to be in the hospital?”
“Can we at least move on from your butt? Frankly, it’s weird, even for a conversational deflection.” She paused. “Even from you.” She grinned a little. “Remember that time you—”
Waverly found a Challenger Deep behind her stomach, and put all that chill and all that pressure into her voice. “Get out.”
“Waverly,” Wynonna snapped out, like Waverly was hers to correct, but Waverly hadn’t had a mother in a long, long time. She scooped up the shotgun that lived beside her bed, racking it in one smooth pump. Holding the barrel at the ceiling and staring straight ahead.
Wynonna got out.
Nicole went back to the station and served just under one hour of her remaining three hour shift.
“Haught,” Wynonna said from the phone Nicole had just answered. “You need to come here, to the homestead. Right now.”
It felt hard to breath, and Wynonna must have caught the pitch of her silence.
“Waverly is fine. Mostly. Uh, physically. Bring Chinese. We have to eat dinner, and I’m sure as hell not cooking.”
Wynonna hung up. Nicole took in one slow breath, and trickled it out her nose even slower. Because God grant her the serenity to deal with Earps. She picked up her desk phone again, and listening to the rings.
“Lonnie, buddy. Pal. Need a favour.”
“No.” Lonnie opened the negotiations. “I’ve already taken my pants off. I am in for the night.”
“Dude, it’s barely seventeen hundred.”
“Pants are off Haught. Game controller is wet and willing. You understand?”
“No,” Nicole answered, truthfully.
“You would if you had a penis,” Lonnie said, and Nicole could only assume it was true.
“It’s Waverly.” She hadn’t meant to play that card, but there was something beating inside her chest, just off-time with her pulse.
“Give me ten minutes,” Lonnie said. And he must have developed a transportation machine, because he definitely lived fifteen minutes out.
“Hey, baby raper.” Wynonna greeted her with that dangerous malice that meant she was taking her uncertainties and fears out on the world. A beer was curled into her hand like a permanent extension.
“Highly inappropriate,” Nicole said mildly, putting the bag of takeout Chinese food on the counter. She’d found a book on using a reward/withhold paradigm to train stunt animals. It was definitely helping.
“Highly accurate. We’re the same age, Haught. I remember Waverly being born, and people getting all excited about her milestones. Which is how I know for a fact that you and I were learning our multiplication tables when she was busy mastering the toilet.”
“She’s twenty-two. Even the Americans think she’s legal.” She paused, thinking. “Except for that southern part? I’m honestly not sure anymore.” She refused to admit any horror at the diaper thing.
“Yeah, well, your inappropriately aged girlfriend went full-on Exorcist not long ago, and ran me out of her room with a shotgun.”
“Am I supposed to be surprised?” Nicole tried to raise not just her eyebrows, but her entire face. Musta worked, because Wynonna slit her eyes down like an offended cat. “You guys are Earps.” Probably.
“Fair point. Also: hey!”
Nicole got three plates out. Sneaking up on the actual conversation slow and sideways, like hunting rabbits. That was the key. “Look, I won’t betray any of Waverly’s confidences.”
“But.” Nicole unwrapped three chopsticks, and got out serving spoons. “Yeah. Waverly is…working on discovering who she is, and what she wants.”
“As evidenced by your gay presence in my kitchen.”
“I realize I’m something of a surprise to you, but that’s mostly because you are very, very unobservant. Like, serious blinders.”
“But I think the one thing we can both agree on is; at least I’m not Champ.”
“True words.” Wynonna tipped her beer in Nicole’s direction. Together they surveyed the completed meal preparations. Wynonna tapped a nervous fingernail on the neck of her bottle. “Dinner. As ordered. Now all we need is our terrifying Generalissimo.”
They looked at the stairs.
“I’ll go,” Nicole volunteered. Wynonna sketched the type of salute used to acknowledge the bravery of an enemy. Nicole rolled her eyes, and charged like the Light Brigade.
“It’s me. Can I come in?” She asked the wood of Waverly’s closed door.
“Okay.” Floated back through.
Nicole peer in, checking for shotguns. None in evidence, which seemed encouraging. She knelt by the bed Waverly was curled on, propping her chin on stacked fists.
“Talk to me,” she said. Waverly looked at her, then away. Eyes red and her face puffy.
“I yelled at Wynonna. Real bad.”
“I heard,” Nicole said.
“I yelled at her about my butt.”
“Well, that part I didn’t know. Why your butt?”
“It seemed important at the time?” Waverly gave a tiny shrug.
“Well, you have an excellent butt.” She pushed Waverly’s hair back, kissing the hinge of her jaw and feeling her go pliant under the touch.
“Something is really wrong with me,” Waverly surrendered with a wrung out honesty.
“So we deal with it. One day at a time, and if that isn’t working then we take it an hour at a time. Or a minute. Until we figure it out, and make it as good as we can.”
A tear tracked across the bridge of Waverly’s nose, but she seemed too spent to really cry. “I wasn’t keep it from you. Or making decisions for you. I only really figured out something was wrong yesterday. I swear, Nic.”
Nicole chased the tear, but she remembered that moment at the hospital, when the secrets felt like they were closing back in. “Someday soon we can hash out a protocol on appropriate confessional timelines, but right now let’s take care of what’s in front of us. Yeah?”
“All I do is mess up and hurt people,” Waverly whispered.
“Hey pretty darlin’, that definitely ain’t true.” Nicole smiled at her, chest sparking with something beyond her ability to find words.
“I told you before, Nicole. You shouldn’t be nice to me. You’re going to regret it, someday.”
“I’m real grown, and I do what I want,” Nicole said easily. “Haven’t you heard?”
Waverly made a snuffling noise that Nicole should strictly not find endearing. Waverly was scared, and anything that scared Waverly should terrify Nicole. Still, endearment occurred.
“What’s happening, babe?”
“Is Wynonna still downstairs?”
“I’ll tell you both, together. If that’s okay?”
Nicole stood up, and Waverly followed suit. They all sat at the table, while Waverly ate approximately none of the Chinese, and talked about the maladies that sink into the literal marrow. The leukemias, and anaemias, and cell malformations.
Wynonna gripped Peacemaker, white and silent, but this wasn’t supernatural. That gun wasn’t going to help them a damn bit.
Chapter 4: Cell Fate Determination
The seed of the old god dwelled in abundance. Deep inside the vessel, where the lineage of that first murderous cell also dwelled. Translated and re-formed by untold evolutions, descending down untold generations. Currently a stem that budded with the essence of life, and with the compulsion to create death.
The vessel shrieked and writhed, resisting fate. A whirlwind of blood lashed against the seed, and the sparking nerves cracked it like lightning. Stirring a tempest against the intrusion, but the seed did not care for resistance. It cared to dwell, and it cared to grow strong. Using the vital abundance to become whole unto itself, and then to return to the old god and be whole together. Legion.
In time, the cell that was currently a branch might change, and change again. The seeds of the old god would follow, but for now, this little daughter of Eve. Sparking, and fighting, and holy.
“Oh look. It’s Miss Piggy.” Wynonna leaned on the door jam, and watched a cop pouring coffee in her very own kitchen.
“Good morning. You want a cup?”
Not even an eyebrow, just a cup being extended. Like the damned woman was suddenly teflon coated. And wasn’t it just too bad that teflon was too dumb to understand the concept of simply trying harder. Wynonna eyeballed the cup. “Depends. Does homosexuality transmit through touch?”
“Not according to Sarah, Shandelle, or Jessica.” Nicole extended the cup a little more, face all open and encouraging. Goddamnit.
“Just. Give me the stupid cup.” She snatched the thing, momentarily defeated. “Your willingness to let straight girls break your heart is soft and disgusting.”
“Well, something was definitely broken, but it wasn’t my heart.” The set of Nicole’s lips was distinctly smug. Wynonna narrowed her eyes, tapping a finger on the handle of her mug.
“So. Uh. Second night over. Here. At my house. Which is mine.”
“As ordered. You gonna go against Waverly?” Nicole asked, sipping.
No. Wynonna was not, and everyone knew it. She redirected. “Speaking of: where is the tiny Dictator General? Shouldn’t she still be escorting you around, keeping you away from the cash box and the good china?”
Nicole jerked her chin towards the ceiling. “Still asleep. And there ain’t no cash box or good china, country mouse.”
Waverly was still asleep because she was exhausted. And she was exhausted because she barely had enough blood cells to keep upright. Wynonna tucked the cup under her chin, breathing in the steam as the conversation underwent a sudden cardiac death.
“Appointment’s at 11 o’clock,” Nicole offered softly, and it slid straight into some bad part of Wynonna’s brain.
“I have a, um, thing.” She waved one hand vaguely, pathetically, at some unspecified but deeply critical thing in the far distance. “Important.”
“A thing,” Nicole parroted, with overtones of disbelief, and undertones of a small forbearance Wynonna was supposed to use to explain herself right-damn-quick. The complexities were easy to parse because it was the same tone Wynonna had been hearing for the past thirteen years—projected into the back of cop cars, and through the bars of drunk tanks.
Suddenly, Wynonna was disinclined to explain. In the same way Niagara Falls was disinclined to reverse. “Hey!” She took the liberty of shoving a finger practically up one stupidly tall nostril. “You don’t get to do that here.”
Nicole hissed at the slop of coffee over her hand as she startled back from the nasal probing. “Do what?”
“Stand in my house, drinking my coffee and perverting my sister, then look at me like some asshole cop. Like I don’t have actual shit to do. Or did you forget about Black Badge? Scary government black ops thingy, threatened everyone, signed us up against our will, demanded a demon or else bad things will happen?”
Nicole took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Perverting?”
“It’s just a word,” Wynonna scoffed. “But hey, it’s cool if that’s the part you want to concentrate on. I guess Lucado the Lunatic, and Black Badge, and the literal demons stalking the Triangle can all wait while you feel your feelings.”
“It’s not a very nice word,” Nicole said, and that tiny waver in her voice was awful, and wonderful, and Wynonna snatched at it.
“Not nice!” She laughed. “What’s the matter, Haught? Did someone give you the bad touch? Or is that what they said when they kicked you out of your family? Which way does your damage swing, hmm?”
Something young and terrified lit Nicole’s face, then disappeared behind a smooth slate of control. It was awful, but there wasn’t any wonderful. And wasn’t that always the problem with anger? It always left you all alone, holding the bag.
“Like I said: appointment’s at eleven. You should come. Waverly needs her people.” Nicole set the cup down with a gentle click and walked out the door in a measured stride.
“Wait, shit. Nicole! I’m sorry. That—” Wynonna trailed off as Nicole rounded the corner, leaving Wynonna holding the bag of dicks otherwise known as consequences. Which was pretty standard for someone who was shit on a stick.
“Crap,” Wynonna offered to the empty room.
Halfway to town she remembered there was someplace to go other than work. Shorty’s, for all that it was only 10 o’clock, was jumping. The rapid-fire change in ownership from standard human, to revenant, to immortal gunslinger hadn’t fussed the drunks or the deviants any.
Then again, they barely shifted to blink, let alone notice changes in management. A convenient level of sedation, considering that the bar appeared to be empty of any supervising adults.
Wynonna swivel around in a circle. Nothing.
She moseyed towards the corner of the bar top, just to check that the whiskey was safe. Made unnecessary—or just flat out foiled, she honestly wasn’t sure—by the woman who bounced up from her hidden crouch behind the bar.
Wynonna gave some consideration to the bouncing. It was hard not too. It just kept going.
“Hello. You’re,” she made a cupping, waving sort of hand gesture even she could tell was probably beyond the pale, “uh, new.”
The woman looked back at her with an expression Dale Carnegie might’ve used as a case study in failing to win friends and influence people. “I’m Rosita.”
“Yeah. Charmed and all, but I’m looking for John Henry.”
Rosita shrugged, and turned to wipe the counter down with economic disinterest.
“Hey, c’mon,” Wynonna whined at her retreating back. “Is he here? I need to see him…and okay, nice talking to you, too,” she dropped into a mutter as Rosita walked off.
Wynonna chewed the side of one lip in brief contemplation of good behaviour, then decided to do it anyway. The coffee urn made a flatly metallic, but overall loud sound of distress when she beat it with a tiny cream dispenser. And why did Shorty’s have these ridiculously dainty little cups in the first place? Awfully fancy for a dive bar.
The drunks at the counter blinked in hazy consternation at the noise, but John Henry Holliday came bolting from the basement stairs, both barrels outstretched.
“Don’t shoot,” Wynonna said flatly, brandishing the little bell cup. “I’m only slightly armed.”
“Wynonna,” Doc breathed hard through the excess adrenaline. “What in all the hells below?”
“I was looking for you,” Wynonna said reasonably. Doc sighed hard, apparently struggling in the aftermath of his girly case of nerves, but holstered his pistols.
“Well, here I am. Now, pray tell me, what is so all-fired important?”
“I met your new bar back.” Wynonna studiously put the bell cup back into its pile, but it would never be the same. John Henry frowned at the battered service implement, but picked up a beer glass and started polishing it.
“Did you have a reason, beyond womanly pique, for beating my coffee urn half to hell?”
“No. It was my hormones. There was a sudden surge, and I simply had to take out my primitive vexations on something dumb and masculine looking.”
Doc smiled something barely tolerant. “In my day, men confined such hysterics to sanatoriums. Since I can no longer legally have you confined, I’ll simply say: good day, Miss Earp.” He tipped an imaginary hat and started to move off.
“Wait, listen.” The words made him pause, and Wynonna took a fortifying breath. “Waverly is—” but she lost momentum.
“Waverly is what?”
“Sick. And I’m an asshole,” she muttered to the bar, just like a 4 a.m. drunk, but without the actual fun of tequila first.
Doc put the glass down and focused. “I am guessing you don’t mean a touch of the gripe?”
“No.” Wynonna worried a splinter out of the raw wood where someone had carved a heart. “Something with her blood. Not enough, or too much. I’m not sure. She has to go to the hospital for some tests.”
First Nicole and now John Henry, with their looks. “Nicole is with her,” Wynonna defended.
“And you are not. Does this overlap with the second part, about you being an asshole?”
Doc frowned, which bunched his moustache up impressively, but mostly that made him look like a confused walrus. Wynonna had never had the heart to tell him, and didn’t that prove she wasn’t all bad?
“Okay. But look, there’s a reason.” Wynonna waved her hands plaintively in the air. “I was up half the night buried alive in dread, and then Nicole was there, in my kitchen, making coffee and looking at me.”
“Looking. It does give one the shivering horrors.” Doc picked the glass back up. “What exactly did you do to her, to be described as the back end of the nether regions?”
“Umm,” Wynonna delayed. “I think maybe I dug into her soul. But only just a little bit!” She yelped at Doc’s eye roll of exasperation.
“I doubt someone’s soul feels things only a little bit.”
“Not helping,” she ground out.
“Well,” Doc softened, putting his emotional support pint glass back down again. “I’m sure Deputy Haught will forgive you, and I am also sure you should be with Waverly. In my day, the hospital was a dread place.”
“The invention of anesthetics kinda cheered the place up. Plus antibiotics and the lack of rotting limbs. But yeah.”
“Well, it’s agreed, then. Shall I accompany you?” Doc made to join her on the civilian side of the bar, but Wynonna shook her head.
“No, I have to go to work.”
Doc shot her a disbelieving look. Wynonna glared, hard. “It’s that broken seal. I can’t stop seeing it. Stupid Earl all killed dead, and that…whatever it is cracked right across. Something is coming, Doc. Something terrifying and evil, and Dolls is gone, and you yourself keep telling me Lucado is dangerous, and Waverly is—”
Her stupid, traitorous voice broke. “I’m all that’s left. So all y’all can stop looking at me like that, because I really do have to go to work.”
Doc’s looked shifted to a long consideration, which he eventually sighed out though his moustache.
“You have me,” he said softly, and Jesus but it was seductive to believe him. But momentary truths had a way of becoming lies later. Wynonna pulled her hand out from under his.
“I have to talk to Jeremy,” she muttered, and snatched his emotional support glass. Couldn’t fucking hurt.
“Nicole.” Waverly’s voice was a whisper below the purr of Nicole’s V8-Interceptor engine.
“Mmm?” Nicole hummed back, concentrating on driving, but Waverly didn’t continue. She glanced over, and Waverly’s lips were pressed white.
“I’ve got you,” Nicole reassured, reaching across the instruments on the console to take her hand. But at the hospital, Nicole wasn’t allowed in the procedure room. She gave the hand inside her own a last squeeze, and they led Waverly away.
She sat alone, watching the clock hands sweep and being the person she was when Waverly was somewhere else. Different. Not worse. Just not someone she wanted to have to be all the time.
“Alright, Miss Earp.” The technician patted the table in the middle of the room. “Sit up here. We’ll get your sedation delivered, unless you want to go without?”
“With. Definitely with,” Waverly said. “And are you allowed to call me Waverly?”
“Sure thing, Waverly.” The tech smiled, and held up a syringe. “Unfortunately this goes in a vein, but people say it’s worth it.”
Waverly surrendered her arm, watching events. The I.V. staging, the plunger travelling home, and the spider silk threads of calm that whispered through her brain.
“Good, eh?” The tech asked. Waverly nodded, and let herself be arranged on her side.
“Okay, here we go. Disinfectant first.” It looked like a dish cleaning wand, with soap in the handle and a sponge on the end. The tech cracked some internal seal, and swirled cold liquid over her back.
“It’s yellow, and it stains for a few days. Just keep that in mind.”
The idea of a reminder on her skin curled into Waverly’s stomach, but she nodded again.
“This is the drape, and now the local. It might burn, but it doesn’t last long.” Something crinkly spread over her back, a hole over the biopsy site, and the needle bit, yanking back some of the chemical calm. Waverly made a fist as the needle burrowed deeper.
“Little bit of pressure,” the tech said once the numbing set in, and Waverly knew it was the scalpel. Her fist clenched tighter, but pressure was the only thing that translated.
“Okay, Waverly, here we go.”
Fire lanced through her hip and down into her knee as something alien twisted into her. The technician’s weight keeping a steady swinging pressure as he screwed the needle deeper into her bone, all the way past the chant in her mind of StopStopStopStop.
“Wait. No,” Waverly gritted out when the tech pulled the aspiration needle out, and picked up the biopsy bore. “Last one,” the tech reassured, and pushed it into her bone.
They delivered her back to Nicole, who tucked her under one arm as she nodded along to some sort of home care instructions. Waverly leaned against her, weight on one foot to keep the ache from spiking higher.
It was done. It was over. It was fine. She laced her fingers between Nicole’s, and pulled her arm tighter.
“Hey.” Nicole looked down at her, colourful aftercare pamphlets in her other hand.
“I want to go home,” Waverly told her.
“Of course,” Nicole murmured, eyes roving over her in an obvious assessment of status.
“But,” she cast around for something to give the woman cradling her, “maybe, um, a milkshake?”
“Absolutely,” Nicole said, and Waverly felt the tight coil in the arm holding her loosen, just a little. The vegan milkshake tasted like chemicals but Waverly drank it all, because Nicole was the one who’d leaned across the counter and ordered it for her, and because it was Nicole’s hand that put it into her own, and because living in the moment was a choice. You chose it, and then chose it again, and kept choosing. Until all your moments ran out.
“You want to lay down?” Nicole asked, hand light on one shoulder as she ushered Waverly through the homestead’s front door.
She had laid on her side, and the technician had put his hand on her back—
“No. I— Can I take a bath?”
“Sorry, baby. You have to wait twenty-four hours.” Nicole pointed at a pamphlet.
Waverly slumped. “Oh. Well, I guess the couch after all? Sitting hurts a little.”
Sitting hurt a lot.
Nicole built a nest, and Waverly felt her eyes drooping as the sounds of tea preparation drifted from the kitchen. But in the darkness behind her eyelids someone pressed their weight into her and—
She took a breath, and opened her eyes wide.
“Hey, pretty girl. Here’s your tea.” Nicole put the mug down, and pulled her laptop from under her arm. “I figured Netflix. You want to share the couch, or should I sit in the chair?”
“You’re staying? You don’t have to go back to work?”
“Nope, I’m all yours today,” Nicole said, but oh, that little twitch of her lips meant she’d just done something sad and Earp-ish. Showing too much trailer park disfunction, and not hardly any ticky-tacky box. The green one and the pink one, all the same. With a mother and a father and a dog, and after school clubs.
She should have known Nicole would stay. Normal people would have known. She added the moment to the list of things not to do again.
“Couch, please.” She threw a decorative pillow to the floor, and laid her head in Nicole’s lap. They started an episode of Longmire, but Waverly felt herself sinking into darkness before the first break.
Nicole looked up when Wynonna crept through the front door, looking kinda like a cattle prod was pushing her forward. Caution and fear twisted hard into her face. For all that the woman could be stone cold crazy, she telegraphed her emotions in a way Nicole ain’t never seen before. It just didn’t seem wise, to feel that much and live a life like Wynonna’s.
“It’s okay.” Nicole tried to head the moment off at the pass.
“I think maybe it’s not?” Wynonna hedged, but Nicole looked steadily back at her, letting silence do the communicating. A hint Wynonna didn’t actually obey, but her words were slower. “Um, what I said— and your face— Nicole, did—?”
“Did I want to give you an update on Waverly? Yes. She’s sleeping.” Which Wynonna could pretty easily see, given that Waverly was doing the sleeping right on top of Nicole. Wynonna slumped a little, but she accepted the redirection.
“When will we know something?”
“Tomorrow. The hospital said her platelets had dropped some.”
“Does she need another transfusion?”
Nicole looked up, out of words. Waverly needed transfusions to keep a stray sneeze from bleeding her out.
“Yeah. That thing you’re feeling all over your face, I feel it too,” Wynonna said.
That pretty much summed it up. Yup.
“She has an appointment with a haematologist tomorrow.” Nicole made a cautious opening gambit.
“Take notes,” Wynonna said back. Nicole felt her lips pressing together.
“You could come,” she pointed out. “Waverly would like it.”
Wynonna just shook her head. “Demons to catch.”
Which was how she ended up leaning in the doorway to the Black Badge office, considering the angel of her better nature.
Turned out, the angel of her better nature could blow. The wadded up paper bounced nicely off the back of Jeremy’s industriously bent head, freezing him into place, with some little sciencemabobber suspended above the lab bench, staring rigidly at the wall.
“That’s Wynonna. You’re Wynonna, aren’t you? Behind me.”
“What-ho, keener.” She sat at the desk, steepling her fingers to stare at him. “I’ve come to get your SITREP on the seal.”
He turned, showing a gratifying amount of bobbing Adam’s apple. She kicked the base of the chair opposite the desk, rolling it towards him.
“SITREP is military speak. I’m using your lingo, to make you comfortable.”
He swallowed harder, science thing in front of him like a tiny, tiny weapon.
Wynonna turned her grin upside down. She needed him talking. “Oi, freaknut. Butt in chair, mouth off sock and onto situation report. Now.”
He eyeballed her, but perched on the very edge of the chair. “Um. One of the archaic symbols on the edge of the seal might be an osprey, symbolizing solar worship.” He gave her a hopeful smile.
Wynonna waited. His smile curled like a shrimp in the sun.
“And?” She promoted.
“A-a-and, oh! And! Most toilets flush on e-flat.” Less hope this time, and more cringing. She shoved his chair back again, and Jeremy windmilled as it slid backwards.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I panicked!”
“I need you to make some progress, Jeremy. Otherwise you’re going to figure out first hand that Earps don’t follow the Geneva Convention.” She flicked her eyes down with purpose. “Step one, making your innie nipple into an outtie.”
“Wow,” he reproached, with hurt eyes. “You’re being impressively mean, even for you.”
She was. It didn’t matter. The means to an end didn’t get the luxury of feelings. She’d learnt that lesson a long time ago, and it must have shown on her face because Jeremy grimaced.
“I’m kind of a human being, you know,” he protested.
“Please. Torturing you would be maximum five to ten for justifiable homocide.”
“You mean homicide.”
“Sure, that too,” Wynonna agreed. His face went stubborn, but whatever Jeremy might have rallied with was lost to the click of high heels coming down the hall.
“Cheese it, it’s the fuzz!” Wynonna shoved him back one more time, because she could, and shot out of her own chair, headed for the back door.
“Wait,” Jeremy called, heels dragging to stop his roll, arms paddling back towards her like an air swimmer. “Wait. Waverly. She hasn’t been around. Is she okay?”
Wynonna spun. “Mind your business, or I will break your disco stick with my bare hands.”
Jeremy looked surprised, and Wynonna realized she’d been too vehement, and that it was too late. Lucado and her mocha were upon them.
“Earp.” Lucado tapped a nail on her coffee cup. Wynonna sighed.
“Resting Bitch Face,” she greeted back.
“Nice of you to check in.” Lucado arched an eyebrow, which was the exact shitty thing about hierarchies. Sometimes there were Jeremys’ below you, but mostly it was Lucados’ pissing down from above.
“Do what I can.” Wynonna shrugged modestly. Lucado shifted to an active bitch face.
“You’ve been gone for days. And where, exactly, is the mousy one? I had to get my own coffee.”
“You mean Waverly?” Wynonna asked, brow wrinkling down.
Lucado flapped the need for proper nouns away.
“Waverly,” Wynonna tried again. “Short, perky, adorable?”
“Fine. Sure. As long as Waverly is the coffee girl, then that’s the one.”
Wynonna stared with actual—not exaggerated just for the sake of annoying Lucado, but actual—incredulousness. Because…Jesus.
“Jesus. You legit don’t know her name? She’s Waverly. The woman you forced into an occult contract. My sister. Waverly.”
“The contract is only occult if you renege, or you otherwise step out of line.” Lucado said, tone implying Wynonna was pretty dumb. Like everyone automatically knew the nuance of occult contracts. “Comply, and perform, and it’s just a piece of paper with some DNA on it.”
Wynonna considered that. Slowly. Because it was new information, and because slow made Lucado’s face pull even tighter. “Good to know,” she finally offered. “But Waverly is busy. And so am I,” she added, ignoring how Jeremy cut his eyes towards her at Waverly’s name. “Busy.”
“So the useless one is MIA, and you take three days to report back. You Earps don’t seem to understand the idea of dedication.”
Wynonna shrugged, thumbnail digging into the pad of one finger. “Busy working all hours. Striving. Super motivated to risk my life getting you back into Black Badge’s good graces.”
Lucado took a breath that didn’t seem to do much. “Did you forget the part about Black Badge breaking the Earp curse? Find me a demon, and you go free.”
“Demons. Plural,” Wynonna reminded.
“Moody said all. Find all dozen or so demons that flooded the Triangle, and maybe Black Badge helps break the Earp curse.” She grinned hard. The one that used to make the orderlies at the nuthouse think twice. Lucado frowned satisfactorily.
“Maybe you got a little confused on the math. Underestimated how many demons you’d need before Black Badge lets you crawl back.” Wynonna tried for salt in the wound.
All Lucado did was laugh.
Honestly, Wynonna didn’t blame her. Her track record for influencing things was currently 0:3— couldn’t talk Willa out of her insanity; couldn’t convince Black Badge to keep her and let the others go; couldn’t convince Doc to actually care.
Now it was 0:4—couldn’t convince Lucado to be terrified of the crazy chick with a cursed gun.
Worse, Jeremy had that expression on his stupid nerd face. Like watching an animal pace a cage too small for its nature. That’s how she knew that Lucado had won. The pity in his eyes.
She gripped Peacemaker, turned on a heel, and closed the door gently behind herself.
Nicole and Waverly went back to the hospital. Venturing into a part that sheriff’s deputies didn’t often frequent. A long hallway of office doors, most of which said oncology on them.
They were ushered into one of the offices, then left alone to wait in uncomfortable chairs. Waverly looked pale again, all white lips and dark circles and short breaths.
“Hey,” Nicole said, and Waverly jumped a little before looking over. Taking the offered hand and going right back to whatever internal tide she was listening to. Jumping all over again when the doctor knocked on her own office door and entered. Nicole almost stood up to attention, like this was the Academy and some authority had entered. It all felt so portentous.
“Ms. Earp,” the doctor said, sliding into her own chair across the desk. It was the same woman who had talked to them in the emergency room. Dr. Smith embroidered into her white coat. Looking at Nicole, she added, “I don’t think we actually introduced ourselves.”
“Nicole,” Nicole said, and didn’t try for anything more. The doctor didn’t seem to expect it, either.
“Alright Ms. Earp—”
“Can you call me Waverly?” Waverly interrupted, voice small. No judgement there. It was hard to feel big, sitting on the patient’s side of an oncologist’s desk.
“Waverly, then. I’m afraid I have some bad news. The laboratory tests we ran on your bone marrow cells showed that you have leukemia.”
Nicole hadn’t realized how much dumb hope she’d been holding. Despite Waverly’s paleness and exhaustion, despite the pretty obvious clue of sitting inside an oncologist’s office, the actual words turned Nicole into a fly that had been swatted near to death. Back stranded and buzzing uselessly across the windowsill. Interfered with by an incomprehensibly vast god.
Denial. Not just a river in Egypt.
She’d seen it on duty, attending the hospital bedsides of strangers. Watching the doctor, who watched the hastily gathered family, who watched some assuredly dead person being mechanically respirated. They would pray, because the brain couldn’t get past the idea that breathing meant alive, and that alive meant hope. Same as Nicole could not get past the idea that Waverly was vital to Nicole, and therefore could not be mortally ill.
“I’m very sorry,” Dr. Smith said, but Waverly shook her head sharply.
“Acute?” She demanded.
“Yes,” the doctor said.
“Lymphoblastic, or myelogenous?”
“Subtype?” Waverly asked fast, like she was trying to stay in front of something.
“That is where things get tricky. The cells we found in your bone marrow aspiration—”
Waverly flinched. Subtle, almost controlled. Nicole wouldn’t have seen it, but it leapt across their linked hands as a tiny tug.
“—showed distinct pathologies that indicate acute myelogenous leukemia.”
Waverly straightened, letting go of Nicole’s hand and leaning forward. Nicole recognized the look. Recalcitrant sources didn’t always survive that look. “What pathologies?”
“The cytoplasm of your myeloblasts have Auer rods.” Dr. Smith smiled, like Waverly was someone else’s precocious kid. Cute enough, but maybe needing to know her place. “Those are—”
“Clumped azurophilic granules,” Waverly finished. Nicole felt that old familiar lurch. Even here in this terrible office, it ain’t never got old. Watching someone smack face first into Waverly’s smarts, and bounce right off. Bounce off sideways, all sudden dismay and flailing confusion.
“Right.” Dr. Smith squinted in some sorta deliberation. “Right. Okay. Hematopoiesis?”
“Greek. Hemato means relating to blood, and poiesis means formation. Blood is made of red blood cells, granulocytes, plasma, and platelets. Multipotent stem cells make myeloid stem cells and lymphoid stem cells. Lymphoid stem cells mature into lymphocytes. Myeloid stems do, uh, complicated stuff and become either a red blood cell, a granulocyte, or a monocyte.”
“Pre-med,” Dr. Smith said suspiciously, more statement than question. Trying to understand what was happening to her. Just like yesterday’s standoff over hospital admittance, Nicole could’ve saved her some time. Waverly wasn’t categorizable.
“High school elective in anatomy and physiology.”
“High school.” Dr. Smith repeated, in a flatter tone. Waverly shrugged.
“It was interesting. I asked a lot of questions.”
“A lot of high school questions.” the doctor repeated in the same tone, then took another breath and pretty visibly tried to shake off the effect of being Waverly’d. There followed a great many words that Nicole did her best to understand. Namely:
Fact: acute myelogenous leukemia was a blood cancer. There was no tumour, and nothing to cut out. Just malignant cells flowing in the river rush of Waverly’s blood.
Fact: the villain of the story was Peter Pan. Trapping immature white blood cells into a forever adolescence, where they did sulky adolescent things like cutting school, wearing Axe body spray, and refusing to protect the body against infection.
Fact: the body misliked the plummeting adult:millennial ratio, and declared a population boom. Jacking up production of baby cells, but unable to realize it was casting them straight into Neverland. The ratio got worse, so the body increased production and the ratio got worse, so the body…and thus, and so. Until the blood literally clumped in the veins.
Fact: Peter Pan was actually a chromosomal mutation. There were seven distinct possibilities, and Waverly’s cells contained exactly none of them.
“Wait.” Waverly finally brought a halt to all the words. “You’re saying it’s…weird? I have cancer, and it’s weird cancer?”
“It’s a karyotype that hasn’t been seen before.” Dr. Smith hedged. It made something flash across Waverly’s face, and Nicole thought if they’d still been holding hands she’ve felt another little jerk.
Nicole looked at Waverly in profile, but Waverly very steadily didn’t look back. Nicole gave up when the doctor started talking about treatment plans. Facing forward again in order to gain as much desperate comprehension as possible. Like looking at someone in a noisy place made it easier to hear them. This round was easier, though.
Fact: the plan was to poison Waverly mostly to death.
“The next step is to place a central venous catheter,” Dr. Smith was saying. “We’ll do that tomorrow, and start treatment right after.”
Finally thought, it was over. Over, except for the need to return tomorrow to being something called induction chemotherapy. Over enough, at least, to be released back out onto the sidewalk.
“Well,” Nicole said slowly, hands in her pockets because she couldn’t figure out what else to do with them. It felt like the point cloud of thought and memory that her brain categorized as Waverly had been unraveled, and she couldn’t hardly recognize the woman on the sidewalk. “That was, um, something. Definitely something.”
“Wasn’t it?” Waverly agreed kinda absently, like Nicole wasn’t very interesting. Which, yeah, was actually a standard response when a new and pretty girl was confronted with a Nicole. Vague disinterest.
Nicole snorted a laugh out her nose, just a little. Just enough to be immediately and properly horrified. She clapped a hand across her mouth, like this was some kind of movie. So that was at least one hand occupied. Waverly looked over, coming back from where she had been to grin hard.
“Deputy Nicole Haught, are you experiencing contextually inappropriate emotions?” It plunged her straight back into being Waverly, and Nicole had always known how to talk to Waverly. The world could keep the rest of those pretty girls.
“Oh sure,” she said easily, making Waverly’s grin soften and bringing her closer. Nicole used both hands to hold her.
“Home?” Waverly asked, leaning into Nicole’s shoulder.
“Home,” Nicole agreed.
Chapter 5: System Recovery May Prove Impossible
Wynonna was standing in the yard when Nicole pulled her cruiser up. Several innocent metres from the rail of Daisy’s paddock, hands in her pockets.
“She’s trying to subvert the affections of my cow,” Nicole said darkly. Waverly hid a smile, but probably not very well.
“Let me talk to her first, okay?”
Nicole’s eyes roved over her, looking for something, and Waverly didn’t feel so much like smiling any longer. The stages of grief letting her get a breath, before yanking her feet down again. “You want me to head out?” Nicole asked.
“No. Go visit your cow. I’ll talk to Wynona, and then you can come back. You’re mine, and she’s mine, and you two are going to figure out how to get along, or so help me God.”
Nicole pulled a face, but sketched a little Scout’s salute off the brim of her hat. “Oh, yes ma’am.”
Waverly made a sound in the back of her throat, some little part theatrics, and some big part solid appreciation. “I truly do like it when you call me ma’am.”
“And this time I have the hat on,” Nicole pointed out. Waverly barked a laugh that was maybe a little left of normal, and only a smidge right of panic. She clapped a hand over her own mouth, wincing at her own noises before exiting bravely towards her reckoning.
“Hey, baby girl,” Wynonna’s eyes also roved over her, and seriously, seriously, what did these women think staring was going to reveal?
Waverly sighed. Fear transmuted to anger didn’t make it okay to take out on people. That’s how someone ended up screaming nonsense about their posterior down the homestead stairs. Better to just rip off the band-aid. “It’s leukemia. Acute myelogenous leukemia. That’s the diagnosis.”
Wynonna crying was always such an awful thing to witness. It came on so fast, but where everyone else was compelled to squint and sob, Wynonna was still. Like moving would double the pain.
“What does that mean?” Wynonna asked hoarsely.
“It means chemotherapy. Starting tomorrow,” Waverly told her, wanting to touch, but something about Wynonna’s tension denied permission. Her sister took in a deep, shuddering breath, and Waverly thought about how she’d once sat in Nicole’s cruiser and railed against the pace of change in the Ghost River Triangle. If she had been angry and reeling over the prospect of love, what must Wynonna feel? Just in the past month she’d been kidnapped by an ageless serial killer, and kidnapped all over again by a culturally misappropriating medicine man, then capped it all off by shooting her own sister.
Wynonna swallowed, then swallowed again, like whatever she was trying to work past was stuck. “Right,” she finally said. “Okay. Right. Go pack your bag.”
Wynonna reached around and slapped her ass, like she was a good ridin’ horse. Much like any good horse Waverly snorted out offence, but Wynonna just pointed off into the distance.
“You and me, we are getting the hell out of this godforsaken place. I’m taking you to the States. That Miyo clinic of theirs.”
“You mean Mayo, and no you’re not.”
Wynonna looked incredulous. “Wait. They named their famous clinic thingy after a condiment? Why are the US-ians so weird?”
“Focus, Wynonna. We are not leaving the Ghost River Triangle.” Possibly because she couldn’t leave the Ghost River Triangle, but no need to muddy those waters, just right…ever.
“I’m focused,” Wynonna snapped, with an aggrievement Waverly found a little charming. “You need actual doctors, Waverly! Not some podunk backwater washouts.”
“Northern Memorial isn’t podunk, Wynonna. They’re going to use the exact same treatment protocols developed at the Mayo clinic, and all the other famous clinics you can’t pronounce. All of whom will tell you that the survival rates for someone my age have gone up spectacularly.”
“Spectacularly?” Wynonna went slit-eyed and suspicious. She knew enough to be guarded when Waverly’s statistics skewed away from actual numbers.
“Very spectacularly,” Waverly reassured. Wynonna clenched a fist closed, glaring. Waverly decided to make it a little easier for her.
“You’re the heir, Wynonna. And I’m the—”
She actually had to think about that one. Dolls had used her research but she’d never been a marshal. Lucado didn’t even want her for that minimum. She wasn’t even a waitress, since all Doc had done was growl and snap when she’d asked if he needed help behind the bar. “I’m the Waverly,” she finally said, grinning at her sister. Wynonna stared back, eyes wide and devastated, then she very obviously put herself back together, block by block.
“You’re the Waverly all right.” Her voice quavered a little bit, but not much.
“This is our home, Wynonna. And it’s our responsibility. This is where we stay.”
“Neither of those things are worth your life,” Wynonna said quietly, but the words didn’t have any fight left inside them. “Please.”
“It isn’t going to cost me my life,” Waverly reached out and took her hand. Wynonna allowed it, eyes soft and wide. Waverly looked back with an untroubled heart.
This thing couldn’t cost her her life, because she already owned the entirety of her life. Sometimes that entirety mean fourscore and ten, and sometimes it just didn’t. An unknown karyotype made the five year survival rates…murkier then possibly implied, but that couldn’t steal the life she’d already lived.
“Haught is staring at you,” Wynonna said, giving her hand a squeeze.
Waverly hummed a little, genuinely pleased and also pleased to torture her sister.
“Yurk,” Wynonna groused, but sighed with long suffering bad grace and waved Nicole over. “What do we do now?” she asked once Nicole had finished leisurely patting Daisy, and she ambled slowly over, having clearly established she was not at the beck and call of one Wynonna Earp.
“Parcheesi!” Waverly enthused, reveling in the dual wince from both of the women looking down at her. She cut them off with a wave.
“Hey. Cancer kid, remember?” It was risky, but Waverly had never been one for caution. Nicole flinched, but Wynonna’s howl of outrage was just right.
“Too soon?” Waverly asked, and endured Wynonna’s second ass slap of the day with grave dignity. Nicole crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows.
“Don’t you usually defend me?” She accused, but Nicole shook her head, letting Waverly lead, same as it ever was.
“Oh no, babe. You deserved that one.”
“Traitor,” Waverly muttered, and drug her two people into the house for a rousing evening of mandatory fun.
Waverly declared mercy after only three fun filled hours of parlour games. Letting Wynonna slink off towards whiskey while Nicole drove them back to her house. Using the flash of opposing headlights to catch Waverly in profile. Her gaze strictly forward and her fingers clenched tight together in her lap, lost to some internal signal.
It wasn’t anything Nicole knew how to breech, even with all her Academy training and inservice revalidation hours. All she knew was to put a hand on Waverly’s knee, and eventually some fingers itsy-bitsy spidered cautiously over to take her hand.
Once home, Waverly halted in front of the coffee table. Eyes unfocused as she iterated through some sort of decision making loop. Nicole puttered in the kitchen making tea, because sure as shootin’ she wasn’t dumb enough to interrupt a process that could overclock Waverly’s kinda brain.
“Hey.” Waverly’s voice made Nicole look up from the book she’d settled with.
“Hey-o, daddy-o. Come sit with me?”
Nicole waggled her eyebrows, and Waverly frowned.
“Etymologically speaking, shouldn’t I be calling you daddy?”
Nicole blushed. Right to the tips of her ears. Waverly laughed with delight, and flopped onto the couch, mostly across Nicole’s lap. Reaching up as Nicole arranged them into a better angle, tracing a fingertip down the slope of her nose, and over the point of her chin.
“You’re really pretty,” Waverly said. Nicole pressed a kiss into the wandering palm, then surrendered her hand for Waverly to fidget with.
“You ain’t so bad yourself, darlin’.”
“And you are so goddamn country, sometimes.” Waverly smiled fondly, mashing their palms together until all the air was pushed out, then sucking it back into the vacuum.
“Do you like it?” Nicole asked, knowing herself that it sounded too casual to be convincing.
“Yes,” Waverly assured. “I like the accent, and I like knowing that about you.” She pressed, and sucked, studying their hands as Nicole studied her.
“I want to know everything about you,” Waverly said softly.
“You know that’s mutual, right?” Nicole asked. Waverly made a head bobble that was agreement and negation all at once.
“Champ once said a perfect woman keep his belly full and his balls empty.” She huffed a laugh that wasn’t amusement. “He wasn’t much for knowing things.”
“Lucky me,” Nicole hummed, exactly like a victorious jackass. It made Waverly smile, which was always the goal, but it slid pretty quickly into something rueful.
“I didn’t get to be much of a real person with Champ. Or with anyone, really, except maybe Gus and Curtis. For a long time. Then Wynonna came back, and there was you, and suddenly everything was so…wide open. I wanted to keep that, for a while longer.”
Nicole ran her hand gently over the top of Waverly’s head, trying to fill in for all the words that just didn’t exist. Some things were too big for language, and trying to force it wouldn’t serve nuthin’ to nobody.
Waverly slumped a little, like she’d lost some internal debate. “I was going to give you a get-out-of-jail-free speech, back in the car. Then I thought it should be here, because you were driving and you shouldn’t drive when you’re upset, and I thought it might upset you, but maybe I’m overestimating myself and that’s just ego. But either way I didn’t, in the car. Then we got here and I—”
“Waverly. Babe,” Nicole cut in. “Take a breath, okay?” She squeezed the fingers that had gone still inside her own. Waverly looked back, mouth open and not obviously breathing. “I don’t want an out.”
Waverly shook her head sharply, and took her fingers back. “I don’t think you understand how bad this might get. I don’t think I understand, but at least you’ve got a choice.”
“Nope,” Nicole said, resolute.
“There’s no karyotype!” Waverly snapped out, a little angry or just a lot scared.
“Doesn’t change the answer.” Nicole shrugged. Karyotype didn’t mean much to her, but even she knew being special on the cancer ward wasn’t good news.
Waverly glared up at her, like perhaps the angry part wouldn’t mind using a tallish sort of earthing rod to find ground. Nicole held her breath, but all Waverly did was scramble around until she was straddling Nicole’s lap.
“Hi,” Nicole told her gravely, hands curving around to cradle that warm weight close. A righteous Waverly was just so goshdamn cute, but smiling would be a death knell.
“Sometimes all that nobility makes me want to punch you,” Waverly said, the look on her face still pretty sharp. “You’re just so decent.”
Nicole forced the corners of her lips back down. “It’s what I’ve got.”
“Yeah,” Waverly agreed, laughing without much humour. “It’s what you’ve got alright. An unsung knighthood, a cursed municipality, and me. Plus Wynonna. Lucky you.”
“Exactly,” Nicole agreed, maybe a little more emphatically than strictly necessary. Waverly glared a little more as she cupped her face, holding her still for a sweet kiss.
And a second.
And a third.
Keeping her still as the kiss changed. Waverly’s hips canting forward into her own.
Nicole thought about stopping them. The woman in her lap was starting chemotherapy tomorrow, and the edges of her ribs had gained new sharpness, but Waverly wasn’t fragile or incapable. She was an adult in the round, and she was fully qualified to make her own decisions. When she pressed her face into Nicole’s neck and said “bed,” Nicole took them upstairs.
The bedroom was shadowy as she stood in front of Waverly. Looking. Intoxicated by the fit of Waverly’s shirt across her shoulders, and the lift of her arms as Nicole stripped it off, and the push up to her toes to chase Nicole’s kisses. But most of all she reeled at way Waverly looked back, eyes gleaming in the dark, full of confidence and trust.
Nicole let herself be captured, twisting as she brought them down to the mattress so Waverly was above her. Letting the press of Waverly’s weight, and the heat of her mouth, and the touch of her hands draw the tension in her belly tight. Tipping her chin back and curling her fingers into the sheets. Giving Waverly the space, and the time, and the control to make it good between them.
“I didn’t really want to,” Waverly told her, once their skin had cooled, and Nicole had retrieved the blankets. Small fingers working their way around her bicep. “I just thought I was supposed to.”
“Give me a get out of jail card?” Nicole asked, studiously not shuddering away from the chill in Waverly’s touch.
“I know,” Nicole said, wiggling them until Waverly was nestled into her shoulder, trapping her cold fucking hand against her chest. “Neither one of us is going anywhere, okay?”
Sometime past midnight, Waverly decided the juxtapositional contradiction between the poem and the current backdrop was annoying. Rage against the dying of the light, fine. But hard to accomplish in the sucking darkness of a country bedroom.
She considered snorting, but stifled it. Nicole was sleeping, and while she was one dipole of Waverly’s two most favourite people, some types of brooding just had to be done alone. Like reviewing facts you knew for absolute certain.
Specifically: The only proper way to unroll toilet paper was from the top; the mule-kick of a Browning 12 gauge over/under shotgun felt exactly like moral conviction; and revenants went to Hell.
Well, revenants shot by Peacemaker ended up in Hell. Everything else just sorta de-animated for some variable length of time. Even Peacemaker was sort of temporary, as long as heirs begat heirs. It got complicated, but there was one thing for certain—full-bloods didn’t die of natural causes.
Where did half-bloods go when they did?
Nicole’s hand tightened around her wrist before relaxing back, and she snuffled something tiny and adorable out her sleeping nose. Waverly smiled, running a finger lightly down the barely seen bridge, and over her cheek to the turn of her jaw. Nicole’s eyes flicker open, just long enough to grunt with deep inelegance, and pull Waverly into a tight spoon.
Waverly pressed her spine into the heat, and watched the blackness beyond the window.
“Alright ma’am, here we go. I’m going to numb you up. There might be some burning.”
Waverly lay on a procedure table, one arm outstretched and most of her covered in sterile draping, letting someone push a tube so far up her arm it actually became her chest.
Chemotherapy wasn’t like a transfusion. The drugs were too caustic and high volume for a peripheral vein, thus Waverly and this introduction to a centrally inserted access line.
“You doing okay?” The vascular access nurse asked, pressing an ultrasound wand into her bicep with one hand, wiggling a 20 gauge catheter cannula around with his other hand. The needle suddenly popped up on the ultrasound screen, sharp nosed and nudging forward.
“Mmm,” Waverly alluded something noncommittal. The local anesthetic muffled the search for the vein, but she could still feel pressure and tugging inside her flesh.
“Fifty percent done,” the nurse said, putting the ultrasound wand aside. “Little more numbing, just like so,” there was a little more burning, but distant, “and now more pressure, okay?”
What, Waverly wondered, would happen if she said not okay? Then she was busy gritting her teeth against the very firm, and not very pleasant events happening on the other side of the drape.
“Worst part, already over,” the nurse said. Which was true, but removal of the guidewire and fussy positioning of the internal tubing went on for another five long minutes. Then the nurse whisked off all the draping, and Waverly was the proud owner of a double lumen PICC line. Jutting from her skin a couple inches above the crook of her elbow.
“Ready to get up?” The nurse asked. Waverly breathed slowly in through her nose, and slowly out her mouth. The stabilizing hub was actually stitched into her skin.
She didn’t know what, but the nurse nodded kindly.
“No rush. Take a few minutes. Your friend can come in now, if you’d like. All the sterile stuff is done.”
Waverly nodded, and Nicole came. When the nurse guided her up, she’d sweated through the back of her shirt. Nicole eyed the wet mark, but let herself be distracted by the arm Waverly thrust towards her face.
“Pretty ingenious,” Nicole agreed. So Waverly took her new toy for a test ride. Running high octane Cytarabine and Daunorubicin through the burrowed tubing.
“The first one is an antimetabolite that looks exactly like deoxycytosine to any old strand of replicating DNA, such as the mitotically replicating cancer cells, but it’s a trick because the wonkity Cytosine arabinoside enzyme kills the cell.
“Wonkity,” Nicole deliberated.
“The second intercalates into DNA, and inhibits synthesis in highly replicating cells. Those cells don’t even die, because they never actually get off the ground. It’s extracted from Streptomyces bacteria. Well, the original version was. I think they synthesize it now. Isn’t that cool?”
“Showoff,” Nicole said. Slumped down in a chair, heels up on the hospital bed that Waverly was cross-legged in the center of. Because Waverly might have won two separate rounds of resisting hospital admission, but ain’t no one escaping the big house while their immune system was being systematically destroyed.
Three days ago, Nicole had watched the first bag of chemo drugs infuse into Waverly’s spankin’ new PICC line, tense and waiting, but it turned out chemo wasn’t a 1980’s TV movie about cancer—some heroine bravely suffering and slowly fading. It was better living through chemistry. Buoying Waverly up on a cocktail of steroids, anti-nausea drugs, and liberally distributed transfusions.
Still, it wasn’t Club Med. Waverly’s bones all jutted closer to the surface, her taste buds warping and sores popping out on her lips and gums. Nicole kept a tick mark in her head for each meal Waverly hadn’t eaten. This was day three. There were seven to go. Thirty full meals, and Waverly was batting somewhere around four hundred.
“You want me to bring anything back?” She asked, and Waverly’s eyes flicked to the clock. It was time for work, and ain’t no way around it. Nicole stood up and left without kissing Waverly goodby, because swapping bodily fluids was a surefire way to send infection burning like napalm.
“Nic.” Waverly waited until Nicole was almost out the door. “Can you find Wynonna? She hasn’t been here much.”
Nicole turned in the doorway, and studied the way Waverly studied the book in her lap. All tucked away, except the blanch of her knuckles. Wynonna clearly hadn’t been there at all.
“See what I can do,” Nicole told her casually, giving her the courtesy of pretence.
The doctor rapped on the door sometime during the dreary afternoon.
Not meteorologically dreary. Just hospital dreary. The kind that sucked in like a leech, but drained time instead of blood. Ticking it away, and forcibly reminding Waverly that daily rounds were the best thing she currently had going.
Except it wasn’t time for rounds. This was something new, something unscheduled even. It clenched into her stomach.
“Good afternoon, Waverly,” Dr. Smith greeted. “I wanted to drop by, and let you know that I received the repeat cytogenetics from the lab in the States. Their sequencers confirmed what our lab found. A total absence of any known chromosomal translocations, deletions, or trisomies in your leukemia cells.”
“Weird cancer,” Waverly summarized all over again. “Bet they were excited.”
“Well, ‘weird cancer’ isn’t exactly scientific, but it’s got a certain colloquial accuracy. And yes, they were…intrigued.” Dr. Smith smiled, and Waverly battled the twisting in her stomach. Probably just the antiemetics wearing off.
“Any, uh, anything else?” She dissembled, like a stupid little coward. Like the galloping of her heart was just, what? Sudden and unexplainable excitement? Sure.
“I got the DNA test results you asked for as well.”
Waverly hummed some faint little go-ahead noise, but Dr. Smith raised a cautionary hand.
“There are a couple caveats, okay?”
“First, the test as administered isn’t legal in court, though I imagine you don’t particularly care.”
“No,” Waverly agreed, wanting it all over, and wanting it to never have started, and thinking the starch on Dr. Smith’s coat was almost immaculate.
“Second, the results I’m giving you are only at the ninety-five percent confidence interval. The only way to reach one hundred percent confidence would be a three-way comparison between you, a sibling, and a known parent in common.”
Waverly nodded all over again. Too bad Wynonna would never learn about her vitally required participation in a three-way. And the coat was almost, but not totally immaculate. The dry cleaner had actually pressed a hard wrinkle into the fabric, right near the bottom hem.
“We’re half-sisters,” Waverly finished for the doctor. Not a guess, and not conjecture. She just knew. The same way she knew she had never stood against the kitchen door jamb on her birthday, proud and special while Daddy drew a pencil mark above her head.
It hadn’t happened, and he wasn’t her daddy. It hadn’t happened because he wasn’t her daddy. And all the rest, well, that had probably been for the same reason.
“You share twenty-five percent of your DNA with Sample A, making you half-siblings. You also share twenty-five percent of your DNA with Sample B, who is another half-sibling. Samples A and B share fifty percent of their DNA, making them full siblings.”
Waverly laced her fingers together, indulging in a little internal walkabout. She was only half related to Willa, but that meant she was only half related to Wynonna. Did one huge pro, and one huge con, equal back out to zero?
No. Not really at all.
Nicole sallied bravely forth, but despite valiant efforts see what I can do turned out to be pretty close to jack crap. Wynonna was somehow never quite where Nicole was hunting her. All registered queries getting back shrugs and protestations of just missing her. At the Municipal Centre for shift change, then the doughnut shop at afternoon snack, and then Shorty’s for happy hour.
Nicole cranked the starter on her cruiser hard, reversed away from the bar entirely too fast, and decided on a longer game. Staking out the dining room table of the homestead, brooding at the gloaming and composing a lecture on the inadvisability of abandoning Waverly when the footsteps padding across the porch registered. Too furtive to belong to anyone who felt ownership over the house.
She retreated into a shadow, lining up the sights of her service weapon and laying her trigger finger along the barrel. In the RCMP, this would have been big excitement, but whoever the porch creeper was, Earp land meant human, and she was no longer so fussed over humans.
“Stop,” she called to the figure breaching the door. “I’m armed. Hands up.”
The person froze, half inside the house.
“Hands up,” she barked out again, and the figure raised them out to the side. Too weighed down by bilateral clumps of something bulky and rustling to actually reach for the sky.
“Drop that stuff, and put your hands up. Final warning!”
A couple thumps later, and the hands went all the way up. Nicole sidled over, and flicked on the light.
“Um,” the intruder said, blinking.
Nicole sighed, and holstered the weapon.
“Put your hands down, Jeremy.”
“Were you really going to shoot me?” He asked, a multitude of grocery bags pooling around his ankles. Hands slowly sinking and his eyes round.
“We’re Canadien,” Nicole scoffed. Jeremy nodded rapidly.
“Right. Good point. Really excellent point.”
“I’ve still got you on break and enter, though. So now would be a good time for you to explain what you’re doing here.”
“Oh, um.” Jeremy looked at the bags. “My mom. She— I— and then, after, everyone brought casseroles, and I remember that was nice. But the internet said chemotherapy makes taste buds go weird, and to get popsicles.”
Nicole examined one of the boxes that had extruded from the bags. Then five or six more.
“I got one of each kind, so Waverly can see which flavours still taste okay with the chemo taste buds,” Jeremy rushed out, watching her survey the boxes. “I was going to bring them to the hospital, but duh, no freezer. So I brought them here, but I didn’t have a key, so I figured it would be okay to put them inside. Like, there’s some sort of Good Samaritan clause that makes this not a B&E, right?” He smiled hopefully.
One box said lime lemongrass, and another watermelon berry twist. Pretty fancy, considering the local grocery store capped out at shitty creamsicles and shittier icy pops. “Where’d you get these?”
“Down in the city. But don’t worry, they’re all still super frozen. I got an ice chest.” Jeremy twisted his fingers a little, like the ice chest was somehow subpar, and he really should have magicked a little bubble of ice age atmosphere straight into his car.
Nicole pinched the bridge of her nose and took a breath, feeling generally like a shit.
“Er.” Jeremy twitched a little forward, then back, and flailed his hands around. “Sorry. Have I been creepy? I totally never mean to be one of those creepy dudes, but it can sneak up on a fellow.”
“Jeremy,” Nicole tried.
He ducked his chin down into his hoodie. “I should go. Or, wait, can I go? Am I under arrest?”
“This is incredible. Thank you,” she said sincerely.
“Oh.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets, suddenly smiling. “Oh. Uh, yeah, no problem. Just trying to do my part, right?”
“Let me help you put this stuff away, and then we can lock up. I was waiting for—lightly stalking—Wynonna, but I don’t think she’s going to show.”
Jeremy bounded forward, stacking boxes into the freezer with more concentration than the task really deserved. “Maybe you could let Waverly know I’m thinking of her?”
“Come tell her yourself. She’d love new visitors.” Nicole said, organizing her own stack into a cupboard. It wasn’t just popsicles. There were a whole range of chemically stabilized dinner pods, and some revolting cereal that smacked of someone seeing dehydrated marshmallows, and thinking Wynonna.
“Smart choice.” Nicole jostled the cereal. Jeremy beamed, so Nicole took him down to the paddock and showed him how to hold his hand flat so Daisy could hoover up the molasses chews with a greedy mouth and rasping tongue. Watching him stand with frozen uncertainty when she lipped into his hair, moist Timothy breath streaming down his neck.
She ran her hand over Daisy’s poll, and tugged her ears until the cow mooed, and shoved her head into Nicole’s chest. “You can visit Daisy, too,” Nicole allowed generously, standing her ground only because she’d already been braced against the enthusiasms of the world’s only cowdog.
Jeremy nodded, but glanced around like the American CIA was behind the lichgate pole. “I think scarcity is the better part of not being shot dead by Wynonna. She barely tolerates me at the Black Badge office. The homestead might be a bridge too far.”
Nicole just nodded. He had a point, but Jeremy frowned a little.
“I know you guys don’t like me much, but I’m not a snitch. I know how to keep secrets. Lucado doesn’t even know Waverly’s sick.”
“Yeah,” Nicole said, a little rough, thinking that happenstance was the only reason anyone knew of Jeremy’s generosity. How easily it could have gone unnoticed.
She was thinking about it still when she finally found Wynonna, leaning in the doorway to Waverly’s hospital room.
“Ain’t you the prodigal heir,” Nicole told her, but regretted the sharpness even before Wynonna glanced back.
“You’re weird, Haught. And not in a cutesy kind of way.”
“Sure,” Nicole said easily. “Waverly was asking for you.”
“Sure,” Wynonna said right back, just like Nicole had suggested she spend the afternoon getting a jump on her annual taxes.
“Wynonna,” Nicole warned, but the woman shook her head.
“She’s sleeping. You want me to wake her up?” The words were all nice with conviction, but it was easy to see Wynonna twisting. Literally. Her shoulders leaning towards Waverly’s bed, and her feet rooted as chlorophyll.
“If you run away from her, I will end you,” she said gently. Wynonna whipped around, eyes wide and wounded for one long second, but Nicole drove in before the other woman could scramble back behind her shields.
“I mean it,” she assured.
There was a long breaking moment when Wynonna’s face didn’t seem to know where to settle, then tears spilled down her face. She shied like a horse when Nicole used the pad of her thumb to wipe them away.
“I thought I was the one who was supposed to threaten you,” Wynonna said, voice steady despite the tears.
Back in high school, Nicole had laboured under Shakespeare exactly like a slave being lashed towards ritual human sacrifice, until her English teacher had thrown up his hands and declared her immune to subtext. It turned out that Nicole hadn’t needed Shakespeare, she’d needed Earps. Subtext wasn’t so hard once you started giving a damn.
“We’re all going to be okay, Wynonna. All of us.”
“Do you promise?” Wynonna asked, an awful hope on her face.
“It will be okay in the end,” she dutifully promised. And it would. The hole in the middle of the story was that the okay you got in the end wasn’t necessarily the okay you longed for in the beginning. That was another lesson her parents had taught her.
Wynonna sighed like maybe she knew that lesson too, and took up residence in the chair next to Waverly’s bed.
Chapter 6: The Center, Holding
Even wracking devastation leaves some things untouched. Like the miracle tree that survived the hurricane, or the concrete bones of Hiroshima sticking up from the bomb’s destruction. Waverly’s diagnosis had changed almost everything, with strange and solitary exceptions.
Nicole was busily watching one of those exceptions hunched over a table at the first available Timmies on the 2A out of town.
“Jesus, Lonnie,” Nicole shoved a napkin towards him, which he snatched to dab at the lemon custard that had squirted out the backside of the donut he’d orked so lustily. The napkin smeared the stain across his tie without actually lifting. Nicole despaired briefly, distracting herself by rolling up the rim of her cup.
“Yeah well,” Lonnie mumbled, aggrieved. Nicole wondered what kind of high school life Lonnie might have lived through, if that was the height of his comeback. He fiddled with his own cup, and frowned. No winners here.
“Time to go.” She prodded his shoulder. He swatted back ineffectually, glancing around to see who’d witnessed the affront to his masculine bubble. No one, apparently. Still, “I’m driving,” he declared, hand out.
“No you ain’t,” was all she said back. She had the keys, and she’d spent the early days showing him how dirty she was willing to fight. He glared, and retracted his hand.
“Fine, but I pick the radio station.”
“Keep telling yourself that, buddy."
But goes around, comes around. The RCMP showed fifteen minutes after they’d finished setting out the Purgatory Sheriffs Department’s recruitment paraphernalia. The Mounties fanning pamphlets across their own table, and staring wholesale at the shoulder patches on Lonnie and Nicole’s shirts.
“What are you?” A Red Serge frontrunner finally asked, his friends standing in a tight circle behind him. Nicole gave them a friendly smile.
“Purgatory Sheriff’s department,” she offered brightly.
“Alberta Sheriff’s Branch?” a taller one pipped up. He had lots of forehead, and not much eyeball. Small and squinty, just like the bull that had lived in the paddock down the road growing up. Ain’t been so bright, but goddamn had he been ornery. Nicole would not be introducing Daisy to any such creatures.
"No,” she said, brightness holding firm.
“Purgatory?” the first one asked doubtfully, surveying his cronies, plus two Coasties in their Blues who’d sensed blood in the water.
“Yes.” Nicole nodded resolutely, and turned away from their puzzled looks. Truth was, she’d once asked Nedley about how Purgatory had come to have a municipal Sheriff’s department that was not part of the ASB, and not seconded to the RCMP. He’d squinted at her, and muttered darkly about politics for such a lengthy time she’d glazed over and missed whatever illumination he might have given. Now she just chalked it up to bureaucracy, and let the confusion slide off like water over feathers.
Didn’t matter how it’d come to be; she was Purgatory’s, and someday Purgatory would be hers. Though…
The ellipse slid behind her breastbone and tightened her lungs. She roughly shoved an extra box of pamphlets under the table and smiled at the first stragglers breaching the auditorium. Résumés tight in their hands, and smiles tight on their faces. Months from graduation, and looking straight down the barrel of adulthood. Poor little bastards.
At some point she managed to pee, and there was a passing energy bar, but mostly she talked. She talked for hours, until her throat ached, but they still had hours to go when Lonnie pulled at her elbow.
“I do not care that you are hungry,” she hissed at him, possibly a little hungry herself.
“No, come on,” Lonnie insisted, tugging harder. He managed to pull her into the foyer to the conference area, ten degrees cooler, and about a billion decibels calmer. She craned back towards the doors, trying to see their table.
“We can’t just leave it,” she said, trying to keep watch the supply of souvenir squashy toys in the shape of Purgatory’s regulation Stetson. Rationed now, because grabby but insincere hands had depleted the supply shockingly fast.
“Haught,” Lonnie said, and when she didn’t turn: “Nicole.”
“What?” she huffed, telling herself it was anger. Lonnie never called her Nicole.
“Sheriff called. You’re needed at the hospital.” Lonnie gave her some kinda look. “Give me the keys, and I’ll give you a ride.”
A ride. Just like they gave to the suddenly traumatized, so their new grief couldn’t ripple out into cascading roadside tragedies.
“Give me the keys, Nicole,” Lonnie repeated gently.
She gave him the keys.
“I don’t know much,” Lonnie said, somewhere down Highway 2. “All Sheriff said was to fetch you, and take you to the hospital.”
Nicole knew. Because she’d called Shae. Her secret doctor wife, whom she’d never found the right time to confess. Shae had asked about the subtype, and the treatment regime, and the quality of the silence after Nicole recited everything out had not been comforting. Chemo drugs weren’t aspirin. They had terrifying side effects, tolerated solely because the only other option was death.
“It’s okay,” Nicole told him, but it wasn’t.
The bright winter sunlight streaming into Waverly’s room felt wrong. This kind of stuff really should be confined to the middle of the night. Wynonna pressed the heels of her hands into the sockets of her eyeballs. The dull pain felt good. Well, not good, but right.
“Hey,” came a voice behind her. “You okay?”
Waverly’s stupid cop girlfriend stood with her back against the wall, hands tucked behind her. Watching her with sober eyes, and giving Wynonna the space next to Waverly’s bed. And goddamn the wrongness in her heart, because she should move away, or at least pull Nicole beside her, and couldn’t force herself to move.
“You’re being such an asshole,” Wynonna said back.
“Standing there, being all tall and understanding.”
“Wynonna,” Nicole said with something that was a sigh and something that was a warning. So pretty much standard procedure for people dealing with her, and all her excesses. Wynonna refused to turn around and look.
“Wynonna,” Waverly parroted from the bed, her eyes glassy and bright.
“I’m here, baby girl.”
Waverly’s gaze wandered towards the voice, but didn’t lock.
“Right here,” Wynonna tried again, and Waverly shivered hard, making one of the cooling blankets slip.
“I want to come inside now,” Waverly said, sounding like a kid. Subject to an adult’s whim, with nothing but her own small voice to try and change things.
Wynonna fought the memory of all the moments Waverly had sounded like that, and Wynonna hadn’t been able to do anything. Locked out in the dark and the snow, her begging voice filtering through the clapboard.
Wynonna gritted her teeth until she was certain her voice wouldn’t shake. “You are inside, baby girl. The blankets are cold. You have a spectacular fever.” Like that had a chance in hell of sinking into wherever Waverly’s brain had taken her.
“Cold,” Waverly agreed. Wynonna wrapped a hand around one foot. Screw the no touching rule. The nurses had stripped the infection down to its underwear, heaped it with cooling blankets, and denied it even a sheet for comfort. No one seemed to care that Waverly was the one actually being tortured.
Waverly, who was crying a little bit. Weird little hitches that Wynonna hadn’t seen her make since she was low single digits.
“Please,” Waverly pleaded. “What did I do?”
Wynonna sucked in a breath she knew was ragged, and perfectly audible to Nicole. She should just shut her trap. The words weren’t helping Waverly’s egg-on-a-sidewalk brain understand current time and place, and there was no way in hell this conversation wasn’t pinging off SuperCop’s spider sense.
And yet, Waverly was crying.
“You didn’t do anything. It was never you,” Wynonna reassured, and felt air displacing as Nicole moved to stand by her. Putting a hand on her shoulder and a second on Waverly’s other foot.
“I’m sorry,” Waverly gasped out. “Please. I’m sorry.”
Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Wynonna stabbed the call button, and when a nurse came she stabbed towards Waverly. “You are making her cry.”
The nurse sighed thought her nose, like everything in her life, including her chosen profession was impossible to endure. “Your sister’s fever is 40.6, Ms. Earp. We’re giving her antibiotics and antipyretics, but until they kick in the only treatment for the fever is cooling blankets.”
Wynonna opened her mouth in fury, but Nicole’s voice cut in. A velvet negotiation wrapped over steel authority. “You don’t need to crank the setting all the way down to 7 degrees. Put it on 15, and call it a compromise.”
It was honestly a little bit amazing to watch. She’d never seen someone else being cop-ized, and third person observation was a lot calmer with more time for psychoanalytic observations. Like: cops maybe weren’t the instinctual, untrained sort of asshole Wynonna had always assumed, because damned if Nicole hadn’t just turned her assholery on like fingers snapping.
Turned out her sister’s stupid cop girlfriend was a studied asshole. It was truly a revelation.
“I can talk to the doctor,” the nurse said, pulling Wynonna back from her unexpected moment of enlightenment. “But the affected Ms. Earp isn’t able to tell us what she wants.”
Wynonna opened her mouth again, to point out that the affected Ms. Earp probably didn’t want to be crying, but Nicole cut her off. Again.
“Exactly,” she said with civility honed so fine Wynonna marvelled at the cut. “She’s delirious, and I’m her power of attorney.”
Wynonna made some kind of noise she herself couldn’t really interpret, and Nicole shot her a single overwhelmingly dense glance, like triumph and dread all squashed together, before caroming away.
“She trusts me to make these decisions, and I’ve decided. So please,” Nicole smiled, command without pleasure. “Turn the blankets up. Now.”
The nurse pressed her mouth into a line of defiant resignation that Wynonna might honestly have sympathized with, in anyone who wasn’t Nurse Ratchet. Nicole reached across and turned the blankets up.
It took another seven hours for the fever to break. Waverly spent it sleeping. Nicole spent it retrieving nearly endless cups of truly terrible coffee, and eyeballing Wynonna like she was a hung fire gun.
Wynonna spent it happily letting Nicole percolate. Mostly because she needed to concentrate on making sure Waverly’s heart knew to keep beating. Partially because Wynonna was an instinctual, untrained kind of asshole, and Nicole’s anticipatory agony felt pretty goddamn good.
“You’re wearing your uniform.”
Nicole’s chin snapped up from where it had perhaps—briefly—been resting on her chest. “Hey!” She winced and cleared her throat. “Hey, darlin’, how you feeling?”
“I dreamt about you,” Waverly contributed sagely, and Nicole frowned.
“Was she naked?” Wynonna drawled from where she’d squatted in a corner. The hunch of her spine looked like actual torture, but the woman seemed to prefer the tight space. Feral, Nicole thought, then told herself to stop.
Waverly stared for a beat, then her eyes drifted slowly closed. “Parcheesi,” she threatened, mumbling a little from basically being asleep again. Then she was asleep again. Flatly surrendered to something that wasn’t fever, but wasn’t exactly normal either.
“Did that really happen?” Nicole asked, and Wynonna shrugged a little.
They had two more mutual hallucinations before the nurse reached capacity. “She’s asleep, and you two smell.” He pointed towards the door. Nicole blushed, but Wynonna just glared. He glared right back.
“Go. Shower. Eat. Sleep. In that exact order. It’s going to be a while before she’s really awake again. Sleeping on a bed in your home won’t make you miss anything.”
“Not leaving. Staying,” Wynonna finalized the argument. The nurse sighed like a martyr, but Nicole just shrugged. Thirty minutes later, Lonnie arrived. Filling the doorway with flowers, and his stupid face.
“I came to relieve you,” he said, surrendering the flowers to the whistleblowing nurse, who whisked them far away from the protective isolation of Waverly’s room. “Sheriff said you two are evicted for at least twelve hours.”
Nicole stared at him, and Lonnie stared right back. “She won’t be alone, okay?”
“Still staying,” Wynonna insisted, but Nicole stood up, knees cracking.
“Come on, Wynonna. We’ll sleep at my place. It’s closer, and neither of us is up for the drive back to the homestead.” She reached a hand out.
“I’m not sleeping on your couch,” Wynonna said, not moving from her corner.
“Yeah, not the couch,” Nicole agreed. Then, because Wynonna had been conspicuously trying to unsettle her for hours: “Or the chair. Or the kitchen table, the kitchen counter, the kitchen floor, or the wall next to the door.” Wynonna stared up, puzzled, then utterly not puzzled.
“Jesus. What haven’t you two defiled?” she muttered, but she took the offered hand.
“The guest bed,” she said, with a yank. Wynonna looked hopeful.
“Absolutely,” Nicole agreed.
“Tea?” Nicole asked, standing in her own living room, watching Wynonna watching Calamity Jane watching Wynonna. Wynonna snorted, but didn’t break her staring contest. No over/under on who’d win.
Nicole shrugged, and reached the whiskey down from the shelf. A sipping glass for herself, and the bottle to Wynonna. Sitting next to each other on the couch, like a particularly cut-rate Norman Rockwell painting.
“You and me, we’re like those circle things,” Wynonna finally said, pulling lazily from the bottle and staring aggressively at the wall.
Poor wall. Waverly ain’t named it anything important.
“We doing this now?” Nicole let a little rivulet of liquor burn down the back of her throat.
Nicole just rolled her eyes. Wynonna glanced pointedly at her, and went pointedly back to the wall. “You and me,” she repeated, pointedly, “are those circle things.”
Nicole sighed. “Circle things?” she asked, head tipping against the top of the couch in limp resignation. Sleep would feel so good.
Wynonna sketched out circles with two fingers, bottle sloshing. “Circles. Come on. Circles!”
Nicole rolled her neck to glare. “Repeatedly saying circles isn’t helping as much as you think it is.”
Wynonna sketched a more emphatic set of circles into the air. “They overlap on stuff. Circles. Thingy. Math.”
“Are you talking about Venn diagrams?” Nicole groped.
“Might could be.” Wynonna dropped her hands, and looked legitimately curious. “Do you think I actually did math? I gave Nick K. a hand job for each page of homework he let me copy.”
Nicole made a whimpering noise of protest, refusing any implications of Wynonna, penises, hands, or combinations theretofore.
“You’re such a prude. We overlap on Waverly,” Wynonna said, whipsawing Nicole the way Earps liked to do.
“Because we’re a Venn diagram?” she asked, certain now that bed and sleep were retreating forever out of reach.
“Yes.” Wynonna frowned, sharp with mock perplexity. “You aren’t very quick, Haught, and Waverly’s very probably a literal genius. How does that even work?”
“Concentrate, Wynonna. We overlap on Waverly?”
“You’re obviously the height. And the muscle. And wait, I just thought of this.” Her tone went sly. “Are you the dude, too?” She poked a finger into Nicole’s bicep. Twice. Nicole twisted, and caught her hand, gentle but immune to the tugging.
“I’m the Florence, and Waverly is the machine.” Nicole squeezed the fingers, less gentle. She’d reached enough. “Talk if you want to talk, but stop doing this.”
“This?” Wynonna asked, innocently. Nicole used a judicious application of dark glowering.
“Or what,” Wynonna challenged, all that dark wildness inside her crackling like ozone.
“I’ll break these.” She squeezed the fingers a little harder. “Then I’ll tell Waverly that you hurt my gay feelings.”
Wynonna went still, Nicole held her breath. Explosion, or self immolation? “Siccing a pissed off Waverly on someone is pretty cold, Haught,” she said, eyes glittering with unreadable energy.
Nicole just laughed, and hoped like hell it would work. For one long second, everything hung centered, then Wynonna grimaced in a dry sort of acknowledgement. “Yeah, okay. Not my best. Can I have my fingers back?”
Nicole let go, and Wynonna stared down into where she put them in her lap, flexing them gently. “Sorry.”
Nicole reached back over, and put a hand on her elbow. “We overlap on Waverly?” she tried softly.
“She’s yours, but she’s mine, too.”
Curled inside the statement was an aching question. Wynonna, stripped down to all the abuses and abandonments she’d experienced, and all the ones she’d propagated on her own. It made Nicole’s chest buzz with a hard type of love. Prickly, and difficult, hard to earn and worse to lose.
She shoved the thought back.
“Well, above all, Waverly belongs to Waverly. But, she loves your attention, Wynonna. It lights her up.”
“Yeah, well.” Wynonna picked at the seam of her jacket, “You should see her when you walk into the room. It’s revolting.”
“I’ll never make her choose between us,” Nicole chanced. Wynonna’s head snapped up, her face flat. Nicole held her breath, but quick as it came, the feeling seemed to drain back out.
“Here’s the thing, though,” Wynonna said, with resignation. “Waverly does get to choose between us, and maybe I deserve what I’m getting. Maybe you deserve what you’re getting, too.”
“Waverly isn’t punishing you.”
“I actually know that? But, I screwed up so badly when she was a kid. And sometimes even when you’re forgiven, you still have to live with knowing who you are. Waverly loves me, but we all know I’m not the stable thing in her life.” Wynonna fisted her hands, and made herself keep going. “That’s your part of the circle. But, Nicole, this stuff…it’s heavy. If it’s too much, if you’re going to go, you need to tell me. That’s something I need to know in advance.”
Wynonna’s smile was gone, but so was the last of her dangerous energy.
“Get out of jail free.” Nicole said, maybe a little too bitter.
“Nothing. Just, you ain’t never gonna be that lucky, Earp. I’m here as long as I’m allowed.”
Wynonna searched her face, so Nicole groped for something . “Wynonna, I love her. I’m going to be right here.”
“Okay.” Wynonna nodded. “Okay, good.”
They shared a little moment of silence, and Nicole prepared herself for whatever emotional reparations Wynonna might inflict in order to recover from their chat.
“Don’t you ever get scared?” Wynonna demanded, forever unpredictable.
“Sure. I’m scared of spiders.”
“No, I mean,” Wynonna gestured vaguely along Nicole’s uniform, “all that. Does it ever scare you?”
Nicole surveyed her own uniform. “The badge and the gun? Of course. Only bad cops are never scared.”
“No,” Wynonna contradicted. “You’re scared of exercising the responsibility, afraid you’ll mess up and do something wrong, but you’re not scared of having it in the first place.”
“No,” Nicole said slowly. “I suppose I ain’t. I’ve never thought of it that way before.” It wasn’t often an adult got to realize something new about themselves.
“Someone has to,” Wynonna said, small and sad. Nicole took her hand, squeezing. After a little gap, she added, “People keep, like very consistently, calling me broken.”
“You aren’t broken,” Nicole said, automatic as it was honest. Wynonna made an uninterpretable noise.
“There’s a whole passel of people who do not agree with you,” she said, dry.
Nicole pondered that, and shrugged. “Screw ‘em.”
“I might be one of them.”
“And screw you, too.” Nicole grinned.
“I hate these little talks,” Wynonna said, with no attempt to get her hand back.
“Oh,” Nicole lied right back, “me too.”
“Alright, Waverly, here we go,” the tech said, laying a hand on her bare hip. Laved in staining yellow disinfectant, and exposed by the sterile draping. Injecting local anesthetic.
“The iliac crest,” she told Nicole. Gowned, masked, gloved, and topped with a surgical cap. Perched on a low stool that put her hand into Waverly’s, and her eyes in front of Waverly’s own. A five foot nine, red-headed compromise between the midazolam alone, and general anaesthesia.
“Here’s the three, two, one for the puncture,” the tech said. “Three…”
Waverly panted, heart and breath too high in her chest. “Hey,” Nicole reminded, pressing Waverly’s hand to her own chest. “Breath with me, right?”
“Yeah,” Waverly agreed, ragged. Any second now would be the—
“Aspiration,” the tech warned, and sucked a vacuum into the secret hollow between her bones. Waverly whined high in her throat, eyes wide on Nicole’s own.
“Done,” the tech said, pressing hard against the curve of her pelvis. Stopping the blood he’d worked so hard to get.
“Piece of cake,” Waverly mumbled into the crinkling paper covering the table, eyes shut tight.
The vessel thought to use poison against the seed of an old god. To fill its own sparking marrow with heavy molecules sent to trick and tear. To compel a god.
Not just the vessel, but the entire species and its new invention of science. Thinking they strode confidently toward achieving final dominion over all that was seen, and thence over all that was unseen. An arrogance so vast, so far outstripping the murderous progenitor, the seed suffusing the vital abundance slowed. Observing. An iota awed, and awed that it could be awed.
Time was inconsequential. The seed would grow, and the seed would return to legion, and the holy reliquary would burn into final ashes. All would come to pass in the moment when it came to pass, but that moment was not now.
Yet again, it allowed a scintilla of itself to be siphoned away by something sharp and hollow. Lapping at the vessels fight, and its fear, and its hatred of the fear. Like refined spirits, heady, and overall rare.
A rarity that was a second unfathomable discovery. The little holy vessel was only partially a daughter of Eve.
“Your blasts are at ten percent, and your white blood cell count is twelve thousand,” Dr. Smith said.
“That,” Waverly said slow, testing out the words for realness, “is not remission.”
“No,” was all Dr. Smith said. Waverly looked back at her, and felt something rising up inside.
“You’re saying induction chemotherapy did not achieve remission?” Waverly understood the words just fine, but the full meaning was almost too big to really comprehend.
“Yes,” the doctor said.
Waverly considered that. Her first true failure, and of course it would be when the stakes couldn’t be higher. Fitting. It was the dictionary definition of being an Earp. Daring greatly, and fucking it up hard.
Or, well, it wasn’t fitting, because she wasn’t an Earp. Or maybe being an Earp was actually a spiritual thing. Or—
Waverly tried to focus.
“I can offer you something called salvage therapy. It’s a different regime, aimed to cytoreduce disease load before allogenic transplantation.”
Nicole frowned, trying to follow along as always. Wynonna’s look bounced between Waverly and the doctor in angry confusion. Nobody spoke and everyone stayed poised. The thing inside nudged up harder.
“You call it salvage?” Waverly asked a little faint, trying hard to clamp down on whatever was wobbling below the words.
The doctor nodded.
Waverly opened her mouth—not certain what kind of sound she was about to make—and laughed.
She laughed hard, floppy limbed and gasping. Horking out dark gouts of terror and fear, and so much sorrow. Nicole, who she’d just found. And Wynonna, who wanted to crumble under the weight of being the heir, but didn’t.
She wanted to stay.
Eventually she wound down, feeling raw in the cheeks and tender in the stomach. Nicole was frowning harder, and Wynonna had shifted to impatiently sullen, but the doctor just stood up.
“You don’t have to make a decision right now, thought our timeline isn’t extensive. Talk with your family, and remember I’m always available for questions.”
Waverly nodded, and glumly faced her family. They all fit into the room, with a lot of space to spare, but it wasn’t like telling two would be somehow easier than telling twenty.
“So.” As openings, not great.
“Um.” Not much better.
Just rip off the band-aid.
“I need a stem cell transplant or I’m going to die, I’m not actually an Earp, and I think Black Badge gave me cancer.”
Waverly peeked at the damage, and grimaced. “Sorry. Sorry! I maybe should have broken that into three different sentences, right?”
Wynonna made a sort of doubtful noise, jerked exactly like someone had sidestepped her clutch, and walked out.
Waverly looked over at Nicole. “Do you think she just went to kill Lucado?”
Nicole just made her own sound of distress, and stared with wide eyes.
“You already knew one of those things,” Waverly reminded.
“Baby,” Nicole finally said slowly, “I’m not entirely certain you’re a force for good.”
Waverly nodded sagely. It was true.
“Really though, do you think she’s killing Lucado?”
“Possible. Do you want me to go stop her?”
“No,” Waverly shook her head, which matched the trembling that had started in her fingers and worked up to her shoulders. Tears beaded in her eyelashes, and Nicole visibly restrained herself from reaching out, squeezing a blanketed foot instead. It felt familiar in a way Waverly couldn’t really place. “I want everyone to stay.”
Nicole was still holding her foot when Wynonna burst back through the door, trailing a captive.
“Jeremy!” Waverly said brightly, but got a doleful look in return. His clothes looked rumpled, and visible even against his dark skin was a swelling bruise that looked exactly like someone had pinched and twisted.
“Don’t sit,” Wynonna told him darkly, then to Waverly: “Explain.”
There didn’t seem to be much help for it, so Waverly explained. About Bobo’s words over not being an Earp, and the proof in her DNA, and how the symptoms started right after Lucado’s bloodletting.
“It’s just a contract,” Jeremy protested, Adam’s apple bobbing at Wynonna’s renewed attention. “Signed in a creepy way, sure, but still just a piece of paper.”
Wynonna nodded, like she wasn’t sure if the movement should be excited, or reluctant. “Lucado herself said it was just a piece of paper. She didn’t have any reason to lie. In fact, she had reason to lie the other way. And no one else is sick.” She gave Waverly an apologetic spread of her hands. “I’m sorry baby girl, but the logic doesn’t follow.”
“Um,” Waverly hedged, twisting her fingers together. “It’s possible that no one else is sick because no one else is half revenant.”
There. No more band-aids. Ever. Waverly snuck a peek at Wynonna’s face, but had to look away fast.
“What?” Wynonna asked, small and scared.
“Bobo. He knew I wasn’t Daddy’s. He knew it.” Waverly gripped her knees with the pressure of a truth that can only be run from for so long. It furrowed something into Nicole’s brow, but Wynonna’s went slack.
“That’s impossible,” Wynonna said, but Waverly had already had time with the idea and Wynonna’d only had about five seconds.
“It isn’t,” Waverly said. Tired from holding the line, or maybe just tired from having all the secrets finally out.
“I used to call him Papa, back when he was my imaginary friend.” Waverly hammered the nail hard, but Wynonna shook her head wildly.
“You were tiny. You just wanted him to be someone special, because—” She shot a glance at Nicole, but Waverly didn’t have time for the damages of the past.
“Because that’s what he told me to do.” She finished for her sister.
“It’s impossible,” Wynonna insisted, but sometimes the harsher the voice the more doubt there was to cover.
“Only one way to find out,” Waverly said, and watched understanding make a sort of journey through Wynonna. Pretty much right at the speed of heartbreak.
“Two, actually,” she amended. “But only one of them is currently,” she twirled a finger around the confines of the room, “you know, practical.”
“No,” Wynonna said tightly, like something was wrapped around her vocal cords. Waverly just looked back at her, waiting. Sometimes the future was already inevitable, and there just wasn’t any use in fighting.
“Wait,” Jeremy said, trying to catch up. “What—” but Wynonna had already pulled Peacemaker from its holster, holding the barrel towards the floor, unwillingness in every line.
“I don’t want to burn, Wynonna.” Waverly told her. “Don’t make it be that way. Please."
“Baby girl,” she tried, but Waverly wasn’t going to allow any mercy. Slowly, like the gun was lifting her hand and not the other way around, Wynonna brought the barrel up to center mass. Waverly froze, hands still gripped into her knees. Because it was Wynonna, but that was still a loaded gun.
“Hey!” Nicole’s shocked voice and shocked hand both reached out, but too late. The bright glow at Peacemaker’s tip was already flashing back towards the cylinder, the air full of the gun’s infrasonic murmurs.
Waverly closed her eyes, surrendering to the irresolute thudding of her demon heart.
So. Now she knew.
“Fuck,” Wynonna whispered, dropping the gun. Waverly watched it dull. She nodded.
Proper fucked. For sure.
No one really knew what to do after that. It was awkward, all shuffling feet and wide eyes. Nicole stared like maybe she’d never seen anything like Waverly before, and Waverly found she couldn’t meet that kind of look. Not from Nicole.
“Waverly,” Nicole said, strangled high in her throat. Waverly just shook her head. She couldn’t endure this. It was unendurable. Nicole would—
Then her face was being smushed into Nicole’s neck and it wasn’t the content of the words she clung onto, but the low tone sliding past her ears and into her heart. Holding Nicole back so tightly it hurt.
If hell existed, then so did heaven. And perhaps pressing most of her orifices so tightly into Nicole’s skin would would be the ignition point of her final fever, but it would still be something she could remember in their separate afterlives.
“It’s still impossible,” Jeremy insisted, and someone sighed loudly. For all Nicole knew, it mighta been herself. It was that kind of argument. Circling the same central points until everyone was a numb sort of exhausted.
Jeremy adamant that whatever dusty and desiccated meiosis a revenant’s cells underwent, it couldn’t recombinate into anything like Waverly. And furthermore, even if it could, which it definitely couldn’t, Black Badge’s contract couldn’t give anyone cancer.
“Should I try Peacemaker again?” Wynonna asked. Nicole tensed, but Jeremy shook his head hard enough to fractionally slow the rotation of the earth.
“We have samples! Like, detailed samples.” Jeremy’s hand waved down his own midline, towards…
Nicole squinted, just to be sure, or maybe to fuzz it out and therefore never have to be actually sure.
“Samples!” He hissed meaningfully.
Wynonna opened her mouth all over again, and Waverly shot Nicole a look filled with the kind of desperation she was helpless to defend against. At least from a pretty girl she’d seen naked. She stood up, took both Jeremy and Wynonna by the scruff, and tossed them out.
“How come you get to stay?” Wynonna was indignant on the hallway side of the door Nicole was closing in her face. Nicole just glared significantly, and Wynonna submitted with poor grace.
“Fine. Right. Lesbian softness. I wouldn’t want to see that anyway.”
Nicole clicked the door shut gently, and turned back to the room. Waverly was sitting in the middle of the bed, legs pulled up with her chin on her knees, watching her. Nicole smiled, because how did such a lion heart end up in such a tiny person?
Waverly smiled back, a little wan. “Well, that was fun.”
“Yup,” Nicole agreed.
“Do you think there’s a limit to how many terrible things a person should have to find out about themselves in a single month? Like, more than three causes brain damage?” Waverly asked tiredly.
“Not in Purgatory,” Nicole rebutted with a grin. Waverly rolled her eyes, but Nicole saw the shine in them. She pulled a disposable mask from its box, and arranged the elastic loops behind Waverly's ears before scooping her up. Ignoring her squeak as she settled them both into the chair.
“The nurses will come in and yell at you,” Waverly pointed out, contradicting the caution by curling into her shoulder bonelessly.
Nicole shrugged, jostling Waverly’s head a little. “Let ‘em.”
Waverly hummed, and played with the collar of Nicole’s shirt. “Was Jeremy saying Black Badge has samples of revenant jizz?”
Nicole smiled. “It sure sounded like it.”
“That’s…urgh. That’s horrifying on so many levels.”
Nicole had one of those moments where you try and trace the path of your life. Because suddenly you’re sitting in a hospital, holding a woman you love, and talking about semen samples from recycled monsters.
She laughed a little, and Waverly must have understood because Nicole felt her cheek move into a smile under the mask. Still, there was a charged wire somewhere deep under her hands. She kissed the top of Waverly’s head, and ran her hand down the full curve of her spine. Hoping to transmit strength, and space, and love. Waverly took a shaky breath.
“We never worked out appropriate confessional timelines,” she said with a wry kind of affection for their own human selves.
“Mmm,” Nicole hummed. Waverly curled a fist into the front of her shirt, until there weren’t no slack left. Pulling like Nicole was an anchor.
“People Wynonna points that gun at go to hell.”
“No,” was all Nicole said. Waverly picked her head up, fist still in her shirt, scanning across her face like she could find her own conviction from the bedrock of Nicole’s. Then she laid her head back down.
“Yeah?” Nicole asked, because it seemed like there might need to be more speechifying about moving mountains or closing hell itself, just for the showmanship of the thing, but Waverly nodded against her chest.
“Yeah. Just— Don’t take too long to figure out how to…make that not happen, okay?” she added softly, and a knot seized so tightly into Nicole’s throat she couldn’t swallow.
“Okay,” she finally managed, holding the warm weight as it slackened into sleep. Eventually shuffling Waverly back into the bed, covering her sleepy murmur with the blanket. Hunting the halls until she found the right room, and rolling her sleeve past the crook of her elbow.
The odds of a donor match were vanishingly small, but she didn’t have a mythical gun, and she wasn’t a genius. This was all she currently had to try and change their fate. Waverly’s, and then what would inevitably come for Nicole.
Once she was done, she went to the Municipal Centre, and rounded up everyone she could find, hauling them off to be tested, too.
Ms. Linda kissed her cheek, and it might have been something that made Nicole blush, except for the thing twisting into the base of her stomach.
“Jeremy, how in the sweet hell did you get revenant samples?"
Jeremy shrugged. “Inherited them from Dolls, from a subject named Whiskey Jim.”
Jesus. “A steady supply of samples,” Dolls’ said, back when she’d found his captive revenant all tied up inside his creepy torture warehouse.
It felt like such a long time ago. Before she’d understood that Black Badge was an iceberg. All shiny Marshal’s badges on top, and friend-killing, monster-making, blood-contract ruthlessness hidden below. Back before Willa, and Dolls, and Waverly, and Doc. Before everyone started telling her how fundamentally broken she was.
The past was another country, sure, but it felt like fitting contemplation considering her current destination. Keeping the truck wheels thudding over the expansion joints, like the rhythm itself could be some sort of courage. Sitting down at the table like she knew what she was doing.
“We need to talk.”
Wynonna thought it sounded pretty definitive, but all her mama did was grip her temples and glare murder towards absolutely nothing whatsoever. Like she was some kinda mental patient.
Which, okay…yeah. Fine.
Wynonna looked significantly around the cavernous visitor’s hall inside the Ghost River Institute, trying for a smile. “Ever heard of that song about the mother and child reunion?”
The deep empty behind her mama’s eyes didn’t shift. Wynonna decided it would be better not to feel any feelings for the rest of the visit.
“Okay, cool. You’ve made it very clear you don’t want visitors. Message received, but Waverly is sick, Mama. She…” Wynonna faded, but it didn’t matter because Waverly’s name was like a hypnotist’s snap, reeling Michelle Earp née Gibson back from wherever she’d been.
“Yeah, Waverly. The one you refuse to see. Remember her?”
“Of course I remember her,” Michelle said, affronted. “She’s my daughter.”
Wynonna wanted to spend a little time indulging in the low-hanging irony, but didn’t want to forego a conversational opening that wide.
“Yours,” she said slowly, watching carefully. “But not Ward Earp’s.”
It didn’t make too much of a ripple. Just a little twitch backward, and a quick widening of the eyeballs before cool calculation slid back in.
“We ran the DNA,” Wynonna assured, just to keep the conversation steamrolling with brutal honesty. The calculation collapsed, until her mama was just a tired and worried looking woman that Wynonna didn’t hardly know.
She wanted to tell Michelle the DNA test explained a lot about how Daddy had treated Waverly. And to ask, when she’d run, if she’d spared any thought for her middle daughter, who reminded her jilted husband of his absent wife. Ask if she’d somehow thought the man she’d married would just hang up his need to cause pain.
“Mama,” was all she actually said, soft and cajoling. Strangers weren’t worth ripping open scars for.
Michelle shook her head, jerking her hands up to claw at her face. “Too loud,” she moaned, but even sporadic visits had made Wynonna pretty good at dodging the crazy bits.
“You need to tell me who Waverly’s father is,” she continued, steady and reasonable. “At the very least, we need to see if he’s a donor match.”
“Donor match?” Michelle asked, dropping back into regularly scheduled programming without a flicker. Wynonna wondered for the nine-millionth time if her mama was crazy-crazy, or just crazy like a fox.
“Incidentally, since we’re talking,” she dropped her voice and darted a glance around to check for eavesdroppers. “Was there anything particularly unusual about the sperm guy? Any habits of, you know, returning to the Triangle after long periods of time? Maybe an unfortunate love for mixing beards and bleach?”
Michelle looked baffled, with a side-order of impatience. “What do you mean donor match? Why would Wave—”
“Seriously, nothing overly, uh, boomerang-like about him?” Wynonna pushed. Michelle leaned forward, squinting hard.
“Are you on drugs?”
Wynonna laughed darkly. Sitting inside the belly of a psychiatric institution discussing mind altering substances with a crazy person. She pressed a hand into her forehead, until she realized it mimicked Michelle’s crazy-time gesture, and switched to looking up at the ceiling so gravity could help her keep the tears in.
“Sweetheart,” her mama murmured, and Wynonna gritted her teeth against it. Finding and holding her mama’s eye as hard as she knew how.
“Peacemaker lit up, mama. For—At Waverly.”
Michelle stared into nothing, gone again. Wynonna leaned close. “Do you understand what I’m saying, mama?”
“No,” Michelle moaned, pulling it from the deepness of her gut. “Impossible. I had it contained.”
“What?” Wynonna asked, taking her turn at being baffled.
“I swear I did.” Michelle hissed. “All these years, all these years in this place just to keep that filth away from her.” She pounded a fist into the table, echoing a boom across the visitor’s hall and pivoting the guards attention towards them.
“Mama,” Wynonna soothed, feeling her chance slipping away. “Please, please, calm down. Just, please, tell me who her father is. Okay? Just that little thing. Then I’ll go, just like you wanted. I swear I’ll go.”
“I pulled it from her, twenty years ago. Took it for myself. I made sure, absolutely sure, but something must have stayed behind. Some tiny bit, left behind in my little angel.”
“Pulled what, mama?” Wynonna asked, desperate.
“Wynonna,” Michelle snapped back into reality all over again, eyes blazing. “You save her. You use that gun, use whatever you have to, and you save her.”
Wynonna was all set to agree that of course, of course she would, always, but Michelle never quite knew when to quit.
“Be an adult for once. Take responsibility, or don’t bother coming back. Ever.” She leaned close, and tucked a strand of hair behind Wynonna’s ear. “Do you understand?”
Wynonna let her eyes slide past her mama’s shoulder. Trained by half a lifetime of knowing when it didn’t pay to care.
“You hear me?” Michelle demanded, and Wynonna nodded, standing.
Chapter 7: Standing in Line, Marking Time
“I’m a flower,” Waverly quipped, holding her arms out and tipping her face up into the Purgatory sunshine.
It had taken three weeks to meet Dr. Smith’s demands for release, but the scale read 105 lbs, and her last neutrophil count was above 4,500. The first thanks to the munchies, and the second because they stopped pushing a known killer of white blood cells into her veins.
She’d failed remission, but the leukemia had been knocked onto its back foot. They would use palliative treatment to keep it on the ropes, but eventually it would regroup and she would die. But dying wasn’t for today. Today was for being a flower.
Nicole’s smile wrinkled into the corners of her eyes, and Waverly wrinkled right back.
“Pancakes,” she dictated. Nicole frowned.
“Public food. In a public space,” she reminded. Two of the many things Waverly was supposed to be avoiding.
“Mask.” Waverly poked at the fabric covering the bottom half of her face. Hot pink with bright yellow bees. Organic, and washable, and captured from the wilds of the internet by Nicole. Not just the bees. A flower pattern one, and a deep black that made her look like quote-unquote a badass Avenger, but short.
“A mask while you’re eating the public food?”
“Mmm,” Waverly hummed. “Fine, pancakes at the homestead.”
“Yes,” Nicole said, and pulled her by the hand. Waverly settled into the cruiser’s passenger seat, and thought stay awake, but sleep crept up between breaths.
Her people installed her on the couch, and they drifted past. Nicole with tea and kisses. Wynonna with something brooding behind her eyes whenever she looked Waverly’s way. It was barely dark when Nicole pulled her up the stairs, and led her to a bed with sheets that smelled more of the sanitizing cycle than they did of home.
“I don’t like the smell of bleach,” she told Nicole, who pulled her onto her chest and stroked down the full length of her back.
Wynonna made a break for it right as the sun rose, breath steaming out into the last of winter, stomping into her boots out on the porch. Waverly had been home for a week, and it was still a miracle wrapped in Christmas, but she didn’t need the sight of sleepy lesbian softness inside her own goddamn kitchen.
She wasn’t fleeing. Just exiting very early.
“There’s a difference,” she told her cow, running a curry comb down one of Daisy’s ample flanks. Daisy cranked her head around far enough to peer at Wynonna with a fine scorn, breath coming out in a double plume.
“There is,” Wynonna defended.
Daisy flapped her head, uninterested. Groaning deeply with her huge lungs and leaning into the brush strokes as clots of dead winter coat fell away. Wynonna pointed at her, vindicated.
“Exactly! Fleeing doesn’t involve stopping to brush spoiled cows, does it?”
Daisy dribbled a long string of grassy saliva. One eye rolled back, eyelashes swept down to observe her interlocutor. Or maybe just the brush. Who knew, really.
“Dude. If you’re happy and you know it, just clap your hands, okay? Drool is gross.”
Daisy just rolled her eye back frontwards.
Wynonna had trolled the internet for cow accoutrements, and discovered something called a swinging cow brush. It looked expensive—if the website wouldn’t say how much it cost, you knew it had to be expensive—but all she had to do was make Nicole think it was her idea. Just like she let Nicole think Daisy was her cow.
Contrary to what Nicole thought, cow possession was nine-tenths whose pasture the shit landed in, and only one-tenth who paid the vet bill.
She clapped her hands to get the hair off, and shovelled a handful of molasses treats into the cow’s maw. “It’s called strategic retreat,” she carefully explained. Daisy chewed in vigorous agreement, so Wynonna pointed the nose of the truck out the lichgate, following the turns of least resistance. It was just coincidence where she ended up.
Just keep telling yourself that, Earp.
“Asshole,” she told both Dolls and the steering wheel, yanking the door open.
Hungry ghosts, indeed.
“Hey, Daddy. Sorry, no flowers this time. A lot going on.”
She squatted down, arms around her knees, staring at the deeply incised EARP on the headstone.
“I found Willa, but I lost her again, and then she died. Again. Still no body to bury, so I guess that’s some fearful symmetry, right? And Mama’s definitely still batshit. Plus there’s the broken seal of doom. And Wave—”
She stopped. Ward Earp didn’t get to know about Waverly. She rocked a little, but the words had two months of pressure behind them, plus her newly opened maternal wounds. They came like running downhill.
“Well, anyway, here’s the thing. All that stuff at the arch. It’s possible Peacemaker didn’t so much choose me, as reject Willa. Maybe I really am the Earp of absolute last resort, and I’m exactly as broken as everyone says I am.”
She didn’t feel tortured. Just sad and resigned over something that happened a long time ago and could never be fixed. The ragged past trailing behind her like strings in the wind.
“But here’s the other thing. Peacemaker let me shoot you that night. And we both know Peacemaker is hella picky. That gun don’t shoot for people it don’t like, and it don’t kill people it does like.”
She gripped her forearms until the bones creaked, and kept going. Down into a place she hardly believed could be inside a broken girl. “So what I think, what I really think is, Peacemaker did choose me. A long time ago. That very first night.”
She stopped rocking, and stared into the middle distance. Maybe the girl had been broken, and maybe people still saw the cracks, but those were just mend lines.
“So the actual thing I came here to tell you is that I’m going to do better than you did. For Waverly, and for everyone.” She swallowed hard, tasting the tears that had run to the corners of her lips. “I loved you Daddy. I think you did the best you could, but in the end you weren’t strong enough to be a very good person.”
She stood, looking at the ground. “Never say never, but I don’t think I’ll come here again.”
Nicole drove back to the homestead after lunch, and took Waverly to the hospital. Following the signs to the outpatient oncology unit. Watching as Waverly was settled into a giant recliner, the fearsome dimensions of which made her look about ten years old.
Waverly stuck her tongue out, and Nicole grinned back, because you took your moments when and where you could.
When Wynonna got back to the truck, the front bumper had grown a carbuncle. Wynonna pulled Peacemaker at thirty paces, just because she could. Juan Carlo raised his hands.
“We keep meeting like this.”
“More your fault than mine, isn’t it?” Wynonna huffed, stuffing Peacemaker back onto her hip. Her nemesis frowned gently. Wynonna frowned back, not gently. He sighed.
“Have you ever heard of the Trolley Problem, Wynonna?”
“No,” Wynonna grudged, wondering why she was letting him lean on her truck and complicate her day. Or life. Or maybe just all of her everything?
Some people just had a way of talking.
“It’s a thought experiment in ethics,” he explained, tone like he was talking to a very clever animal or a middling stupid human. Two guesses which one he thought Wynonna was. “The original form doesn’t matter, because your version of the Trolley Problem is,” he dropped off, searching the sky like it held the meaning of life. Finally settling on the ever-cryptic: “wider reaching.”
“Okay,” Wynonna sighed, already regretting it, “I’ll bite. What’s my version of the Trolley Problem?”
Juan Carlo broke off from squinting at the sky, and switched to concentrating his entire soul into lighting a cigarette, the flame dancing hypnotically until she almost missed his words. “You can save one soul, and consign the rest of the world to darkness.”
He took a drag, looking directly at her for the first time. “Or you can allow one soul to be cast away, and keep the world in the light.” He shrugged like he didn’t much care either way. “You have to choose.”
Wynonna felt something curl into her stomach, and crawl up under her ribs. It didn’t feel like fear, and it didn’t feel like confusion.
“Are you talking about Waverly?” she asked, something hot between her teeth, but Juan Carlo just sucked a tooth, looking into the distance again.
“The sacrifice of the one, for the good of the many,” Juan Carlo said, with a grimace that might have been vague compassion, or just a bad gas cramp.
“You piece of shit,” Wynonna breathed, deadly intent moving her hand towards her hip, but Peacemaker caught in the holster, and when she finally got the barrel up, Juan Carlo was gone.
Wynonna stood, gun pointing at nothing, breath hard and tight.
“Azacitidine,” Waverly told Nicole, arm obediently out to let the nurse free the PICC line from its protective curl around her bicep. “Waiting for a donor match is all about balance. Gotta kill enough leukemic stem cells to maintain, but avoid killing so many neutrophils the immune system collapses, right? Cytarabine is too much of a jerk to neutrophils, so Azacitidine is better.”
Nicole nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
Waverly grinned, and the chemo nurse rolled his eyes. “I’m with Wynonna; you two are disgusting.”
Waverly transferred her grin to him, but he tapped on the PICC line, a still-full saline syringe threaded onto the end. “Sorry, love. This guy is blocked but good.”
Waverly looked at the faithful little bit of tubing. “You can’t clear it?”
“I’m going to get the doctor,” was all he said.
Waverly looked back a Nicole. “I really like the feeling of getting my teeth cleaned. The little vibrate-y rubber cup.” Her fingers crept between Nicole’s own.
“Hooah,” Nicole told her. Waverly rolled her eyes, and Nicole grinned her smuggest grin.
“Not my fault you only speak Civilian.”
“I speak five lan—”
“Waverly,” Dr. Smith’s greeting interrupted whatever chastisement Nicole knew she truly deserved. Waverly’s hand clamped down onto her own. “I understand your PICC line is blocked. We’ll replace it today, but this might be a good trigger for placing a long-term access port.”
“Can you explain?” Waverly asked, making the joke on Nicole. Resigning herself to once again being the one with a Limited Working Proficiency in a room full of fluent speakers. All the pros and cons of a tunnelled catheter burrowed into the thoracic wall, versus a port implanted subcutaneously, versus keeping a simple in-kind replacement of the PICC.
They talked about stem cell transplantation, and they talked about donor match probabilities, and for the first time they talked about alternatives if a donor couldn’t be found in the right timespan.
They talked about what that timespan might be.
When it was all over, Nicole stood up and wasn’t sure who was actually moving the legs so far below her.
The door to Black Badge rebounded from Wynonna’s boot heel like the slap of a crisp high-five.
“Baller,” Wynonna told the resident nerd. “I’m getting good at that!”
To Jeremy’s credit, all he did was blink at her. To Wynonna’s irritation, Lucado wasn’t around to understand Wynonna was humping her head.
Metaphorical, and such. Unless it needed to be more reality based.
“What are you doing?” Wynonna demanded.
“Pipetting,” Jeremy said, waving his little science tool like it somehow explained things.
“Science,” Jeremy said, plunging the tool thought a series of ratcheting clicks. “See?”
Huh. Science happened using probe tools that sounded like dolphins. The world was indeed mysterious.
“Will this magic science tell us what crawled out of the broken seal of doom?”
“No, it’s science for Lucado. And before you ask, it’s because she’s scarier than you are.”
“That a fact?” Wynonna asked, casual like. Jeremey swallowed with a gratifying amount of Adam’s apple.
“Maybe…” He put the proboscis tool down.
“Maybe,” she agreed. And of course, that’s exactly when Lucado would waft in on a cloud of expensive smelling perfume and wrinkle forming frowns. A cold thrill shivered down Wynonna’s spine.
“I’d warn you about your face freezing like that, but I think that ship has sailed,” Wynonna told her.
“Earp.” Lucado looked significantly around the office. “I don’t see a demon.”
“Looked in the mirror lately?” Wynonna tried, making Lucado fist her hips and frown into deeper wrinkles.
“You’re standing there, doing nothing. I’d assumed there’d be a demon.”
“Here’s the thing, Lucado.” Wynonna smiled. “I’ve had something that you might call an epiphany, and I’ve realized that it’s no longer best practise for Black Badge and the Earp heir to leverage any joint effort inside the demon ecosystem. I think it’s time that we both concentrated on our core competencies.” She pointed at herself, “Killing demons.” She pointed at Lucado, “Sucking dick.”
“Charming,” Lucado said, like poss-s-s-ibly she meant the opposite, but Wynonna was no longer interested in sweet reason.
“Look. Your low-level demon bullshittery doesn’t matter. There are bigger things going on, like the ominously broken seal, and pale damsels in distress. I’m going to concentrate on those things. So good luck with your life, and feel free not to catch me on the flipside.”
Lucado glared, but Wynonna was super well practised at silence as dubious consent. “Good talk. And bee-tee-dub, I’ll be taking the nerd.” She snapped Jeremy over to her side. “Heel.”
“Ummm,” Jeremy wavered through a rising up-note.
“Oh, chill,” Wynonna told him. “I’ll give you straight to Waverly.”
“Worse!” Jeremy yelped.
“Wait,” Wynonna paused. “I thought you liked Waverly?”
“I’m a human being. You can’t just give me to someone!”
“I mean, could you stop me?” Wynonna asked with genuine curiosity. Jeremey opened his mouth, but Lucado beat him to the speaking part.
“I think you’re forgetting something, Earp.”
Wynonna took a quick mental inventory, and shook her head. “Nope. Pretty sure I’ve got everything. Foreboding portents, dread filled prescience, and an awkward gay nerd. Oh my.”
“Hey-o! Totally uncool,” Jeremey squawked, but Lucado’s wrinkles reset into stern reproach. Like a kindergarten teacher towering over some dumbass kid who wasn’t even adorable.
“You’re forgetting about the blood. All over that contract with Black Badge. Yours, and of course Waverly’s. One call to Moody, and I can turn all that on. I can make her burn,” Lucado said, eyes alight. “Unending, unbelievable suffering. And I can make you watch.”
Wynonna felt herself go smooth and cold, and it must have come across as cowed because Lucado looked satisfied. “I thought that might focus your minuscule attention span,” she said. “Now, take some Adderall and go find me a demon.”
Wynonna laughed, and whatever frequency the noise had in the world outside her own ears, it sure enough caught Lucado by surprise. She twitched. Just a little, but a little was just enough.
“Find me a demon,” Lucado insisted, power posing harder and pretending that she hadn’t lost ground.
Wynonna cocked her head, studying. Lucado’s jaw bunched as she ground her teeth, but Wynonna just laughed something small out her nose. Lucado’s posturing was one of those things. The Emerald City without glasses, or making a grown-ass elephant obedient to a light chain. Parable. Allegory. Thingy.
She should have paid more attention in, well, literally any part of school ever. But, time to focus.
“Hey, Lucado.” She raised Peacemaker up, steady on center mass. The gun stayed asleep, no lights and no excited burble wicking across her skin. It wouldn’t shoot, but Lucado couldn’t know that. Couldn’t truly know that, down into those small places that couldn’t see past the open mouth of a pointed gun. “I’m not a motherfucking elephant.”
It crumpled Lucado’s fear into full-frontal confusion, but Wynonna hardly cared. The bully’s narrative stopped the instant the underdog picked up a rock and fit it into his sling.
“You coming?” she asked Jeremey, cutting her eyes across to him.
“Fuuuck,” Jeremy breathed like a prayer, snatching up the science tool. Which was weird, but whatever he thought he needed. Wynonna holstered Peacemaker, but Lucado didn’t make any effort at movement.
“If you even think about Waverly, I’ll cut your eyelids off,” Wynonna told her. It wouldn’t go down in the record book as epic, but it got the point across. She was the goddamn Earp heir, and she was going to save the cheerleader, and then the world.
Wynonna goosed the horn as she rattled under the lichgate, greeting her cow and warning the lesbians. Unnecessarily, since all clothing was present and Waverly was busy puking. Prone on the couch, with her face hanging over the edge and her hair tied back.
“Azacitidine,” Nicole told Wynonna and Jeremy, slumped into a nearby chair. A backup bucket by her foot, and one under Waverly’s face. Both clean, but a sour smell lingered. “Turns out to be a little bit of a bitch.”
“Why aren’t the anti-nausea thingums working?” Wynonna turned Waverly’s head a little to check the medicine patch was still pressed behind her ear. Waverly batted it away.
“New drug, new support combo required. Apparently. They’ll try something different after the next session.”
“Dehydrated?” She pinched the skin on Waverly’s forearm.
“Minor,” Nicole told her, both watching the skin on Waverly’s arm creep back into position.
“Assholes,” Waverly contributed.
“Do we have to, er, deploy the alternate entry…” Wynonna made a delicate shoving motion with her finger.
“No!” Waverly shot up to half mast, glaring around their scalene triangle. Nicole discretely shook her head.
“Got pills. Staying down so far.”
Wynonna patted the back of her sister’s head. “You just make sure the couch keeps submitting to gravity. I’ll show Jeremy around.”
“Need the full tour,” Nicole rode right over whatever nerd babble Jeremy was about to release.
“Definitely need to know where the bathroom is. Yes.” He nodded vigorously.
“You already know where the bathroom is. From when you were dissecting the giant baby spider. All that wailing about eggshells, remember?”
Jeremy and Nicole exchanged some complex, and over-all accusatory looks. Wynonna stared at them, but Waverly made some sort of guttural pre-ralphing noise and she decided hoes before bros when it came to watching Waverly puking. Grabbing Jeremy by the seam of his coat, and steering him towards the table.
“I’ll formally give you to Waverly, er, later. Right now; you remember the table, and these are the books. Get started.”
“Doing?” Jeremy asked, sounding braver than Wynonna would have preferred. She frowned, and his hands twitched.
“You figure out what’s going to crawl out of that seal. I’ll save the cheerleader.”
The distinct sound of puking drifted through into the room. Wynonna sighed. “Me or Nicole, baby girl. Pick one.”
Waverly groaned, and covered her head with a pillow.
“Babe, where are you going?” Nicole’s question, and Nicole herself, caught Waverly with her hand on the front doorknob.
“The moon,” Waverly said sweetly. She was three days post her first installation of palliative chemo, two days post something she hoped would never happen again, and she was definitely leaving the house.
Nicole narrowed her eyes, just slightly. Waverly let go, and they popped back open. She considered touching the knob again, just to see, but petulance was always a bad road.
“The library,” she admitted. “But, hey, cool Avengers mask,” she added brightly, touching the edge of the material. “Like a badass, right?”
It came out needier than she meant. Even a badass mask made people stare, and the first glance only made them linger, until they’d catalogued all of her hollows and knobs.
The hinge of Nicole’s jaw jutted out, then relaxed. “Completely badass,” she agreed. “Just to get books, or…” She trailed off.
“To pick up a book on hold. In and out.” Waverly closed the gap, going on tiptoe to rub her cheek on Nicole’s own, like a pleased cat. Nicole pressed back, her hands on Waverly’s hips.
“I could go, get the book for you,” Nicole murmured. Waverly pulled back to look her over, balanced by Nicole’s hold, and her own hands on the taller biceps.
“No,” she said, gentle but resolute, watching the word pull Nicole’s face into harder lines. In Champ, control had always and ever been born of selfishness, but in Nicole the origin point was fundamentally selfless. Maybe it wasn’t a diametrical opposition, but it was enough to differentiate between something temporary, and something rooted.
Nicole swallowed, and swallowed again. Like something was caught in her throat. “Tell ‘em if they breathe on you, I’ll come arrest ‘em,” she finally said. Waverly pressed her cheek again, hard and tight, before freeing herself and opening the door.
“Nicole,” she called without turning back.
“Mm,” Nicole acknowledged.
“I think black liquorice is the best kind. Red is for dilettantes.” She clicked the door shut behind herself.
Nicole stared at the door. These were the worst moments, when there was nothing to distract. Nothing she could wrap her hands around, and physically pull away from Waverly. The moments when the panic surged back up. The panic, and the taint inside it, and the shame.
The perfect little trifecta.
She was still standing, thinking, when the crunch of a returning car drifted up the stairs. Far too soon to be Waverly returning.
Nicole went out the kitchen door, slunking around the house at a strategic speed. Letting Wynonna and Jeremy slam the porch door before cranking the cruiser over, waving goodbye to her cow on the way out.
She drove to Edmonton, parking in a visitor’s spot outside RCMP headquarters for K-Division. The CO took her packet of fliers for the World Marrow Donor Registry, introducing her around and calling Waverly her wife to every group they met.
Nicole didn’t correct him.
People took the flyers with sympathy in their eyes, but she found a pile of them crumpled and abandoned in each wastepaper basket the CO ushered her past on the way back out.
Hell, she hardly blamed them. Humans were tribal, and she was on their stomping ground. They’d been willing to listen to her sob story with kind eyes, but they weren’t about to endure any sacrifice for her, the outsider.
It was just something she better get used to.
Waverly hadn’t intend to deviate. She’d honestly meant to get her book, and go back home. Ending up at Shorty’s wasn’t so much a conscious decision, as a magnetic repulsion against returning to the homestead.
“Miss Waverly,” Doc greeted her, wiping a pint glass.
“Whiskey,” Waverly told him, but all he did was watch her slap the mask down on the bar top. “And where the heck have you been?”
“I have been occupied,” Doc told her, lifting a shot glass from the closest stack, hesitating, then pulling one from the washer. Sterilized.
Waverly threw back the shot, hissing at the burn. Doc refilled the glass, but put his hand on her rising wrist. “One to get warm. One for enjoyment.”
“Occupied doing what?” She let him push her wrist back down.
“As I told your sister, I have ponies that need care.”
Waverly snorted. Doc’s moustache bunched up in some sort of fondness, eyes steady and his hand not moving.
“What,” she prompted, a little irritably.
“Why do you desire to drink so quickly?”
She worried a lip with an eyetooth, and didn’t answer. He patted her hand. “I was dying, once,” he said, and she felt the surprise. Turned out Doc was a straight shooter in metaphor, as well as reality. “I cheated it as you know, but before I made that deal I was dying.”
“I know,” Waverly told him. Doc’s moustache shifted into a frowning compassion.
“What I recollect best is the sound of life on the other side of my bedroom wall. The swishing of ladies’ skirts, and boot heels on wooden sidewalks. Wyatt encouraged me to just ignore the noise, if it was disturbing my rest. He couldn’t understand that it was not the sound that made my mind so unquiet. It was the press of humanity moving down tracks I was no longer privy to.”
“Maybe,” Waverly told him, running her finger around the sticky lip of the shot glass. Sneaking a peek towards his face. “Mostly it’s just that Wynonna pointed Peacemaker at me and it lit up like St. Elmo’s fire.”
Doc reached out, taking her whiskey and belting it down. “Well, we shall be correcting that.”
“That’s pretty much what everyone says,” Waverly said, mourning her whiskey a little.
At the homestead, Jeremy tapped a finger against the dry pages of an ancient book.
“Coming,” he queried the empty room, “or already here?”
Nicole planted her face into the pile of paperwork covering her desk. Breathing in the scent of paper and not moving, until Ms. Linda came to add her displeasure to the weight of local gravity.
“Did you draw the short straw?” Nicole asked her, not looking up.
“No, tubby-tubby drew the short straw,” Ms. Linda sniffed. Nicole rotated an eyeball to find Nedley, looking dyspeptic and put out. Huffing his breath through the baleen of his moustache before stalking towards his own office.
“Is this my encouraging talk?” she asked, not particularly caring.
“You’re certainly pathetic enough,” was the only response.
Nicole thought maybe she deserved to be a little pathetic. “Sheriff would be better at this.”
Ms. Linda snorted. “No, he wouldn’t.”
“Yes he would,” Nicole contradicted, then realized with sudden and clear horror that she hadn’t stopped talking. “Waverly keeps going places.”
Ms. Linda let the silence linger, revelling in Nicole’s cringe. “Well,” she finally said, with admirable and obvious forbearance. “Grown people sometimes do such.”
Nicole made some sort of dry sobbing noise that sounded like a cat upchucking. Ms. Linda ran a hand over the back of her head.
“I don’t know what to do.” Nicole whispered her great confession into a pile of Summary Offence tickets.
“Nicole. You sweet idiot.” The fingers combed through her hair. Nicole melted below the touch. “You hold the line, and you hold your girl, and you pray if that’s your way. There isn’t anything else you can do.”
Nicole didn’t make the noise again, and the stroking shifted to a sharp shoulder pat. “And you stop driving all over tarnation, too. You hear me? The mileage reports are going to kick red flags from here to Ottawa. And you enter those Offence tickets into the system, or so help you.”
Nicole figured that was the best possible way to rescue them both from the conversation. She yes, ma’am’d properly, detouring just enough to drop the tickets onto Lonnie’s desk before making it out the door.
She’d follow the advice. She’d hold her girl. She wouldn’t think about all the things that would come after.
The door opened late into the night, and Waverly crept down the stairs to find Nicole sitting in one of the fireside chairs. Perched forward with her elbows on her knees and head bowed.
“Hey,” she tried.
“Hey, baby.” Nicole pulled her in, until her head was bumping against Waverly’s hip. Waverly carded her fingers through the red hair, tugging gently at the fine hairs at her nape. Wondering why she couldn’t fold Nicole up and store her inside her own ribs.
She ran her hand to the corner of Nicole’s jaw, tipping her head back and kissing her softly. Nudging her back into the chair so she could occupy her lap. Her head resting back on one shoulder, and Nicole overlapping their hands on Waverly’s stomach.
She figured there wasn’t much point in preamble.
“If I’m going to die, then I have to die. None of us can stop it. None of us have any choice. But I don’t want to die afraid.”
She could feel the iron of Nicole’s control, trying to listen, and trying to understand. “Jeremy’s researching—”
“No, not that part,” she cut Nicole off. “Well, yes that part, but it’s not specifically what I’m talking about. I’m talking about…”
She groped, trying to find the right words. “I’m talking about being part of all the everyday things. It’s like you’re all on the other side of some window. I can see all the life, but I don’t get to be part of it. It’s lonely,” she confessed quietly. “Lonelier then it strictly needs to be.”
Nicole breathed like it hurt, and Waverly pushed. “Life before death. Okay? And please, remember that we do have a little time to figure out the—-the after part. We could find a donor match. Or I could be part of that percentage that lives past the 5 year mark.”
“Wynonna will come get you.” Nicole’s voice and breath were both in Waverly’s ear. “Even if we don’t figure it out in time, you know Wynonna will fix it.”
She twisted, until she was straddling Nicole. “You, too. And Jeremy. And Doc, if he ever gets his head out of his rearside.”
“You can say ass,” Nicole reminded, smiling softly. Waverly leaned forward, pressing their smiles together with an intention she knew couldn’t be misinterpreted.
“Yeah?” Nicole asked once Waverly pulled back.
“Duh,” she told her, climbing down, taking Nicole’s hand and guiding her up the stairs. Stripping Nicole of her clothes, and her barriers, and laying all that long limbed beauty down into their bed. Pressing her nose into the soft hollow below Nicole’s jaw.
There was a bad moment, early on. Nicole’s hands sliding along her ribs to strip her own shirt off, making her shoulders tug inward. Because maybe Nicole would no longer find what was beneath something that could spark desire. Too stark, with all its lusciousness whittled away.
“Hey,” Nicole stopped, flattening her hand against the unhappy drum of Waverly’s heart. Eyes searching across her face with an unwavering awareness of Waverly’s state that was quintessentially Nicole, and also something Waverly had come to understand as very, very gay.
She pressed her own hand over Nicole’s, trapping it. “That was quintessentially you, and also very, very gay,” she told Nicole soberly. Nicole nodded, considering.
“Yes,” she decided. “I am very much me, and me is very much gay. And you,” her hand pressed harder, like she could physically push belief into Waverly, “are, and always will be, very beautiful.”
“Smooth,” Waverly teased, shoulders opening back up.
Maybe, Waverly thought later—her head on Nicole’s chest and her hand steady with intent—tonight wouldn’t be anything for the record books. Chemo was a taxing master, and Waverly could still see whatever Nicole wasn’t telling her cutting into her. Still, it could be a night for their shared personal record book. The arch of Nicole’s chin, and the whipcord tension building in her muscles, and the sucking bloom of a hickey on her collarbone were all ink that Waverly used to stamp their motto into the pages. Life before death.
“Okay, Waverly,” the anaesthesia tech said.
“Here we go.” Their voices overlapped, and Waverly got a few blinks.
“Predictable, are we?” the tech asked, and pushed some sort of forget-and-pass-out cocktail into her I.V.
Waverly had no option but to do both.
She woke up, groggy and slow, crying.
“It’s a common reaction to anaesthesia,” a voice said, while familiar hands chased the tears. Waverly groaned, tried to paw at her chest, and went back to sleep with her hand being guided back down to the mattress.
The second go ‘round she was awake enough to comprehend, and examine the tube sticking out of her chest. Her new friend, a Tri-Lumen Hickman catheter, with a subdermal Dacron cuff. Specially patented to let the tissue to grow into, and make a barrier against sepsis. Literally a part of her flesh.
“Sexy,” she croaked, throat still sore from the intubation.
“Just like Frankenstein,” Wynonna told her.
“Frankenstein was the doctor,” she said absently, edging her fingers up towards where it started to hurt. It would show above the collar of most of her shirts. “This is not going to help the people staring.”
“People stare at you?” Wynonna asked, startled, with a growing belligerence. Waverly smiled at her.
“You’re oblivious as you are adorable.”
“Baby girl, I dunno what those drugs were, but…damn. Just damn.”
A sharp rap on the door, and Dr. Smith entered. “Waverly, I heard you did well. Do you feel up to going home?”
She nodded, decisively. Being too enthusiastic made them suspicious of anti-malingering confabulation, but decisiveness got results. Dr. Smith made standard noises, reporting no significant changes in test results from the aspiration they’d done while she was unconscious, and reminding that 102 lbs was not 105 lbs.
“More milkshakes, made with real cow,” Waverly agreed, and fled while the fleeing was still good.
“Nicole?” she asked Wynonna, braced against the way the truck was launching from frost heave to frost heave like some kind of horrible version of surfing.
“She was there when you woke up the first time,” Wynonna reassured. “Might be at the homestead already.”
But she wasn’t.
Wynonna finally found Nicole through the process of opening every door she ran across in the Municipal Centre. Swinging the storage closet open in the nighttime hush to reveal Nicole sitting with a bottle dangling from her fingers and her back against the shelves holding spare mop heads. Her head tipped back to show her throat in a way that looked both tender and exhausted.
Nicole opened her eyes for a long beat, then closed them again. “I’m drunk.”
“Okay,” Wynonna crept forward, physically and metaphorically, sitting down to take up vigil in the truly shitty and improvised hermitage. “But see, you’re currently sitting in a cleaning closet, which is pretty pathetic. There are better places to get shitty drunk. Trust me on that one. Plus, the closet part is ironic, which makes you shitty and ironic. You should leave this sort of thing to me because I’m way better at it.”
Nicole snorted, the bottle swaying a little. Wynonna pulled it away, and took a long swallow. As goddamn fortification, which she richly deserved. Inside her own veins whiskey was a shield, but inside Nicole’s it was for truth and she was not cut out for this.
A tear tracked down Nicole’s cheek. “Shit,” Wynonna whispered as general protest against her treatment, and took another long swallow. The burn kept her still as Nicole’s shoulder pressed into her own, another tear making a slow suicide plunge off the edge of her cheek.
They breathed together, and Wynonna drank alone, until the thing that lived in her chest relaxed enough to say, “Alright. I’ve probably pre-gamed enough to endure whatever hot lesbian mess this is.”
“Is Waverly telling you things?” Nicole didn’t move her head away from the shelf behind it, and she didn’t open her eyes.
“Things. Liquorice, dentists, bleach.” Nicole kept on truckin’ down the long distance line towards truly sodden.
“Apple, pencil, vibrator?” Wynonna suggested helpfully.
“Because she’s been telling me things. Tiny things that don’t hardly matter, until you put them all together.”
Wynonna consider that, and tried for a summary. “You’re getting drunk in a closet because Waverly is telling you things that matter because they don’t matter?”
Nicole curled slowly forward, folding her arms on her knees and resting her forehead where they crossed. “And I think maybe I’m not right, somehow. Inside. I’m not right.”
Wynonna sighed. The boozy self-pity portion of the show was only ever fun from the wallowing side. “There, there,” she tried, patting vaguely at Nicole, who raised her head to squint suspiciously at her.
Nicole’s eyes tracked around, like maybe Wynonna didn’t quite grasp spatial relationships. “It’s a closet. It’s all right here.”
“Yeah,” Wynonna agreed, rolling her eyes. “It sure is. Wanna leave?”
“No.” Nicole’s face went stubborn. Another thing that was only fun from the giving side.
“Jesus. Fine.” She took another healthy slug. “Why aren’t you right?”
Nicole just shook her head, the visible corner of her mouth pressing tight.
“Don’t you want to go home? Waverly’s been asking for you.” Wynonna played her trump card.
“Not my home,” Nicole said softly, letting her head fall back again with a metallic thunk that had to hurt, closing her eyes. Wynonna opened her mouth to agree and suggest Nicole and Waverly do their action verb lesbian-ing at Nicole’s perfectly acceptable house. Then she closed it.
She wasn’t a total asshole.
“You mean that in, like, some sort of emotionally metaphorical way, don’t you?”
“Don’t feel so good,” Nicole muttered, putting her forehead back on her arms.
“Yeah, well.” Wynonna shuffled sideways on her sit-bones, as that one yoga video Waverly kept making her do called ‘em, until they were pressed tight. “Just tell me, okay. It’s like puking. You feel a lot better afterwards.”
“Waverly,” Nicole drug out, like a great confession. Wynonna nodded encouragingly. Nicole said absolutely nothing more. Wynonna sighed, and took another sip.
“Look,” she eventually told the radiating misery coming from the curve of Nicole’s back. “I’m not good at this part. So either tell me, or let me take you home. My sit bones are starting to hurt.”
“Please don’t make me leave,” Nicole whispered, not at all epiphanic. Because re: goddamn drunks.
“Really?” Wynonna asked. “Because I think you’ve already—”
“After,” Nicole managed an even lower whisper, and yup, there was the epiphany. Stinging just as much as karma was meant to sting.
“Nicole,” Wynonna breathed, helpless.
“We only overlap on Waverly,” Nicole quoted, lips trembling.
“That’s not— That was never what I meant.”
“People don’t like me. They don’t…they don’t keep me.”
Wynonna found a wrist and yanked, until Nicole was inside a tight hug. She rocked them as best she could, trying to weigh the existence of all the Nicoles, and Waverlys, and even Wynonnas against just banning assholes from ever being parents.
Maybe it all balanced in the final equation, but she wasn’t certain.
“I wrote them down for you,” Nicole finally said into the aftermath. She cleared her throat, twitching without quite sitting up. “All the things Waverly told me. I think she’s trying to make sure that someone knows enough to remember who she really is. How all the little things form together to make the big thing.”
“She’s telling you, Haught,” Wynonna pointed out, and maybe this really wasn’t the time, but she felt a little proud of her mature sharing.
“You should know,” Nicole said, managing pathetic and drunk and petulant all in one go. Wynonna eyeballed the bottle, but it was out of reach without moving.
“So, you’ll tell me what I need to know.”
Nicole sat up to stare, something wrinkling into her brow.
“Are you going to make me actually say it? Like, actual words that we will both have to listen to?”
Nicole continued to stare. Wynonna continued to roll her eyes, but sighed. Sometimes you just submitted to the suck. “You’ll tell me, because you will be here to tell me, because I would never make you leave, ever, because we overlap on far more than Waverly.”
“Oh.” Nicole’s eyes unfocused, trying to follow with her stupid drunk brain. “Um.”
Wynonna shoved her off and stood, offering a hand back down. Squeezing meaningfully when they were both on their feet.
“I’m going to say something important, because you are stupid, and need things spelt out in painstaking ways.”
Nicole nodded, eyes wide.
“This conversation is exactly like a suppository. In that it never actually happened. The emotional puking stopped by magic.”
Nicole nodded harder.
“Except for when I feel like torturing you,” Wynonna amended.
Chapter 8: Whosoever Believeth
They tamed Azacitidine. Waverly spent three pounds winning the battle, but the war refused to let her win them back. Nicole traced over the sharp line of her cheeks, propped on an elbow in their bed.
“I’m going to the library tomorrow,” Waverly told her, cautious. “Then maybe Shorty’s. Doc seems lonely.”
“Okay,” Nicole said. “Come to the station, and we can have lunch. Or coffee. Lonnie wouldn’t mind seeing you.”
Waverly scanned her face before relaxing, and nodding enthusiastically.
“Just thinking,” Waverly said preemptively, caught staring up the stairs. One hand on the newel post and the other against her chest in anticipation of the airless ache.
“Deep thoughts,” Nicole agreed. Trailing her fingers across Waverly’s shoulders as she passed by to settle into a fireside chair, listening to the slow upward footsteps. Waverly came down later with pillow marks pressed hard into her cheek. Nicole pulled her into her own lap, head seal-sleek and yawning against her shoulder.
“Want a ride?” Nicole asked, paused with Waverly on the path, looking towards the hospital’s side door still a hundred metres away. At least it wasn’t the front entrance, with all those extra turns and straightaways. Being a regular meant knowing all the best paths and distances. Like knowing one of those secret menus Americans loved, except remarkably shittier.
Waverly’s chin sharpened against whatever wheelchair had been abandoned nearby, but Nicole hunkered down, waggling her eyebrows over her shoulder.
Waverly huffed something only kinda amused, but clambered up for a piggyback ride. Nicole took her down the path and up the stairs, and she didn’t need to look back to know that Waverly was grinning, chin resting on her shoulder and cheeks skimmed back hard.
The oncology nurse rolled his eyes and gagged, but Waverly just tsked in reproach. “You sound exactly like Wynonna.”
“I told you before, I agree with Wynonna. Now shut up, and sit down.”
“Bossy,” Waverly pouted, taking station in the treatment chair, peeling down the collar of the chemo shirt Wynonna had found on the internet, allowing access to the catheter. “Ta-da!” Waverly grinned, and the nurse grinned back.
Waverly got her treatment, and a transfusion that blushed pink what had been so pale, dragging Nicole for ice cream afterwards. Nicole watched the curl of Waverly’s tongue around the cone, and the line of the late winter tan line that ran across her cheeks from the mask.
“I love you,” Nicole told her, chest seizing at the way Waverly cut her eyes over, evaluating something Nicole didn’t quite understand. Loosening back up at the blaze of her smile.
You could hold your girl alright, but you couldn’t hold her back from life. As much as you wanted to try, it wasn’t how to love. Waverly was going to live before she died, and there weren’t much Nicole could do about either.
But there were a few things Nicole could do. One particular thing she could set right.
“Need your truck,” Nicole told Wynonna, hand out.
Wynonna flicked her a look. Up, then down. Nicole kindly made a little give gesture. When that didn’t work, she smiled pretty.
“I’m willing to talk in detail about how I love yo—”
Wynonna shoved the keys into her hand, high pitched distress whining from her throat.
Nicole took the truck west of town, pulling up outside a greying house and a newly sided barn. The engine noise brought a man out to lean in the wicket door, no shirt under his overalls and wiping his hands on a rag.
“That is some hella stereotype,” Nicole told him. “Toothless hick in overalls.”
“Deputy,” he said glumly.
“I’m on statutory release,” Jimmy pouted. Nicole shoved her hands into her back pockets, regarding him.
“Lonnie told me you’d be up here. He told me you’d be happy to detail my truck.”
“Did he?” Jimmy stuffed the rag into a pocket, and looked sour. “Don’t suppose he mentioned pay.”
“In exchange for a good word with your parole officer,” Nicole told him. “And of course, personal satisfaction.”
“Shit,” Jimmy swore philosophically, slamming the wicket door with a heel and heaving the giant rolling door up. “Guess you'd better come in. Can’t wait to get to feelin’ that satisfaction.”
Nicole drifted around the brightly lit and painfully organized barn until it got boring. Settling on a bench top to watch Jimmy probe the truck’s recesses with a steaming wand. Sharing a thermos of coffee, and cupping the delicately curled mouse skeleton he found under the air filter.
“Cool, eh?” he said, running a finger down the tiny vertebrae. “Always thought the way things were put together was interesting. Coulda mebbe been a medical type, ‘cept for the meth.” He shrugged self-consciously, smiling without opening his mouth. “Plus I ain’t that smart.”
“Lots of different ways to be smart,” Nicole pointed out.
“Not many people need emergency truck detailing,” he added some drift of time later. The huge barn smelled of Lysol and orange citrus.
“Gotta see about a girl,” Nicole told him.
“Waverly,” Jimmy said, something soft on his face that didn’t match the force with which he was ramming an oversized toilet brush thingy down an air duct. The town sweetheart working her magic, sash and all. “She gonna be alright?”
“For a while,” Nicole said. “Then…probably not.”
“Shitty,” Jimmy concluded, another gap of time later.
“Yup,” Nicole agreed.
She helped Jimmy clay bar then buff the paint, because it was getting late and because the flex of the random orbital sander gliding over the cutting compound felt good against her muscles.
“Comes time to get your teeth fixed, you let me know. I’ll write a letter of recommendation,” she told Jimmy.
“Because of one truck?” Jimmy asked, surprised.
Nicole waved two fingers out the driver’s window. “See you around, citizen.”
The hunting cabin tucked into the hollow was primitive, and barren. Plank bunks, open cupboards, and one dark skinned man crouching in the corner. Amber eyed, chest growling with a resonance that should not have been possible.
The impossibility didn’t seem to phase the cabin’s other occupant. Newly come in from the outside. Scruffy and dusty and seamed, smoking a contemplative cigarette. A wayfarer, well broken to the road.
“Stop that,” the wayfarer finally said.
The crouching man uncoiled, head low and scenting as he stalked two steps forward. Sidling like a predator and still growling.
“I said stop.” An edge crept into the words, and the stalker, much to his own obvious surprise, hunkered back down.
“Better,” the wayfarer finally said. “Cigarette?” He shook the pack. The dark man watched him. Still, except for the hatred glowing inside his eyes.
“Don’t say I didn’t ask.” The man sucked briefly on his smoke, then stubbed it out. The two men studied each other. One panting, one with something almost like a small apology. He shrugged, and flicked his hand out, palm fully on the dark man’s chest.
The glowing eyes blazed as he screamed. Head cast back and tendons strained toward snapping, seams of light and heat opening on his forehead. The wayfarer grunted, keeping his hand in place until the dark man’s forehead sealed, and the slit pupils faded into black.
“Sorry,” the wayfarer apologized briefly, and insincerely. Not very Canadian, truth be told. “Makes you feel any better, that was quite a thing for me, too.”
“Still,” the dark man panted in a new way, hand pressed to his chest. “Feels like the ‘fuck you’ should move in your direction.”
“You want to see her again?” The wayfarer offered a non-sequitur, instead of discussing the philosophical motion of fucks.
His head snapped up, hope and fear in his newly human eyes.
“Got a truck,” was all Juan Carlo said back.
The rest of the day was just logistics, and Nicole was good at logistics.
She washed the sheets and blankets in the hottest water the ancient washing machine would begrudge, but kept her hands off the bleach.
It was a certified bitch to heave the old twin mattress down from the barn rafters, as was wrestling it into the slippery new mattress cover, but there was an intense satisfaction in watching it whump down neatly into the bed of the truck.
Cajoling Waverly into her room was by far the best part. Using a little gingerbread trail of kisses and intrigue that Nicole knew Waverly was constitutionally unable to resist.
“But why?” Waverly asked for at least the fifth time, letting Nicole do all the work of pulling off her indoor clothes so she could fully concentrate on pouting.
“I’m taking you out,” Nicole said, handing Waverly her fleece lined pants, and heavy thermal undershirt. Waverly eyed them.
“Only one way to find out, babycakes.” Nicole shook the clothes in her hand, grinning with assured victory.
Waverly huffed, and held her hands up for the thick shirt to be pulled over her head. Nicole obliged, added a couple additional layers, and drove them out to the desert.
Waverly watched Nicole’s profile as she concentrated on driving, feeling some varietal of anticipation curling into her stomach.
Excitement, but the kind that came edged with something sharply twisting. A feedback loop for certain, because Nicole’s glanced smiles held a thread of worry inside themselves.
Nicole had a mission, and it scared her, and Waverly had no idea what it might be.
“What do you see when you look at the stars?” Nicole asked, then immediately felt stupid. But Waverly just hummed in deliberation, giving it the thought she gave to everything.
“I see an immense invitation.”
“Tell me what that means,” Nicole said, propped on an elbow to hover above Waverly. Both of them stretched out on the mattress she’d hauled into the truck bed, bundled into a great deal of outerwear and heaped with blankets. Nicole traced the arch of Waverly’s eyebrow, exactly like a fool in love. Waverly rolled her eyes a little.
“You’re a sap, Deputy.”
“I’m your sap,” Nicole agreed, accepting her own sappy lack of shame.
“Urhg.” Waverly mashed a hand against her face, pushing until Nicole overbalanced onto her back and they lay side by side. “That’s disgusting. You’re disgusting.”
“Disgusting, but honest,” Nicole pointed out. Sitting up to lean against a wheel well, pulling Waverly over to lean against her chest.
“An immense invitation,” she reminded.
“To look up, and see, and discover,” Waverly said softly.
“Discover what?” Nicole whispered, feeling tiny under the vault of stars and the glory of being someone Waverly regarded as worthwhile.
“The universe. Physics. Time. Energy. Space. World without end.”
“What does that mean?” Nicole asked again, her breath gusting against the back of Waverly’s ear.
Waverly twisted around, until she was sitting back on her heels and studying Nicole.
“It means we’re going to live in infamy. You and me, Wynonna, Doc, Dolls. All of us. Our atoms are going to go on forever, until the heat death of the universe. Isn’t that cool?”
It was cool, and it filled Nicole with a flush of awe. Awe, and somehow hope. Maybe the okay she’d quoted to Wynonna was nothing beyond the knowledge that their atoms would spend eternity tracing through vast pirouettes, but maybe the universe contained a variable that meant she’d dance with Waverly on their golden anniversary.
“Baby.” Waverly’s voice crept into her self imposed darkness. “Did you bring me all the way out here to serial murder me?”
“What!?” Nicole spluttered, eyelids snapping open to find Waverly’s eyes sparkling right in front of her own.
“And-stroke-or propose? Because those were the two best I could come up with.”
“No,” Nicole huffed, sitting up straighter with affront. “I did not bring you out here to murder you, or propose. I—”
She faltered. It was one thing to prepare for the moment, and another thing to actually speak the words.
“You,” Waverly prompted, but Nicole just shook her miserable, stupid head.
“Oh no, bubba.” Waverly used a single finger to press Nicole’s nose flat. “You threatened Jimmy into sanitizing Wynonna’s truck to within an inch of its remaining paint, and hauled this mattress into the truck bed, and drove us halfway to nowhere. You can’t give me that kind of grand gesture, then blue ball me on the reason.”
“Neither of us have balls,” Nicole mumbled. Pretty pathetic as defences went, and also pointless. Nicole would never be able to defend against that fond and cajoling lilt. The way Waverly seemed to want nothing more than to know Nicole, past any prosaic biblical sense, and right on through to the subatomic.
“I was afraid. That’s why I tried to keep you at home, tried to make you do things the way I wanted. I was afraid.” Confessing was just as awful as she’d suspected it would be. Except that Waverly made her want to try.
“Oh sweetheart,” Waverly went soft and cooing. “It’s okay to be afraid.”
“No,” she negated the absolution. “I was afraid for me, not for you, and I let my own fear make yours worse. I just wanted—”
She clenched her hands against the tangle of words. All the whys and wherefores that would be for herself, and not for Waverly.
“Never mind. There’s no excuse.” She drug to a miserable halt.
For a nearly intolerable amount of time Waverly just looked at her, head cocked to the side and considering. Then Nicole felt a hand slide behind the corner of her jaw and urge her forward, into a kiss full of tenderness she might not deserve, but could never refuse. Feeling all of Waverly’s softness, and all of her sternness. Until a hand on her sternum pushed them a critical two centimetres apart.
“Nic,” Waverly murmured into the tiny gap between their lips, before sitting back on her heels again. “I don’t know who taught you that it’s wrong to have mercy for yourself, but someday I’ll find them, and there will be wrath.”
“You’re five-four darlin’, and you weigh about as much as a sneeze.” Nicole smiled in spite of, because of, the roil of feelings filling her chest.
“My shotgun’s twenty-six inches, and weighs seven pounds, but people seem to respect it.” Waverly conquered logic like few others. Nicole let it slip between her ribs, and spread oil on the waves.
“Why were you so afraid, Nicole?” Waverly’s voice felt like part of the desert. Part of the dark, and the stars, and the smell of salt. Full of some sorta inevitability. Like Nicole had always been destined for this moment, and this girl, and this confession.
“I’ve never really had a family. My parents were…they tried, I think, for a while. Then they stopped, but I was old enough to have school friends, and teammates, and that was fine. Then I had work friends and a few girlfriends, and that was fine, too. I always had someone to drive me home from the dentist, or whatever.”
Waverly frowned sharply, and didn’t that just prove the whole point? Mattering to someone was like something that escaped from Pandora’s box. Once you had it, you could never go back to thinking rides home from medical appointments was an actual datum.
“Then Purgatory, and Nedley telling me I’m a leader, and Lonnie inviting me to play his stupid video games, and you…just you. From that very first day, everything about you. And Wynonna.” She paused, ever honest, and added, “Well, sometimes Wynonna. When she’s not being crazy or an asshole. So, like ten percent Wynonna.”
“Very eloquent,” Waverly teased, grinning at Nicole like she was equal parts ridiculous and adorable. Suddenly, and without any transition, Nicole was crying. The full catastrophe. Heaving, and gasping, and sobbing.
“Nicole.” Waverly pulled her forward, pressing her forehead into the bowl of Nicole’s shoulder and smoothing a hand through the hair sticking from below her toque. “Shshh, baby. It’s okay. You’re okay. Everything’s okay, yeah?”
It was distinctly not okay. She wasn’t even drunk this time. If this trend kept up, she’d be crying on Ms. Linda soon, and then she would have to commit some sort of seppuku.
“I’m sorry,” she finally croaked, because it was what one did after dribbling snot down the back of someone else’s shirt.
“Hey.” Waverly hiked her be-snotted shoulder, trying to get Nicole’s head up. She spared a thought for never having a seppuku knife thingy right when she needed one, then gave in.
Except Waverly didn’t want her eyes. She was busy taking her mittens off, followed by her coat, her sweater, and most of her undershirt. Dragging it up until the faded scar Nicole had found weeks ago was exposed to the biting air. High on her ribs, one side of a tight oval.
Nicole looked at it, then met Waverly’s eyes.
“That was a lamp cord.” Waverly finally said.
“I know,” Nicole said, because she did. They’d never specifically talked about it, but five years in the city had taught Nicole all the marks humans could leave on each other.
“He liked his belt, too. My daddy. Ward. Whatever. He knew exactly how hard to swing that, but I accidentally woke him up when he’d fallen asleep on the couch, and the lamp cord was right there. I don’t think he knew it was going to cut in like it did.”
She rolled a shoulder, like maybe she didn’t really know, and never would.
“Shitty parents are shitty,” she finally said.
“Yeah,” Nicole agreed, too low. Clearing her throat, and trying again. “Yes.”
“And those other people who let you go, maybe they were shitty, or maybe they were just a way to mark time until it was time to meet us. Me, and Wynonna, and Nedley, and Lonnie, and probably Jeremy, though I admit he is very weird even for Purgatory standards.”
Nicole swallowed, and swallowed again. Nearly hypnotized by the conviction in Waverly’s eyes. Like Waverly knew her, and maybe kept bits of Nicole inside the cage of her own ribs.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” Waverly asked, still holding her shirt bunched upwards. “Why you don’t need to be afraid like that any more?”
For a second, Nicole stared at Waverly and Waverly stared right back, wide eyed. Then Waverly grinned like the sun, yanking her undershirt back down and flinging herself forward to shiver into Nicole’s chest.
“Good, because it’s frickin’ cold. Don’t make me do that in the middle of winter ever again. Okay?”
“Okay,” Nicole agreed, pulling every last blanket around them. Arranging them back onto the mattress with Waverly mostly on top of her, and pressing down with surprising force.
Nicole watched the stars wheel, startling when Waverly’s voice floated up long after Nicole figured her asleep.
“You can talk to me, you know.” She sounded small. “Next time you’re afraid, you can talk to me. I know I’m…not good at that part, but I’m trying to get better. I promise.”
“I promise, too,” Nicole whispered back. To Waverly, and to the sky above them, and to the land under her borrowed truck. Feeling how it stretched out. Back to the homestead, and over to the city, and clear across to the mountains. She had come to claim it, but the land had claimed her instead.
“Alright!” Wynonna screamed at the front door. “But swear to God, you better be on fucking fire.”
“Regretfully, there is no conflagration,” Doc told her when she’d yanked the door open, tipping his hat and stepping aside. “But my pony finally came home.”
Wynonna stared at Dolls.
“Earp,” he said.
She laughed something fully unamused, and punched him square in the nose.
“Babe.” Nicole nudged Waverly, who whined piteously. “Come on, time to go back. It’s too cold to sleep out here all night.”
Waverly let herself be unwrapped from the blankets and shuffled to the cab. Curled up in the passenger seat and watching as Nicole hauled herself into the driver’s side. Nicole winked back, but she missed Waverly’s answering smile, because in the dome light some shadow moved below Waverly’s skin. Flowing across her cheek to disappear, impossible but real, under her nose.
“Waverly, what was that?”
“Hmm?” Waverly asked, but was suddenly all motion. Hands clapping to her face to catch the torrent of blood from both nostrils.
“Shit!” she yelped. “Get something!”
Nicole wadded the sleeve of her shirt under the flow. Waverly cried, “Your thirt!” with a thick nasal that Nicole shouldn’t have found adorable, but did anyway.
“My shirt,” she agreed, pinching the bridge of Waverly’s nose, using it to pull her head down and forward. “Don’t swallow it.”
“Did you feel anything weird?” she asked, once the nosebleed was just a wide bloodstain on both their shirts.
“Just the bleeding starting. It hasn’t been that bad since I became a vampire, sucking down all those platelets.”
Nicole laughed, and drove them home. The shadow had just been a weird product of the dome light flickering.
“So.” Wynonna was curled into a boneless comma in a chair. After the punching had been general shuffling of feet, fingering of hats, and looking at the floor. Until Wynonna had pointed towards the sitting room with all the emphasis she could muster.
Now the two men sat together on the couch, hands on knees, backs straight, eyes rigidly forward. Exactly like school boys called into the principal’s office.
“Care to explain?” She pointed at Dolls.
“Killed some mercenaries Lucado sent after me. Hid in a cabin. Guy found me, took me back to Shorty’s.” Dolls keep his eyes rigidly forward, like he was briefing a room.
“How laconic,” Wynonna told him, but he didn’t react. She rounded on Doc. “And you? Would you like to summarize what the fuck you’ve been doing in some pithy and wholly infuriating manner?”
His moustache frowned down. “Darlin’, I—”
“Shut up,” Wynonna cut him off, fury pulsing. “Where have you been?”
“I was—” was all he got.
“I said shut up,” she said, strangled into breathing too fast. Something inside her chest speeding the world up and clenching into her hands. “What were you doing all this time, that I couldn’t be part of?”
Doc just glared at her, suspicious of another shut up. Dolls’ eyes shifted between them.
“Earp,” he tried, but she stood up so fast the chair scraped backwards. The sound of wood on wood too loud in the quiet room. She trembled. Then she was kneeling in front of the couch. Her forehead bowed down to the fabric between their inside legs, her arms flung out to rest across their knees.
A hand circled her wrist, and another skated across one of her shoulder blades, and Wynonna allowed herself a moment, just a few beats of their hearts, to sink into the touches.
“You are both such massive assholes,” she seethed, pressing her temple into the fabric over Dolls’ thigh. He smelled of winter prairie and ammonia, running as hot as Waverly had when the fever had been cooking her brain. The weight of Doc’s hand splayed across her back felt like a grounding wire.
Any three points in Euclidean space always made a triangle, unless the points were collinear. The middle point didn’t have to be a fulcrum prying things apart. It could be the balance.
Wynonna smirked a little. Turned out geometry did transmit sexually, after all.
“We have to save the world,” she told her menfolk, retreating back into her chair.
“Must be a Tuesday,” Dolls deadpanned, but Wynonna was busy shooting up all over again. Waverly, framed in the door and covered in browning blood. Nicole’s hand on her shoulder swathed in badly wiped swirls.
“It’s okay. I got a nose bleed,” Waverly reassured, waving her back down.
“Going around,” Dolls muttered, a fingertip ghosting under his vaguely swollen nostril.
Waverly froze, visibly rebooted, and squealed exactly like a nymph, or a harpy, or whatever was supposed to rupture your eardrums with their horrific adorableness. Barreling forward with a chant of “Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!” Leaving Nicole’s hand hanging in the air like a student-level stop motion movie.
“What?” Nicole breathed, but Wynonna was too busy watching Dolls. Seeing the shock that travelled across his face. The hug Waverly was inflicting on him folding around changes the rest of them had adjusted to like boiled frogs. The hollowness at Waverly’s temples, and the slackness inside all her many layers.
Waverly jerked back out of the hug like she’d been shocked. Emoting wide eyes at Dolls, who emoted right back. Shifting to actual pain when Waverly socked him in the arm. Thumb tucked, and from the shoulder, just like Wynonna had taught her.
“Asshole!” Waverly told him with a black-eyed malice. Wynonna shared a glance with Nicole, who shrugged just a tiny shrug. Wynonna couldn’t dispute it, and shrugged back. Better Dolls than them.
“Perhaps I should leave you gentlefolk to your evening.” Doc broke the tableau, making little twitches like he was trying to edge towards the door. Wynonna attempted, casual like, to wave mission abort, but Waverly spun.
“One step, John Henry Holliday,” she threatened, finger out. “We are finally all here, and you are leaving over my dead body.”
Doc opened his mouth, unwise placation all over his face. Wynonna waved a little harder, but too late. Waverly crossed her arms, and wrested the forces of the universe into her control. Levelling it unfiltered straight into Doc’s unprotected soul.
“I am certain we will have a fine evening’s entertainment right here.” He simpered a little. Dolls made a stifled sort of noise against a lifted fist. Doc shot him his own death look, but he didn’t have Waverly’s…whatever. Dolls cleared his throat, and dropped his hand.
“We’re going to have a tea party,” Waverly announced cheerfully into the little silence. Everyone shared a general wincing, corrected with the quickness when Waverly’s eyes narrowed down.
“Golly gee willikers. A real tea party,” Wynonna moaned, her feet following the parade towards the table. Indulging in little eye rolls like passing classroom notes, until Waverly put her hands onto her hips.
“Shut it. Or I’ll take the whiskey away.”
“Okay, okay. I didn’t say anything.” Wynonna put up placating hands. Anything to save the whiskey.
They had more of a booze party, with Waverly drinking the tea. She and Nicole both coming back downstairs with significantly less blood on their new clothing. Her chair drifting ever closer to Nicole’s, until she was resting on Nicole’s shoulder, tucked under an arm. Eyes blinking slowly up and down over the rim of her cup as she watched them talk.
Wynonna followed her gaze around the circle of the table. She wasn’t necessarily one for metaphors, but she accepted what the universe was telling her. Let the circle be unbroken. Or, do your damndest to keep it as unbroken as fate and entropy allowed.
“Hell of a thing,” Doc told her, leaning against the kitchen counter, where she’d piled sticky cups. Waverly had pulled her stupid cop girlfriend upstairs, and Wynonna had every intention of using the besotted puppy look Nicole wore while being lead around by the hand against her as soon as possible. Dolls was back in one of the armchairs. Chin on his chest, slumped down with crossed arms and his eyes closed.
Doc smiled at her, and the old push-pull of having both of them flooded slowly into her chest.
“Thank you,” she told Doc, hoping the simple words could carry as subtext all the complicated things she wasn’t good at fitting into language. He smiled, just like he understood. Leaning in to kiss her cheek.
“For you, little darlin’.”
She cupped his cheek, guiding him until they were kissing properly. His ridiculous moustache tickling against her cheeks.
“Thank you.” She said it again, so he could understand.
He nodded, gentled his hat down onto his head, and looked at her with his hand on the doorknob. “I will see you later, Wynonna Earp.”
He went out the door.
“How are you okay?” Wynonna asked. Curled onto Dolls’ shoulder, and pressing as much of her length into his skin as she could. Sinking into something she thought she’d never have again.
“Some guy. He found me. Touched me.” Dolls touched his fingertips to his bare chest. “It’s still in there. I can feel it. But it’s better.”
“That doesn’t exactly answer how,” Wynonna pointed out. Dolls shrugged.
“This guy, does he go by the name Juan Carlo?” Wynonna asked, and wasn’t surprised when Dolls nodded.
“Yes. He drove me to Shorty’s. He said my job wasn’t done.”
“How charmingly cryptic.”
Dolls twisted, until they were facing. “He told me something else, too. Said it was a message for you.”
“Of course he did.” Wynonna grimaced. “Well?” She lifted an eyebrow when Dolls only started at her instead of opening his mouthflap parts.
“He told me ‘Tell Wynonna, choo-choo.’”
“The original cryptic asshole,” she grumbled, but relented at his look. Reading him into the extremely summarized version of the past two months.
“Peacemaker lit up?” Dolls asked slowly, like he was mulling something over.
“Like one of those terrifying deep sea creatures. Yup. And Ron Juan Jackhole said I have to choose between saving Waverly from Hell, and saving the world from some undefined Big Bad. Apparently the universe only allows one door prize per person. So.”
“Waverly Earp is not going to Hell,” Dolls said, factually.
“Duh.” Wynonna rolled her eyes a little, because, c’mon. Dolls widened his eyes almost two full millimetres.
“Dolls, are you- are you making a facial expression?” She poked a cheek, checking for any possibility of android skin. He caught her hand, pressing a kiss into the palm, and smiled. That startling joy he kept tucked so tightly away. The one that felt like a privilege just to see, let alone have pointed right at her.
“Always knew you’d come into your own, Earp.”
Everything had, very nearly universally, turned into complete and utter shit. She waded in shit. But, the point she’d finally realized was that it was her shit. She was the goddamn Earp heir, come into her own.
“Yeah.” She smiled. “I have.” Then she flicked his nose, satisfied at the tears that pricked into the corners of his eyes. “No thanks to you.”
“Fair. I deserved that. But!” He raised a cautionary hand against the wind-up of her finger. “Maybe only once.”
“Or what?” she pushed, and his face shifted to match hers. That challenge she loved to test, and loved to best, but mostly just loved.
“I think you know,” he said, something deepening the edges of his words.
Also, something glowing right at the edges of his eyes. Something that wasn’t man, but did not scare her. She pulled him to her, until their faces were centimetres apart.
“Consent is sexy,” she told him, pushing up to give herself a little leverage, her fingers tight at the base of his throat. “Does everyone here want to be sexy?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Everyone? Because it’s going to be embarrassing if the salamander gets wigged out, and the lesbians have to see you all hog tied. So, you’ve definitely got all that under control?” she asked, fingers holding. The golden light at the edge of his eyes moved in towards the center.
“Hiiii,” Waverly put a few extra notes into her morning greeting. “I guess you spent the night?”
It utterly failed to shift even a single eyelash on Dolls’ perfect face, but Waverly knew.
“Little Earp,” he said lazily, flexing some discipline muscle to keep his eyes from roaming over all the changes that had occurred since he’d fled. Waverly knew that, too. She’d felt it in the way he’d jerked, and pushed her back last night.
“Wynonna told you. About me. And Peacemaker.”
“Yes. We’re going to fix it.”
“That’s what everyone says.” She smiled to show she believed. “Can I have some of that coffee?”
Their hands touched in the mug handoff, and suddenly Dolls’ face was moving. Drawing down into a sharp intensity that sank straight into her hindbrain. The cant of his head and the coiled poise of his body saying she was meat, and meat was prey.
“Dolls?” she asked quietly. Adrenaline locking into her muscles and hammering her heart. Fizzing away oxygen she didn’t have to spare. For one long moment he wasn’t there. Then he was back. Blinking, and rubbing at his eyes.
“Dolls?” she asked again, shaky. He frowned.
“Sorry, I thought I saw—”
His eyes flicked across her face in a way she hadn’t seen in nearly a year. A soldier, assessing. He stopped, and smiled again. “Take your coffee, eh?”
“Aw, you said ‘eh,’” Waverly enthused, and Dolls looked pained at being subjected to affection.
Sometimes, living in Purgatory meant taking it on faith that your friends and lovers would try their hardest not to eat you. Just like trust falls.
The seed of the old god lazed. Engorged as a tick, and lolling in the secret tides of the little holy vessel. A sweet elixir of homemade wine, and primordial humidity, and scratching below the fur against a tree. All the memories of all the hosts through all the eons.
Into that lassitude, the lashing fire of the pain was incomprehensible.
The seed writhed, new memories flowing in a prompt critical cascade. The little human city in the desert, called by a transitory human name, filled with an inconsequential human war. And inside all that human frailty, the dragon. For the first time.
And the dragon a second time, inside an obsidian mirror.
And now the dragon a third time.
The seed coiled and twisted inside its own anger. At the fading pain, and at the lost intoxication of time. The seed had been a god, and the seed was the essence of a god, and the seed would be a god again.
It reached out.
Chapter 9: Don't Fear The Reaper
Something kicked into Nicole’s leg, and she was awake without transition. Sublimated straight from dreamless sleep into the frantic horror of Waverly’s distress. Curled in a ball, fist clenched against her chest.
“Something’s wrong,” Waverly panted, panic on her face, and Nicole clicked into that smooth place she’d first found just after the provincial academy. Observe, assess, control the scene.
“Okay,” she soothed, pulling Waverly up to stuff the extra pillows behind her back. “It’s okay, baby. I’m going to help. Just try to breathe deeply.”
She jacked herself into some pants and a shirt, clattering downstairs and snapping lights on. Blinking in surprise when she pulled back the curtain to Wynonna’s bedroom. Well, the more the merrier. She tossed her cell phone between Wynonna and Dolls. “Waverly’s having trouble breathing. Call the dispatch center, and tell them we need an ambo. Use my name. I’ll be upstairs.”
She slid in behind Waverly, to prop her up better.
“Can’t,” Waverly panted, fingers clawing into the fabric of Nicole’s pants. Rigid and eyes wide, the muscles between each rib pulling hard. “Please.”
Wynonna and Dolls crept into the room. Wynonna with steady tears she simply let fall because her hands were clamped into fists, like she was afraid to touch. Dolls, with his hand on her shoulder, every line a subtle compassion that had taken Nicole months to finally see.
She watched them, and tried to hold Waverly in a way that made it better instead of worse, and thought about living before dying.
How she’d thought about taking Waverly up into the summer mountains, maybe see if she liked rock climbing. Just easy stuff, to enjoy. So they could watch the sunlight shift across the rock face, the same way she watched thoughts shift across Waverly’s face when she was solving some world problem.
How Waverly smelled in the morning, like she’d somehow concentrated herself overnight, and the curve of her fingers around an early dawn coffee mug.
How Nicole hammered through those legal papers with her name and Shae’s name in fresh, week-old ink. How it had felt like a new chapter. And how some chapters are shorter than anyone expected.
The EMS workers that Dolls guided upstairs greeted her by name, familiar from dozens of casual meetings over their interlaced vocations. The jump bags on their backs bulging, and unfiltered pity in their eyes. But Nicole felt a vast disinterest in their pity, and a keen interest in the oxygen kit they carried. Watching them fit the mask over Waverly’s face, and feeling the tight panic in her spine relax.
They muttered to each other about cyanosis, and intercostal retraction, and hospital transportation. “No,” Nicole said, when they reached for Waverly. Sliding off the bed and carrying her down the stairs herself. Putting her down on the narrow transport stretcher they’d left on the porch. She could see Waverly’s hatred of it, and she could see the moment she surrendered.
“Just a quick ride,” Nicole promised, kissing her cheek outside the plastic rim of the mask. Nodding at the crew to start snapping the stretcher restraints closed.
“No, wait,” Waverly balked, a different panic flicking across her face, eyes roving across the homestead. Locking onto the paddock. “Daisy.”
They all looked at the cow. The cow looked back.
“What about Daisy, baby girl?” Wynonna asked, and Waverly craned around to look at her.
“I want to say goodbye,” Waverly said.
“Hypoxic,” one of the ambulance crew muttered. Nicole shot him a look that clicked his teeth shut. Or maybe it was Dolls’ glower. Either way.
“Waverly,” Wynonna pleaded, agony like Nicole ain’t never seen on her face. Worse than the day Waverly had first brought home her diagnosis.
“Wynonna,” Waverly said back, and inside the single proper noun was something Nicole was only partially privy too. A language where Wynonna begged, and Waverly stood her ground with a force of personality that still kind of astonished Nicole. Until Wynonna’s face twisted in deeply unhappy resignation, and she stepped back.
“I will assist.” Doc stepped forward from the porch shadow he’d been standing inside. Stooping down until Waverly could grab his shoulders and scooch into his back, giving Nicole a wink over his shoulder, just a little cheeky.
Nicole closed her eyes, and deliberately crystallized the memory. To bring out later, whenever she needed a little extra that day.
Doc walked carefully down to the paddock, Nicole trailing with the little oxygen bottle. Stopping to lean his chest against the top rail, so Waverly could reach over and press her palm against Daisy’s poll. Sliding down between her nostrils as Daisy nosed into her touch. Resting there for long seconds as she and Daisy breathed together.
Then she dropped her hand. “Okay.”
“Deputy?” one of the ambo guys asked, jerking his head towards the little jump seat, but Nicole shook her head, and pushed Wynonna towards the unit.
“You go. I’ll chase. Lights and sirens in the cruiser. Faster than the truck or the jeep.”
“Nicole,” Wynonna said, and damned if they didn’t have their own little language. Not quite what the sisters had shared, but Nicole understood. She smiled, and squeezed Wynonna’s hand.
“It’s okay, Wynonna. I promise,” she told the other woman.
The emergency room was a long and horrific blur, with strange snapshots.
They way they filled the little cubical to capacity. Nicole in the chair. Dolls leaning on the counter that held the hand washing station. Wynonna with a hip against the side of the hospital bed.
Doc walking in on cautious feet, hat in hand and wariness in his eyes, until Dolls shifted his ass over, giving him room to lean on the counter. The peep of Jeremy’s eyes around the privacy curtain.
The continuous distress of the pulse oximeter clipped to the dusky blue tip of Waverly’s finger, until a nurse silenced it with a button.
The line of Waverly’s chin as she leaned her head back, eyes closed as she surrendered to the first push of morphine. Incapable or just uninterested as hands pulled her shirt open to pull vial after vial of blood from the catheter in her chest.
The lax grip inside Nicole’s own when the blood brought words back—hyperleukocytosis, and symptomatic leukostasis, and if that already meant disseminated intravascular coagulation or tumour lysis.
“Nicole,” Dr Smith greeted her. Leaning in the doorway to the room Waverly had finally been admitted into, eyes circled dark and casual pants on under her white coat.
Nicole shot up, but the woman waved her back down. Pulling up her own chair.
“Waverly’s asleep,” Nicole told her, then winced a little, because the room wasn’t big and the woman had eyes. But all the doctor did was nod kindly.
“I wanted to ask you: do you understand what’s happening?”
Nicole snorted, and Dr. Smith just smiled a little.
“Okay. In English. Waverly’s white blood cell count shot up, nearly overnight based on her bloodwork from her last round of chemo. The sheer number and size of the blasts, immature white blood cells, is making Waverly’s blood so viscous it’s plugging up the smallest blood vessels. The blockages are preventing enough oxygen from reaching her tissues, which is why her fingertips turned blue. That same sludging is happening in her lungs, which is what hurt and made her feel out of breath.”
“What do we do?”
“Restart intensive chemotherapy, to reduce the number of leukemic stem cells that are pumping out the white blood cells. We also need to start a couple prophylactic drugs that will help prevent complications from when the leukemic cells break down.”
“What,” Nicole asked slowly, drawing out the moment she’d have to know. “What does this mean? Longer term?”
Dr. Smith pressed her lips into a flat line, and for one long second Nicole thought she’d triggered some sort of anger. Then, far worse, she realized it was compassion.
“The rest of it, I need to tell Waverly first.”
Nicole nodded, just like a dumb, stupid beast, but Waverly’s voice drifted over to them.
“I’m not asleep. And I know there are significant prognostic implications carried with symptomatic leukostasis. Especially while already on palliative chemo.”
Waverly looked over, something guarded in her face. Like maybe she needed to tell Nicole something that would probably qualify as double-plus-ungood. Probably it had something to do with significant prognostic implications.
“I know, baby,” Nicole told her gently. “I get it. Maybe not the exact medical terms, but I understand.”
Waverly smiled just like she always did when she caught Nicole paying attention. “Pretty and smart,” she said, like she had some history with the words. Nicole couldn’t parse it, but she smiled anyway. Because she was going to smile at Waverly as much as she was let, until she wasn’t let no more.
“So?” Waverly said to Dr. Smith.
“If you consent, we'll restart intensive chemotherapy today. Then, I believe it's time to start looking for backup forms of stem cell transplantation, haploid or autologous.”
There was a long, nervy moment between the two women that Nicole didn’t understand. Waverly almost without affect, and the doctor tense, like she was waiting for all the demands of Waverly’s brain. But all Waverly did was look at the point where the ceiling met the wall for a long, long moment, then close her eyes again.
“Sorry,” she apologized, “I’m tired.”
Somewhere on a distant shore a metaphorical Nicole stood ankle deep, feeling the stand of the tide turn toward it’s inevitable ebb. The real Nicole just felt the hair on her arms raise up.
It was harder the second time. The second time wasn’t just the side effects. It was being able to anticipate, and therefore dread.
Waverly kept her eyes closed. Letting the drugs infuse into her, feeling the changing air pressure as her people moving in shifts through the room. The close comfort of Nicole, and the same with Wynonna. The more distant feeling of Dolls and Doc. Jeremy circling the edges, moving inward like a coin in a funnel drop.
Hospital time stretched out, every moment edging her towards secondary forms of stem cell transplantation. Fifty percent odds of the graft resulting in functional bone marrow. Then, fifty percent odds of living two years. Guaranteed odds of enduring higher grafting side effects. And always the added wrinkle, all the statistics were based on having a known chromosomal shift in the leukemic cells.
Waverly wanted to stay. But she wanted to stay for her people, not endure that. If she was bound for hell, why invite it onto earth first?
“Little Earp.” Dolls voice, and his knock at the door brought her back from the outer rings of the universe.
“It’s not your shift,” Waverly told him, suspicious.
“We’re not—” He cut himself off at her flatly incredulous look, shrugging. “Okay, yeah, we are definitely taking shifts.”
“And you traded with someone?” Waverly pressed. Dolls sat in the visitors chair, taking off his ball cap, elbows on his knees. Very serious. Waverly serious-ed back at him.
“What?” she prompted, once it was clear he was going to out-stoic her.
“I’m trying to see where your fight went.” Dolls said.
“It’s right here,” she snapped, fury rising between her teeth like fire.
Dolls made a skeptical face, his frown lines almost visible.
“It’s just,” Waverly relented, slowly, fingers pressed to the center of her chest. “Since that night, it’s almost like I can suddenly feel it inside me. Like the cancer is this separate thing, with a thousand fingers prying. Pulling at me, and turning it into itself.”
She dropped her hand. “That probably doesn’t make any sense.”
Dolls twitched the edges of his lips downward in something that definitely wasn’t undiluted confirmation, but wasn’t denial, either.
“The thing in me is isn’t separate. It’s just me. A part of me. But even then, I can feel it…” He trailed off, fingers fanning open in a shrug.
“Striving,” Waverly filled in, and Dolls smiled, bright and rare. Full of an intimacy that Waverly had never expected to earn, let alone crave that long ago day when Wynonna put a knife to his throat and he’d made it clear they were all beneath him.
Wasn’t life a consistently surprising sort of thing? Something worth fighting for, at least for a little while longer. She felt the nadir lift a little, and smiled a tiny acknowledgement at Dolls.
“It strives, and we strive harder. Okay?” He leaned forward to pat her leg gently, clearly overcome with emotion, and a biting static shock jumped from his fingertips into her skin, pushing a dark wave of pain up her spine. She groaned, and pressed the button on the morphine pump.
“Sorry.” Dolls jerked back.
“It fine,” she told him, unclenching her teeth as the morphine wicked into her veins. “It happens. That’s why they give you the good drugs on the cancer floor.”
But Dolls just rubbed at his fingertips, a wrinkle in his brow and something hooded in his eyes. Like she, Waverly, was somehow a word right on the tip of his tongue. She looked back, but observation always influences the observed. He shuttered it away, and the morphine made her not care.
Dolls leaned back in his chair, and crossed his arms. Settling in for the long haul.
“Wynonna Earp.” Doc’s drawl made Wynonna open her eyes. Ass parked in a wicker chair and head canted back to lean on the slat wall of the porch. Like some deaminated and abandoned homunculus.
“Paisley print shirts become you, John Henry,” she said back.
“The clerk at the shop said it made me look dapper.” He flicked invisible dust off his blue button down shirt.
“He wasn’t wrong, but you also smell like ammonia. And clementines. Which is weird.” She closed her eyes again, pointing her face directly into the sun. The late winter sunshine had become early spring sunshine, but it didn’t feel much different.
“I was trying to tempt your wandering pony home, and some of my clothing suffered a setback.” Doc shrugged a little. “But in the end, he came to roost all on his own. Which is for the best, because my endeavour was failing.”
“There’s some universe where that makes sense, right?” She squinted up at him.
He smiled with his entire moustache, but didn’t say anything. Wynonna stood up, and held her hand out to him. Her life was, in most significantly measurable ways, a flaming pile of garbage. She had stood in the center of it, alone, and she had survived. If necessary, she could stand alone again, but it was better when she didn’t have to.
“Want to go shoot things with me?”
“Hoo doggy,” Doc enthused, taking her hand. “What red blooded man could refuse that sort of offer from a lady?”
“None of this makes any sense, you know,” she told Doc. Targets lined up on the rail, and the long barrel’s front sight on a tin can. “The logic is absolutely fucked.”
“What logic?” Doc canted a hip, evaluating her form, and apparently liking what he found. She noticed, and noticed him noticing right back.
“I did not know the gun had the capacity for logic.” Doc eyed the gun as Wynonna shot the can.
“Listen,” she said. “Peacemaker lights up for revheads, and other demonic shiteaters. Agree?”
“Agree,” Doc confirmed, letting her verb-format Socrates him.
“And you agree that Bobo was definitely a revenant, and Peacemaker definitely lit up for him.”
“I do so agree.”
“And then Bobo said, or heavily implied, that Waverly is his daughter. And when I pointed Peacemaker at Waverly, it lit up.”
“The obvious implication being that Waverly has revenant blood.” Doc drew the conclusion.
She shot the glass bottle, and held the gun still sighted at the gap in the line.
“Except, Jeremy says revenants can’t reproduce, and the little nerdbot is annoying but not stupid. Which means Waverly probably isn’t a revenant. And if Waverly isn’t a revenant, then why did Peacemaker give the high sign?”
She started at the outstretched gun. “What does blue mean, you little asshole?”
“Blue?” Doc’s perplexity pulled Wynonna partially back from how the light glinted off the gun’s barrel, and the sensation that Peacemaker knew something. Which meant there was something out there for Peacemaker to know.
“Yeah,” she said, still distracted. “Like one of those horrible sea creatures. Light themselves up to lure you in. Suck your toes.”
Doc looked at her with some curiosity, and Wynonna shook herself, looking over at him. “Like at the arch, with Willa.”
Doc shifted down into that horrible sympathy that Wynonna had never learned to endure. She felt herself hardening, but Doc held up his hands. “I was behind you, love. I couldn’t see the gun when you took that shot. But Waverly did say Peacemaker lit up like Saint Elmo’s fire, and that is always blue.” He ran a hand under his hat, and settled it back down, distracted. “I should have realized.”
“There is possibly more?” Wynonna winced into the moment. “That I haven’t told you. About Juan Carlo. And his trolley?”
“Is that a euphemism for his, er,” Doc made a delicate motion, “matrimonial organ?”
“First: no. Second: what the fuck, matrimonial organ? Third,” she shoved Peacemaker into her boot, where it lived during hospital visits. “Before we go tra-la-la down this road, I think we need an actual symposium. For actual real this time.”
They held the symposium in Waverly’s hospital room. Crowded in and lined up cross legged under the hallway window. Hiding from the glances of passing hospital staff, just like real adults.
“Don’t freak out,” Wynonna warned, the only one standing because she was the symposium organizer and it was her right, swinging Peacemaker up toward center mass of Nicole’s chest.
Nicole lunged crabwise across the floor, and Wynonna was still considering maybe a surprised blink when her knee collapsed, and the floor thudded all the breath out of her lungs. A few bad second later Wynonna was belly down, with Nicole straddling her lower ribs. One stupid cop hand pushing down on her neck, the other prying up on her elbow, not hardly any air getting into her abused lungs.
“That’s why we practice gun retention techniques,” Dolls pointed out, still cross legged in his assigned seat. Wynonna tested to make sure her middle finger still worked.
“I’m going to let you up,” Nicole warned.
“I said don’t freak out.” Wynonna squealed pitifully, feeling her ribs bend inward as Nicole unwound her arms from their octopus grip.
“You pointed a gun at me.”
“I was going to point the gun at everyone!” Wynonna insisted. Jeremy shifted uneasily, and Nicole snatched Peacemaker from where it’d ended up on the floor.
“Hey! No touching,” Wynonna yelped, rolling onto her side to reach, but Nicole shot her arm up and across, and Wynonna tipped onto her back.
“She took your gun again,” Dolls let her know. Wynonna carefully considered the ceiling, breathing deeply.
“Perhaps you can just tell us?” Doc suggested, just like the walrus-breathed traitor he certainly was.
“Fine. I was going to show you that Peacemaker doesn’t light up for any of you in the peanut gallery, and lights up blue for Waverly.”
She sat up, and held her hand out meaningfully. Nicole glowered, and made no move to surrender Peacemaker. “What does blue mean?” she asked
“I have no idea. It’s only done that once before.” She made herself keep going. “When I shot Willa.”
“Well.” Jeremy looking around uncertainly, like he’d surprised even himself by taking the baton. “Obvious question, but what do Willa and Waverly have in common?”
“Nothing.” Waverly crossed her arms, and stuck her jaw out.
“It’s kind of true.” Wynonna backed her up. “Peacemaker didn’t light up for Daddy, which means blue isn’t the colour of Earp-itude. And Willa was certified fully human by the DNA test, so blue doesn’t even mean demon blood.”
Wynonna telegraphed something apologetic towards Waverly, for not making the connections sooner and letting everyone be worried about literal hellfire, but her sister’s anger had already drained, leaving her slumped.
“Except for Bobo,” Waverly said in a small voice.
“What?” Wynonna asked, sharing a glance with Nicole over the way Waverly’s eyes we suddenly unwilling to meet anyone else's. A main serving of concern, plus a bonus side helping of shame for once dismissing her as Waverly’s inevitable heartbreak.
“We had Bobo in common,” Waverly told the far corner. “First he convinced me that we were friends, so I'd bury the ammolite. Then he…I talked to him at the treehouse, when he was waiting for Willa to bring Peacemaker back so they could drop the barrier.” She glanced at Wynonna, then away again. “I went there to beg him to stop. That’s when he told me how he’d kept Willa at the treehouse for over thirteen years. No visitors. Just the two of them, talking about how he loved her and how swans mate for life.”
“So, Bobo Patti Hearse’d Willa, and started something similar with you?” Jeremy tried to follow the tortuous history and twisted logic of being an Earp.
“Hey,” Wynonna broke in, because Waverly’s breath was ragged and her eyes were still on the floor. “We don’t need detailed discussion of Bobo’s pedophilic tendencies. Let’s just agree that Willa and Waverly were both influenced by something.”
“Which maybe Peacemaker could sense,” Jeremy accepted the redirection. “But is the problem being influenced by something supernatural, or being influenced by Bobo specifically?”
“Well, Bobo was good enough for Willa…”
They went around, and around, until like some Groundhog Day remake, Nicole tossed everyone out. Wynonna eyeballed the way Waverly’s hand was tight around the barrel of the morphine button, and how the counter had ticked up to almost an hour since the last dose. Going without protest.
“Nic,” she overheard Waverly on her way out, and Nicole murmuring, “It’s okay, baby. Push the button.”
Wynonna put her face into her hands, like maybe she could sidestep object permanence, and simply not be crying in public. Though, if there was a reasonable place to be crying in public, it seemed like the oncology ward was probably top of the list.
“Come on, love.” Doc’s arm guided her forward, pulling thin the thread that connected her to Waverly.
“She’s my sister,” Wynonna said, like it wasn’t some kind of non-sequitur. But Doc nodded like he understood.
“The seal is still broken,” she added. “And Juan Carlo’s stupid trolley is still coming down the tracks.” Because God forbid Wynonna Earp let even a moment of torture escape. Especially when she was the one holding the instrument.
“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” Doc told her, pulling her forward again.
Jeremy jerked awake, looking frantically around to see if anyone had caught him drooling on priceless and ancient books.
No. Because he was at home. Alone. Sleeping on a book about horrific disasters and plagues visited upon the world, such as might possibly have crawled out of a broken seal.
He was legit never going to actually have sex.
He poked at a wet patch, where John Clyn described the medieval horrors of the Black Death in Britain. The entire villages that erupted into buboes. Their skin splitting from the poisoned blood, screaming from the pain in their heads and bones, writhing as if possessed.
He ran his finger down, to the 1918 influenza epidemic. The pneumonia that made sufferers bleed from the nose, ears, and mouth. How the victims were legion, covering the floors from wall to wall, and spilling out onto the porches. Their dusky blue cyanosis from acute respiratory distress.
“No,” he whispered. “Couldn’t be. Someone would have—”
But who? Who would have, when Black Badge existed to cover up just exactly these sorts of things.
It couldn’t be. It really couldn’t. Except for how it could.
“Save the cheerleader!” he exclaimed to nothing but the walls, and sprinted out the door.
In the newly returned silence, the walls bided as they had for almost a hundred years. Unsurprised when the little mayfly sprinted back in.
“Clothes first! Clothes, clothes, clothes!”
“Wynonna said something evil is coming, but what if something evil is already here?”
They’d hastily assembled back at the hospital for Symposium: Round Two. Tense from Jeremy’s high pitched and frankly terrifying version of the bat signal, and no longer fussed about hiding under the window. Let the medical establishment do their worst. Nicole had a badge, and a gun, and sometimes she did have the right.
“I found historical accounts of people, entire towns, that fell into sudden malaise,” Jeremy went on. “Fever, fatigue, weight loss, bleeding, petechiae, bone pain. All, literally all of the symptoms of leukemia that can be observed without scientific equipment.”
“Yeah, okay, but why haven’t we heard of this before?” Wynonna demanded.
“Because modern medical terminology and diagnostics are incredibly new. The cases of-of-of possession hid inside all the pseudo science for what used to be called wasting diseases, or epidemic. Plague, consumption, camp fever, the blue influenza, breakbone fever. It could have been classified as any of them.”
“Fine. Say you’re right—which for the record is not something we’ve actually established—how do we unpossess Waverly?”
“It’s called unbinding, and we, um.” He twisted his fingers together, eyes darting around in a way Nicole knew would only ramp up Wynonna’s prey drive. “We have to a little bit kill her.”
“Yeah.” Wynonna nodded slowly, and Nicole ain’t never known nodding could be so threatening. “Yeah. You’re going to need to define ‘a little bit,’ and you’re going to need to do that pretty fast.”
Jeremy took a step that angled him behind Nicole.
Nicole took a step away.
Jeremey shot her a look filled with betrayed longing, but to his credit he turned back to face Wynonna. “If an invading spirit thinks the body is dead, then it will abandon it. One hundred percent, every time.”
“So, you’re saying we trick it? Make it think Wav—the body is no longer suitable?” Nicole chimed in.
“Umm,” Jeremey deliberated exactly like someone standing at the top of a bungee jumping platform, an unfriendly hand at his back, swivelling between them. “Not…exactly.”
“So, what, exactly?” Wynonna asked with a dangerous forbearance. Jeremy licked his lips, but it was Dolls that cut in.
“Stop her heart.”
Wynonna made a doubtful, wuffling kind of noise that reminded Nicole strongly of Daisy in a moment of affront. Except Daisy didn’t have a cursed gun and a very low sense of impulse control. Or, at the very least, she just didn’t have thumbs.
Six cartons of Chinese food later and Jeremy was summarizing the thousands of words that had been spilled. Leaning over the pile of material spilling across the little rolling bedside table, and major parts of the bed. “See? It doesn’t have to be as extreme as Dolls said, stopping the—“
“—Waverly’s—” Nicole corrected.
“heart. All we have to do is suppress the—”
“—Waverly’s—” Wynonna corrected.
“central nervous system.”
“What he means,” Waverly filled in, looking at Wynonna and projecting towards Nicole, “is that you only have to stop my breathing. But that will eventually make my heart stop, plus also my brain. So please excuse me if I take it as a somewhat pyrrhic argument.”
Nicole stood up.
“I swear to Jesus fuck, Haught. If you try to throw us out,” Wynonna started, but Nicole cut it off with chop of her hand. Jeremy tensed when she put her hands on his shoulders, but swayed aside when she moved him from the bed.
Waverly looked up at her, one side of her mouth kicked up. Steady and fond, and maybe they hadn’t been together very long. Not when measured against the decay of atoms or the precession of the stars, or even the yearly ellipse of the planet, but punctuated equilibrium wasn’t always a thing measured in time. Sometimes it was measured in character arcs.
“I’m okay, babe. Let them stay,” Waverly chose for herself, and Nicole held without holding back.
“Eye-sex is still gross,” Wynonna muttered behind them, and Waverly rolled her sexy eyes. Nicole smiled back, solid as she knew how, pressing their foreheads together.
“You are all deeply, deeply crazy,” she whispered to Waverly. “I regret ever meeting a single one of you.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” Waverly whispered back, smile sinking deep into her eyes. Until Nicole couldn’t help but kiss her. With attention and concentration, trying to push all the things that lived inside her chest into Waverly’s heartbeat.
“Fine.” She straightened when Wynonna started making sounds like a teapot under stress. “I won’t kick you out. But I don’t suppose you have any, you know, proof?”
“I’d need samples to prove anything definitively. A minimum of blood, tissue, and bone,” Jeremy said, and honestly Nicole had forgotten his laboratory background. “Actually, a bone marrow bio—”
“Absolutely not.” The snap in Nicole’s tone made Jeremy blink and duck down like a turtle. In the corner of her eye, Waverly’s hands relaxed from their clench.
“Then it’ll have to be holy water, or a religious symbol.” He shrugged a little. “But I have no idea if using them could definitely force whatever it is to show. Or prove definitively that nothing was there.”
Not reassuring, but Nicole was busy looking at Dolls. The way his stance had shifted. Head down, mouth open like an animal scenting. She felt it thrill across her skin, and didn’t understand.
Waverly took a tight breath, hand rising up, but Dolls was too close. “I’m sorry,” he said, and before Nicole could do anything, he pressed his palm against her chest.
Waverly arched, and screamed.
Chapter 10: Okay in the End
“Heard you had a big night.”
Waverly smiled at Simon, leaning in the doorway and sucking a popsicle, holding a handful of syringes in their sterile paper pouches.
“Shouldn’t you be in the outpatient ward, torturing people and their hot girlfriends with your retching noises and intolerance of love?”
“Wanted to come check on you, and you’re slumming it on the inpatient ward. Ergo.” He shoved the popsicle into his mouth, slurping as he dumped the syringes onto the bedside table.
Her midnight screaming had brought nearly everyone on the ward boiling out of the woodwork. Pushing buttons, and silencing alarms, and tossing everyone except Waverly out on their ear. It had clearly made the rounds of the entire oncology wing, even down into the day ward.
“Aren’t those for the patients?” Waverly asked, eyeing the popsicle.
He pulled it out of his mouth, stick already wearing through the top where he’d sucked the matrix away. “You want?”
She rolled her eyes, and he grinned at the rejection. Sucking the last of the ice from the stick.
“So, what happened last night?”
“Nightmare,” Waverly lied, letting Simon’s gloved hands peel open the shirt flap that covered her catheter. Watching him thread a syringe and vacuum tube onto one of the lumens.
“Mm,” Simon hummed his doubt. “Because having your room chock-a-block with hot girlfriend, hotter sister, and various male callers is how you sleep.”
“Mm,” Waverly hummed right back. “Male callers.”
“All right then,” Simon shrugged, unlocking the front of the Morphine pump and snapping a full syringe into the holster.
She watched him, and felt the words on the edge of her tongue.
“Hey, Nurse Ratchet,” she managed, trying for light and not quite making it. The crack of seriousness making him look up. “How long have you been doing this?”
“Ten years as a nurse, six in oncology. Took an exam, and everything.” He winked, a polite openness on his face. She could back away, and he wouldn’t press it.
Waverly pushed her fingertips against the center of her chest. The ache Dolls had started, and the feeling of something moving inside untouched by the Morphine.
“So, you’ve seen people die?”
Simon sat in the chair, elbows on the armrests, chin on his steepled fingers. Waverly had never seen him sitting down before, and hadn’t truly known he could bend in the middle.
“Hey kid, there are lots of steps in front of you still. Ongoing salvage therapy. A stem cell transplant. Clinical trials.”
“I’m not- I’m not giving up. It’s just that I’m on the shitty side of so many of the predictive models,” Waverly explained. “I failed remission, and I got leukostasis while already on chemo, and none of the donor registries have found a full match. They can’t even figure out the cytogenetics of the leukemia cells. The five year survival statistics for someone like me are…they’re zero.”
“We’re all on your side, Waverly,” Simon said, and she nodded.
“And you’re really, really great at being on my side. It’s just that realistically, I’m going to die, and I want- I can’t- I want to be able to talk about it.”
“I can do that,” he said, either training or natural compassion keeping his eyes level on hers. “There are people who are better trained and experienced, and I can set up a consult if you want. You can have both of us, one of us, or none of us.”
Waverly didn’t want to talk to anyone else, for a variety of reasons she didn’t currently need to broach.
“I want to talk to you,” she said, and he nodded. She took a breath. “Leukemia patients die delirious from infection, or delirious from chemo-related organ toxicity, or just flat out gorked from a clot in the brain.
“I’ve already had one infection. I don’t necessarily remember much, but I remember that it hurt and I was cold and afraid. And Nicole had to…she…” her voice went high in a way she hated, but couldn’t do anything about. “Nicole shouldn’t have to.”
“Waverly, what I think you’re talking about is legal in every province,” Simon said. “Not for me, but legal for a doctor.”
“Legal, yes.” She licked her lips, choosing words carefully. “But you can’t consent more than ten days in advance, so there’s no advance directive. And you have to be able to keep consenting right up until the method of death is administered. No altered mental state allowed.” She smiled a little. “I’m on the wrong side of that model, too.”
Simon looked at her over his pressed fingers, waiting. She’d have to make the actual leap. “Do you think,” she said very, very carefully, “there should be some kind of loophole for people like me?”
Simon stared at her for a long, long beat. Then he nodded. “Yes.”
Wynonna took a very healthy pull of whiskey from the neck of the bottle. Then she sighed, and let half trickle back.
“That is disgusting.” The corners of Doll’s mouth turned down.
“It’s alcohol. Kills everything.”
Wynonna had to conceded that one. But it was whatever, because they had better things to be doing. “Tell me again.”
Dolls had hastily explained right after they’d all been tossed out of the hospital. Everyone huddled in the carpark and blinking a lot. Because the noises Waverly had made, and the magmatic fault lines that had opened in Dolls forehead had a way of creeping between thoughts and lingering.
After an unsatisfactory amount of explanation, Dolls’ had demanded a strategic regrouping at a remote site, which seemed to be a fancy name for running away to the homestead. Dragging Nicole back to the homestead, threatening her with a drenching bit to administer the medicinal whiskey that knocked her into sleep. Giving Jeremy, who they had fed and would never shake free, the couch. Doc was out, prowling wherever he prowled when he felt caged.
Wynonna had gone towards the good, non-medicinal whiskey, and Dolls had followed into the barn, but Dolls was better than the whiskey. Thus the half sip.
“Mikshun.” Dolls said the name flatly. “Mictian. The Old One. Legion. Lots of names, same concept.”
“A type of brood parasitism. Mikshun implants a...call it a kernel of itself in a host. The kernel uses the…life force of the victim to increase its own…essence. The process doesn’t translate well to words. Once the host is depleted, the kernel rejoins Mikshun. Independent, but also part of the whole.”
“Like the Borg,” Wynonna said, but Dolls smiled.
“Yeah. Except the Borg are a hive mind. Mikshun is more like a collective, all aimed in the same direction. We think. Even that analogy doesn’t fit very well.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not like Waverly signed up for the Hotel California. How did she end up as the chosen one?”
“Same as always; motive and opportunity. Somewhere, sometime, Waverly touched the goo.”
“The arch,” Wynonna realized, the way answers bubbled up through a magic 8-ball already formed. “The arch where I killed Wi...the giant penis monster. We all went back afterwards, including Waverly. She must have been infected then.” She laughed without happiness. “It always comes back to the goddamn goo.”
“Hey,” Dolls murmured, and she leaned close to his scent and the warmth of his arm around her back.
“What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to have to do something. I looked at some Black Badge records, and Jeremy’s theory about the epidemics isn’t wrong. Given the right circumstances, Waverly could be ground zero for an apocalypse.”
“So, we have to pry it out of her, and get all extreme prejudice on its ass,” she said, but his tension was easy to read. “But…” she gave him the opening.
“There’s never been a successful unbinding,” he admitted.
“Yeah, well. This extra buttery kernel has never met Wynonna Earp.” She craned up to grin at him. “Or her pet dragon.”
“Too soon,” he growled. She kissed the rasping fuzz on his cheek, feeling the muscle twitching to suppress his smile. “Plus,” he continued, “all those failed unbindings never had a Jeremy on their side. He seems pretty confident we can head-fake the kernel into thinking it’s abandoning a dying body.”
“Doesn't sound like there’s much difference between the head-fake, and actually killing her,” Wynonna pointed out. Looking over to where the barn door creaked open under Doc’s hand.
“Yeah,” Dolls agreed softly, hooking an ankle to drag the third camp chair around.
“What have I missed?” Doc asked, settling down like a bookend on Wynonna’s other side.
“Hardcore planning,” Wynonna told him, handing him the bottle. “Drink the whiskey. You’re going to need it.”
“There are some days in which I think this is all the consternation I need,” Doc told them, eyes flicking between Dolls and Wynonna. Wynonna smiled. They would save Waverly, and they would all be… whatever it was that they were, and it would be okay in the end.
“So, I saw on Youtube about this thing with paddles,” Wynonna said.
“Sure,” Nicole agreed easily. “Youtube.” Turning into a hiss when two small fingers viciously pinched the inside of her thigh.
“Paddles?” Waverly asked, soothing her fingers over Nicole’s outraged flesh. Wynonna pressed her hands to her chest and made a buzzing sound, jerking like she’d been shocked.
“Paddles. Reset the heart, freak out the demon, kill it hard, live happily ever after.”
They’d been unbanned from the hospital, but only in pairs, and only on good behaviour. Wynonna was sprawled boneless in the chair. Nicole had claimed the bed, with Waverly curled sideways below her chin. Discussing a little light murder with consent.
Just a day ago, Nicole would have pegged her most bizarre Purgatory moment to holding Waverly and discussing the semen of undying monsters. Now she had a new and exciting data point of holding Waverly as they spitballed ways to interrupt her mortal coil.
At least she got to be the one holding the pretty girl?
“Cardioversion,” Waverly filled in. “Not a good choice. First we’d have to destabilize my heart rhythm, then we’d need all the equipment and drugs to re-stabilize it.”
Nicole tried, and mostly failed to stay relaxed under Waverly’s relentless first person singular onslaught. But really, this had to be the textbook definition of irony—that the only person smart enough to discover how to almost-kill Waverly, without actually killing Waverly, was Waverly herself.
Well, the textbook definition of irony in Purgatory. All that nonsense about Hamlet and Socrates really needed to evolve for the millennial set. Coincidence as irony weren’t no sin.
“What then?” Wynonna asked, and suddenly it was Waverly who was wracking tighter.
“I actually- I’ve already…” She pulled back to look at Nicole. “Simon. And your stash of Naloxone.”
For one long last, final second of before, Nicole didn’t understand.
“Who the fuck is Simon?” Wynonna asked, but it was just a background buzz. Nicole’s brain filled with the electrical tension of how fast Waverly was breathing, and the fidgeting rhythm of her thumb worrying at a knuckle. All signs of Waverly in a heightened state of nervous decision making.
No, she wanted to say. Absolutely not. This is too far. I categorically forbid this. But Waverly was hers to hold, never hers to direct. And what choice did they have?
“Simon has…drugs,” she finally told Wynonna, keeping her eyes on Waverly, cautiously working out the plan in real-time. “And I,” she kept going, seeing how Waverly must have fit the pieces, “I have Naloxone.”
She licked her lips, finally breaking away from Waverly’s huge eyes to find Wynonna’s. “Simon’s agreed to overdose her with some sort of opioid. Once the demon’s, uh, vacated, I can reverse the overdose with the opioid reverser I carry in my cop kit.”
“Oh.” Wynonna faltered, but only for a second. “Uh. Way to go, baby girl. You really reeled this Simon guy in. A-plus acting skills.” She shot Waverly a thumbs up, but Nicole could see the same shadow in Wynonna’s eyes that she knew was in hers.
Later, when Wynonna had vacated in pursuit of her own complicated life, Waverly pressed her face into Nicole’s neck, pushing hard. Nicole circled her arms a little tighter.
“It wasn’t acting,” she said into the side of Nicole’s neck. Confessions were always easier without eye contact.
Just her name. Said with the kind of ache that tried to make a singular proper noun into a complete sentence. Which maybe it could, given the way Nicole’s pulse bounded upward. “If nothing happens. If there’s no demon…” she trailed off.
“I’ve got you,” Nicole reassured, in the voice Waverly used to think of as her good cop voice. Crouching in front of some hollow-eyed victim of violence or bad luck, letting her words be a field-dressing over their newly cracked foundation.
It had taken Waverly months to realize there was no good cop voice, or a bad cop voice. There was only one voice, sliding up and down the registers as necessary. Unlike Waverly, Nicole had never split herself into aspects, and then let circumstance tell her what facet to show.
Nicole just was. Tall and bright, and finer than anything Waverly—last broken child squatting in a dark family tree—ever thought she’d get to hold. Worse, or better, or whatever, she seemed determined to convince Waverly that that she, too, could live without facets. That care and affection shouldn’t come from pouring yourself into a container of expectation, taking its shape as least resistance.
“I knew you were going to break my heart,” Waverly told her, winding the fabric of Nicole’s shirt into her fist, Eyes closed hard, and something terrible knotting in her throat. “That very first time, with your stupid fucking hat, and your goddamn red hair.”
If Nicole thought it was a weird conversational jump, she didn’t show it. Just huffed something incredulous. “Babe, I was there. I saw your face. You weren’t thinking. You were too busy having homosexually induced paroxysms to be thinking.”
“I’m not homosexual,” Waverly gasped, bolting up crosslegged. Scandalized by the devastating accuracy of Nicole’s analysis. She’d softened her own memory, and no one liked being reminded of their more naïve moments, especially not by someone who turned out to be so pretty naked. Time to deflect. “I’m…”
Shit. She still didn’t know.
“Bi?” Nicole asked, genuinely curious to see if Waverly had decided, or discovered, or whatever it was you were supposed to do.
“I’m just, I’m, I’m still just me,” she said with a sort of pathetic lameness that unfounded outrage always collapsed into, but Nicole smiled.
“Well, I like you okay.”
“Yeah, well.” Waverly flopped back into her abandoned snuggle spot with massive ill-grace. “I like you okay, too. Sometimes.”
“Like when I induce homosexual paroxysms?”
“You know that’s a word for orgasm, right?” Waverly glared at her stupid, smug chin. “You’re implying you made me have a homosexual orgasm just by standing there and looking at me.”
“Yes,” Nicole reassured, pulling away to look down with a full measure of jackassery. In the curve of her lips was every smile she’d ever given Waverly. First to last. Nicole happy, and Nicole sad, and Nicole of everything in between. Just Nicole. Nicole, and Nicole, and Nicole.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that she had to leave. It wasn’t fair to leave Nicole like this. It wasn’t.
But, life wasn’t fair. Waverly had already known that at three years old. The only important lesson Ward Earp had bothered to teach. The way his beltings had fallen on whoever was closest, regardless of guilt, and the extemporaneous ones he’d reserved just for her.
A lesson reinforced by the entire town of Purgatory, and how it had made her do penance for something that had never been her fault.
“I’m sorry, “ she whispered, hoping Nicole would understand.
“Hey,” Nicole said back, pulling her hand up and kissing the palm.
I’d take it all back, was on the tip of her tongue, but the truth was, she wouldn’t. Even a lifetime cut short had to be measured in its full span, and not judged only by how it ended. Waverly wouldn’t wish her own life away, just because she had to die young. And when measured across whatever her full lifetime would be, she’d give Nicole more happiness than pain. She hoped.
“I love you,” she told Nicole.
“I know,” Nicole told her, running a finger down her nose, and over the bow of her lips. “You tell me all the time.”
She hadn’t. Not with her voice. But Nicole didn’t lie, so Waverly must have been telling her in other ways. That was fine, but some things had to be voiced. She fortified herself with breath.
“I don’t want to die the way the leukemia will kill me. If you give me the drugs, and there’s no demon, don’t reverse it.”
Nicole swallowed, and swallowed again. “I promise,” she managed. And just like that, something that was actually incomprehensible became a plan.
After that, all they had left was logistics.
Plans hammered out in quick and whispered bursts, like a full conversation would be calling the Devil by name. Suggestions and counter-suggestions, until they had settled on one of the hospital procedure rooms.
Waverly had wanted the homestead, with its ammolite, and its depth of history, and their common law cow. But even death had to take second place to some obvious circumstances. The procedure rooms were easily accessed, well stocked for contingencies, and conveniently abandoned during the overnights.
So it would be the hospital. And it would be that room. And suddenly there was nothing left. Time stretched out, and out, and out. Thinner and thinner, until it snapped. She was in the long corridor leading to the rooms, throwing out a hand to make the wheelchair’s clip down the hallway stop.
“Baby girl?” Wynonna asked, but Waverly couldn’t answer. Not without crying. Not without showing how badly she was shaking.
Wynonna crouched down, hands dangling between her knees and their faces on level. Waverly wanted so badly to be brave. Wanted to be all the things Nicole could love, and all the things Wynonna could admire. To be bold, and brazen, and worthy.
“Not like this,” she said, hardly understanding what it meant. But Wynonna nodded sharply, like it made perfect sense. Grabbing Waverly’s hands, and pulling her to stand. Nicole pushing the wheelchair aside, and stepping up close behind. Until Waverly was braced shoulders to hips, Wynonna’s hand on her shoulder.
And standing like that, standing with her family, she could face the room where they hurt her for her own good. Letting Nicole turn her, and boost her up onto the table, and guide her head down onto the padding.
“Nicole,” Waverly tried, but her jaw was trembling too hard to make the words. Shaking and stuttering, until Nicole stopped the attempt by framing her face with both hands, smoothing her thumb over the arches of her cheeks.
Waverly grabbed her wrists, pressing the hands tighter. Feeling how wide her eyes were, and how steadily Nicole returned the look. Cradled inside those long fingers she took one full breath. Then a second. Feeling the shaking dampen to fine aftershocks.
“World without end, Waverly Earp,” Nicole told her, her own voice wobbling with a few liquid harmonics. Waverly let her chest hitch once. Wanting there to be a demon so she could come back, and wanting there to be nothing because this was unendurable.
Waverly let go. Nicole stepped back. Simon came forward.
Once, a long time ago, Waverly had sat through the night with her hamster. Attacked by a cat, and dying slowly because she didn’t have the courage or knowledge to snap his neck. She had stroked him, and apologized, and realized for the first time on his last night how soft the fur behind his elbow was.
Today, she could see the fine freckles that dusted across the bridge of Simon’s nose. Legacy of a Northern European heritage she’d never noticed before, and maybe that was what death was supposed to be. The final surreal moment of being sharply alive.
Simon opened the flap of her shirt, where the catheter lay. Screwing the barrel of the syringe into one of the lumens. Stopping to look at her.
It was five times the therapeutic dose. Rounded up to the nearest kilogram of body weight, and taking into account Waverly’s fading opioid naiveté. Taken directly from the Morphine pump that was in Waverly’s room. Where they would take her back, once everything was over. The investigation would find a malfunction, and the hospital would be very apologetic, and the family would be stern but gracious because maybe in the end it had been a mercy.
“Okay, Simon,” she told her mercy, smiling. “Here we go.”
Nicole watched Waverly die.
It wasn’t like the movies, a sudden surrender. The body fought.
Mouth gaping wide. Tongue thrusting into the agonal gasping. Cyanosis creeping in at the edges of each lip, and around the nostrils. Arms curling like slow sea creatures over her chest in a semaphore of damage and deficit.
Nicole trembled. Sobbed air. Wracked by the waiting tighter than any breaking wheel could try.
Then something more. Something dark and tarry seeping across Waverly’s face. Pooling in the glassy stare of her eyes. Whisping from her slack mouth.
It buzzed and whispered with something maddening. The crawl of insects under the skin. The final shout that boils the riot.
Simon screamed, eyes wild and hands rising over his ears. Trying to block the blinding strobe before a mushroom cloud and the deep buzzing of blow flies.
Wynonna brought Peacemaker up, but the gun didn’t sing. It couldn’t shoot a cloud of vapour.
The demon laughed as it pulled fully free of Waverly. Moving like fog, hissing as it boiled out the door.
Wynonna shouted something brutal, and followed.
Nicole clawed the Naloxone out of her pocket.
It would work. She’d seen it work. It would work. Except something yanked her arm back, nearly sending the little dispenser spinning.
“What are you doing?” Simon looked a little wild and deranged, but Nicole had no time for his requirement that the world make sense. He’d lived in Purgatory his whole life, and if this was the thing that truly destabilized his psyche, then fine.
She shoved him back, and discharged the drug dispenser into one of Waverly’s nostrils.
“No!” Simon surged back towards the treatment table, trying to pry her away. Nicole flung him down onto his ass to blink up at her from the hard floor. “You’ll stop the overdose. Please, why are you doing this?”
Waverly wasn’t breathing. Nicole ground a fist down into her sternum without mercy, wanting the pain to make her rise and gasp.
She’d inventoried the room the night before, scrounging for equipment locations. It was easy to grab the manual ventilation bag and shove it into Simon’s chest.
“Help me,” she ordered, but all he did was squeeze the bag spasmodically. Newly born under the sign of Fuck, with You ascendant, and maybe an Everything hovering out there somewhere.
Nicole took a long, deep breath in. The stopwatch she’d clicked said two minutes. The internet said they had five minutes before severe brain damage.
“Simon,” she crouched down. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what we’ve done to you. Actually, and truly sorry. But right now I need you to help me. You’re a trained medical professional, and I’m not. Waverly’s not breathing, and her pulse is slowing. You need to ventilate her, and you need to tell me if she needs more Naloxone.”
Simon blinked a lot, and clamped down a little harder on the Ambu bag.
“Simon!” she snapped. “You’ve lived in Purgatory your whole life. You knew it was full of freaky things long before tonight. Tonight is just a confirmation of something you already knew. So take a deep breath, and get your shit straight, and fucking help me. Because if you don’t Waverly is going to die.”
“I told her I’d help her,” Simon whispered, earnest and probably damaged. A casualty of not quite friendly fire.
“You did help her.” Nicole told him. “You helped her shake off a…parasite. Now you can help her live. She very much wants to live.”
Simon took some sort of fortifying breath, and stood up. Refusing to meet her eyes, but upright. “Okay. Give her a second dose of Naloxone, and I’ll bag her.”
Wynonna sprinted after the demon. Into the hallway where Doc, and Dolls, and Jeremy all stood. Leaning, or pacing, or chewing on the end of an unlit cigarette. Listening to events through a door, and waiting for reports. Like a parody of old time childbirth, or the command tent of an army that still relied on bugle calls and runners.
All three snapping into attention as the demon, and then Wynonna rounded the corner. The elongated cloud of scampering demon pulled up short, coalescing into denser fog that Peacemaker still wouldn’t shoot.
“Asshole!” Wynonna cried, shaking it. Willing it to respond. Willing it to help. But the gun was silent.
Dolls stepped into the middle of the corridor.
“Dragon,” the cloud spoke. Grating and otherworldly. The oubliette, and the abattoir, and all the deep forgotten graves.
Dolls just cocked his head. Studying. All the g-man arrogance Wynonna had thought dismantled, no longer needed and left behind, snapping back into place. Shutting his face down, until he looked like the stranger.
“Mikshun,” he said.
“Little dragon,” the vapour hissed. “I saw you. In the obsidian mirror. Poisoned with human emotions.”
“And I saw you,” Dolls said back, hard and flat. “In Kabul, and Kandahar, and Budapest. Getting your ass whipped. Just like I’m going to whip your ass now.”
Mikshun laughed. “Budapest. Where you thought to banish a god?” The inky cloud condensed, lashing itself like the tail of an angry cat. “I bathed in the blood of Budapest, little dragon. The love in your veins weakens you.”
“No,” Dolls denied. “I never thought to banish a god. I thought to kill a god.”
He looked over at Wynonna. Hollow desperation on her face, and something very like understanding, raw but coalescing into certainty.
“Choo-choo,” he told her, gently. She swallowed, and shook her head. That wide open expression that only Wynonna could make brave.
“No. Please. Dolls.”
He pressed a hand against his chest, fighting how it burned, looking over to Doc. “She doesn’t need anyone standing in front of her, right? So make sure you stand beside her,” he told his friend and enemy. “And keep out of trouble, for her sake.”
“I will do all of those things, brother,” Doc said. “But I would prefer you stay, and we will stand beside her together.”
He smiled. “If wishes were horses, we’d all have pink Cadillacs.”
“No!” Wynonna put every ounce of herself into the negation, but he could already feel the patch job Juan Carlo had slapped into place crumbling. His bones ached, and it wasn’t just the heat. It was the feral joy he’d always tried to deny.
The thing that used to make him run, as a child. The thing Eliza had never tried to fight, and had maybe lived a happier life before she was betrayed.
Well, no time for regret now. The only motion humans, even sport variants, were allowed was forward. Maybe he could have learned how to be both the beast and the man before the moment of death, but at least he’d had one moment. It was more than some got.
“Tell Waverly to remember to fly,” he gave his coda. Then he stepped forward into the coiling demon and let the fire that was inside him, and also was him build. Turning the world gold, and past gold into a red-shifted glory he’d never allowed before. It was beautiful, and he felt a pang to share it, but some things are done alone.
In the very last second, when the heat was molten beyond anything he thought could exist, the earth trembled as something that had lived beyond eons roared in death and defeat.
In the hallway, Wynonna screamed.
In the procedure room, Waverly took a breath.
The brain, deprived of oxygen for over three minutes, did not come back gracefully.
The world swirled. Something was clamped over her face. Pain burned in her chest.
“Need to hang a drip,” someone said. “Continuous minimal dose. Quick half-life. Risk of re-overdose.”
She tried to move her head out from under the pressure. It chased her, but a different pressure lifted from her chest, and the pain stopped.
“Hey,” a beloved voice whispered. “Waverly?” A finger tapped her eyelid lightly. She tried to turn her head away, but the touch followed.
“Give her a minute,” a man’s voice, Simon’s voice made the tapping stop. The pressure on her face, a bag valve mask, forced another three breaths then lifted off.
“All on your own now, okay?” Simon said.
Waverly didn’t answer. Just breathed into a universe that no longer contained any trace of Xavier Dolls.
It turned out that despite everyone’s individual and unvoiced hope, driving away a demon that caused leukemia was not the same as never having leukemia.
They took Waverly back up to her room, and there she stayed. Offering lame, and frankly unbelievable stories about how the Morphine pump malfunctioned, and Simon, though off-duty and entirely unexplainable, had saved the day.
Waverly sweated through twenty hours of opioid withdrawal, and another thirty days of slowly growing completely healthy bone marrow cells. Vigorously fending off the oncologist’s greedy questions about the nature and hope of her spontaneous remission.
Nicole was on Wynonna watch. Bringing back reports of late nights in the woods, hungover from keeping pace and smelling of gunpowder. Or of finding her standing somewhere, swaying and vacant like a toy that had run down its spring. Waverly wasn’t particularly surprised when Wynonna disappeared. She knew, with a certainty she was choosing not to examine yet, where Wynonna was. And with Wynonna occupied, the only remaining thread was Simon.
Simon. Who had avoided her room for days before creeping back, his mouth pressed thin.
“No popsicles this time,” he told her, lounging in the doorway like usual. Except this time his face was a mask.
She gave him what she could, both apology and explanation, and hoped it would be enough. Maybe it was important to understand that when the moment of crisis came, you’d crawl over someone else’s wellbeing to escape the burning plane. But having to look the collateral damage in the face was undeniably hard.
Wynonna sat on a rock near the boundary of the Ghost River Triangle. Waiting. She’d been doing it for a while, and had covered all the verb tenses. She had been waiting, and was waiting, and would continue to wait. Patiently, even.
This was where he’d shown before, and where he would show again. So she waited, letting days tick to night and bleed back to day, until Juan Carlo relented. Ambling down the shoulder of the blacktop towards her.
She lined Peacemaker up on his chest just on general principle.
“Again?” He halted a few metres from her, hands out in exasperated compliance.
“Fuck you,” Wynonna told him, and squeezed the trigger. Savouring his healthy flinch.
He nodded a little. “I probably deserved that.”
“You’re a liar,” she added, gun still held hard on him. “You said I had to choose between Waverly, and the world.”
“Faith, hope, and love, Wynonna,” he said, hands still up. “But only ever through a glass, darkly.”
“In the long run? Probably,” he agreed, cryptic as always. Wynonna shot him again. Then she dropped the gun barrel down, and sat back on the rock.
“You never actually said Waverly. You just let me assume,” she admitted. Juan Carlo grunted.
“Are you even going to tell me how letting Dolls die will save the world?”
“Sometimes you sacrifice the knight.”
Wynonna found she didn’t have much to say about that, but she knew how to play her part. “Sacrifice for what?” she asked dully.
"Something is coming, Wynonna. We both know it. There are many things I can’t tell you, but what I can say is that we all have our role to play.”
“What happens if I shoot you with a real gun?” Wynonna asked, bringing Dolls’ Glock 17 up.
Juan Carlo looked at her with something like the universe in his eyes, and lit a cigarette. “Honestly, I have no idea.”
“Are you talking about me? My roll? Because fine, the narrative arc is done, okay? Here I am, the Earp heir, all grown up and mature.”
“As impressed as we are with you, Wynonna, and we are impressed, you’re not the current subject. I’m talking about things that fit on the head of a pin.”
“Angels?” Wynonna gave in, yet again yanked down into the bottomless vat of mystic bullshit Juan Carlo wrapped around himself so well.
“No. Just one. Singular.”
“I really, really hate you,” Wynonna told him, and shot the Glock. But she knew before the thunder had died that he’d disappeared. She glared at the empty section of road that could have held his bleeding body.
“Dolls,” she moaned, and thought for just a second, in the wind, was the sound of joyous and crackling fire.
Wynonna crept back to the homestead, slept for three days, then took up drinking again. In the pre-Dolls’ demise sort of way. Clear alcohol poisoning by volume, but somehow just a casual Thursday night for Wynonna’s over-functioning liver.
Waverly stopped making Nicole be a wingman. Nicole made grateful sounds she said came straight from her own liver, and it didn’t necessarily feel right, to be happy when Dolls was dead, but Waverly thought that admitting she was happy felt like a pretty small sin. Like Dolls wouldn’t begrudge her for enjoying the life that he’d saved.
She hadn’t told Wynonna yet, about that final night. How she and Dolls had both hung in the balance, and how Dolls had made his choice. Free, and without compulsion.
She’d find a way to tell her, someday. Definitely not until the time was right, because knowing Dolls was happy, or had been happy, or however the tenses worked in the maybe/maybe-not afterlife…along with that was also the murky knowledge that whatever had been sleeping was awake, and looking for its own satisfaction.
The battle would come, but Waverly had always known that. And now she knew how to take moments when they came. Like cooking dinner. Or, watching Nicole cooking dinner. Chopping carrots with the terrifying competence she brought to almost everything in the physical world.
Nicole, who’d given her space, and time, and freedom.
“Baby,” Waverly said lightly. The speeding of her heart feeling a little ridiculous after living the last half a year. Nicole looked at her, curious.
“I thought maybe we could, maybe we could talk.” Waverly said, watching Nicole carefully.
Nicole licked her lips, putting the knife down. “Okay.”
“I love you,” Waverly declared solemnly. Nicole laughed, a little too sharp.
“You had to stop the presses for that?”
“No.” Waverly worried a thumb against a knuckle, saw Nicole noticing, and stopped. “I wanted to ask you, a-a-ask if you ever thought you might get married again?”
And hadn’t that been a doozy of a conversation. Nicole standing with shoulders pulled in and eyes roving though some sort of old shame. Waverly hadn’t let her twist long, because life was too short, but it left a question inside Waverly’s bones. And she should know what something in your bones felt like.
Nicole’s face was flatly unprepared surprise. Waverly felt it start to prick at something that had been filling her chest with light and air.
“Oh. Um. It’s okay. I’m not ready,” she said. “Not yet. And I feel like I should give you some final warning that I’m not a great catch.” Speeding up as Nicole drifted forward, crowding her against the kitchen counter. “I’m real short, and this house is a disaster, and my sister is crazy, mmfh—”
She cut off when Nicole kissed her, hands tight on Waverly’s hips to keep them pressed together.
“I’ll wait,” was all Nicole said.
“You still scare me, sometimes,” she told Nicole, because it was true. The way she flung herself forward into the world. Secure in her wants, and confident she could adapt to whatever came her way.
“Maybe we’re supposed to scare each other, a little,” Nicole said. Waverly hitched herself upwards, and Nicole obligingly caught her waist and set her on the counter. Kissing her slow, like they had all the time in the world.
“Will you let me know, when it’s time?” Nicole asked, when they had pulled back. Waverly smiled.
“Of course, silly. You’re kind of fifty percent of the whole deal.”
“Do you have any kind of timeline?” Nicole played with Waverly’s fingers to avoid looking up. Waverly used the hand to nudge Nicole’s attention back up.
“I told you. I’m eternal.”
“You said your atoms are eternal. I’m not sure that counts as you, personally, being eternal.
Waverly smiled, and Nicole leaned forward to press her own smile into Waverly’s.
“I guess we’ll find out,” Waverly told her into the centimetres between their lips.
“Yes,” Nicole told her.
They chose the southern border of the Ghost River Triangle, with it’s utterly flat road and amorphously creepy sign declaring that Purgatory was only seven klicks away.
Wynonna had been all for using Peacemaker again, but Nicole had categorically and vehemently disagreed. Waverly had untangled their limbs from the stalemate the disagreement had ended in, thanks to Wynonna’s renewed dedication to physical training, and sided with Nicole.
That gun was fucking confusing.
Now she stood in the road, wonder if it might have been smarter to go with the gun. “You’ll pull me back, right?” she asked, nerves slipping through but not caring. “If I start to burn, you’ll pull me back?”
“‘Betcha,” Wynonna agreed, leaning on the car and eating a donut. Nicole nodded, and kissed her.
So she walked across the line, and she did not burn. Just an overwhelming tingle that swept up her spine, and dissipated into the ether with a rustle that sounded strangely like feathers.
“Why wings?” she asked the universe, but Nicole jerked her into a hug.
“Bobo lied to me,” Waverly whispered.
“Surprise twist ending,” Wynonna muttered, her slower approach lining her up perfectly for the illegal elbow Nicole tried to hide throwing into Wynonna’s ribs. Wynonna hissed, and socked Nicole on the arm.
Waverly closed her eyes, and tried one of those centering breaths, as one of Wynonna’s new yoga videos called them. She opened her eyes, and stared directly at Wynonna, who was already staring right back.
“Yeah,” Wynonna said, laconic like she’d always known it would come to this, and pointed Peacemaker at her chest. The gun woke, flicker quick before fading back, too fast to discern any colour. Then, still outstretched, Peacemaker settled back to quintessence with nothing but a tiny and confused mutter.
“Baby girl?” Wynonna asked, uncertain, and Waverly let it pull her back into herself. Blinking.
“Wynonna…what am I?”
“Easy,” Wynonna told her. “You’re Waverly Earp. I’m your sister. That’s your stupid cop girlfriend. And this is where you live.”
Waverly wasn’t certain if Wynonna meant the Ghost River Triangle, or Purgatory, or more metaphorically that she existed inside her sister and her stupid cop girlfriend. She didn’t ask for clarification. It was all true.