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The woman strolled into Waverly Gibson's bar at 2:44 a.m., red-haired and silent, and Waverly had been doing her best to make a fool out of herself ever since.

Red—as Waverly had dubbed her—grabbed a seat at the bar and lifted a finger to draw Waverly's attention, as if Waverly hadn't noticed her the moment the door swung open. Waverly glided over to take her order. When Waverly delivered the drink, Red gave her a nod and a grunt of thanks, then drowned her attention in the beer and in her phone.

So Red needed her space. That was pretty typical for their Tuesday night clientele, when they had any, so Waverly followed standard operating procedure: leave the patron alone and clean the hell out of the place.

She dusted a neglected shelf and glanced at the birthmark on Red's cheek. She scrubbed out the fridge and studied the way Red's hair glowed like molten metal in the ambient light. She found a treasure trove of untouched bottles in a back cabinet and traced the lines of Red's forearms disappearing beneath rolled-up sleeves.

Red could lift Waverly with those arms. Hoist her right up on the bar and...

Red cleared her throat. Waverly lifted her eyes to Red's face and found her leaning over the bar, one arm folded on the lacquered wood, the other holding her empty glass aloft. Shit.

Waverly hurried over. "Refill?" She glanced at the clock. "Last call."

"Sure, fill me up," said Red. This time, when Waverly slid the glass in front of her, she took a sip and met Waverly's eyes. "What were you thinking about before?"

Waverly giggled before she could stop herself, a sudden burst of nerves making her feel lightheaded. "Oh, you know. Just... spacing out."

Red's mouth twitched. "And staring at my arms?"

"They're nice arms!"

Red looked down at her arm resting on the bar. She lifted it, held it out in front of her and flexed her fingers wide. She shrugged. "They do all right."

Waverly wondered exactly what those arms and hands did, and how she might go about convincing Red to do those things to her.

"Is the place usually this dead?" asked Red, snapping Waverly out of her fantasies.

"For 3 a.m. on a Tuesday?" said Waverly. "This is a crowd."

"This is company," said Red, grinning. "Three's a crowd. I just hope I'm good company."

"Well, you're not drunk and hitting on me. That's a mark in your favor."

Red took a sip of her beer and shook her head. "Damn, there go my plans for the evening."

Another giggle bubbled up in Waverly; she almost choked trying to fight it back. "Don't let me ruin your night," she said.

"I don't think you ever could." Red extended her hand over the bar. "I'm Nicole, by the way."

"I'm Waverly." Nicole's grip was firm, her fingers slender and strong; Waverly's heart pitched a riot within her ribcage. "If you don't mind me asking... what brought you in here? This is usually 'drowning-my-sorrows' time."

"Who says I'm not drowning my sorrows?"

When Waverly raised one eyebrow, Nicole chuckled. "Okay, okay. Honestly, I just found out my new project's going to be a little more complicated than I thought. I went for a walk to clear my head, saw this place open..." She shrugged.

Waverly hummed while Nicole took another sip of her beer. "What's your new project? Can you tell me?"

Nicole set the beer on the bar with a clack and shook her head. "Even if I could, it's my turn to ask a question. What brought you in here?"

"I work here!"

"Yeah, but what led you here? What brought you to this bar in downtown Vancouver, standing here at absurd-o-clock, chatting with my sorry ass?"

"So far, I like chatting with your sorry ass," said Waverly, leaning on the bar. "As for what brought me here... I guess the short answer is that American colleges don't pay for themselves."

Nicole winced. "Yeah, that’ll do it. What are you studying?"

"Ancient languages. And history." When Nicole's eyebrows jumped, Waverly grinned. "What's that face for?"

"What, I can't be impressed by the smart, pretty bartender?" Dimples puckered Nicole's cheeks.

"Flattery won't get you out of tipping, you know."

"Oh, I wouldn't dream trying to stiff you," said Nicole, with a wink that hit Waverly square in the gut. "You closing soon?"

Waverly shrugged. "I'll close up behind you when you're done. Take your time."

"If you keep talking to me, I'll never leave. How am I supposed to drink with you distracting me?"

"Maybe I should leave you alone, then, get you out of my hair faster."

"Then I definitely won't tip you well." Nicole licked the sheen of beer from her lips, and Waverly's own lips fell open as she did. Nicole shook her head. "You're staring at me again."

"I—I'm not, I'm—I have to clean!" Waverly rushed away, turning as fast as she could to hide her cherry-red cheeks. Nicole laughed as she went, and Waverly imagined all the ways she could make Nicole be quiet.

She hurried away faster.

It was Waverly's turn to be the subject of study; every time she glanced at Nicole, whether she was putting chairs up on tables or mopping the floor, she found Nicole's eyes on her. Waverly's gaze snapped away each time.

She was just putting away the mop when Nicole called from across the room. "I'm heading out, barkeep! Come lock the door behind me."

"Bossy," muttered Waverly, swiping Nicole's generous tip from the bar and approaching the patron in question, who was leaning just inside the door with her hands in her pockets.

"You going to be okay getting home?" asked Nicole, when Waverly stopped a few feet away from her. "I could walk you."

"That's very reassuring, coming from a stranger I just met," said Waverly. Nicole grimaced, and Waverly reached out, her fingers just grazing Nicole's arm. "I appreciate the thought, but I'll be fine."

They waited, studying each other. Waverly's watch counted the seconds, its tiny clicks puncturing the silence between them.

"So... before you go..." Waverly fiddled with her sleeve. A question danced on her tongue: can I get your number? Fear reined it in and a different plea escaped her. "Promise me you'll be back sometime? Next drink is on the house."

"Trust me," said Nicole, and like a match held to the fuse of a firecracker, the smile that accompanied those words set Waverly ablaze. "You'll definitely see me again."


Waverly dragged herself out of bed late in the morning, tiptoeing past her father's door, avoiding the creaky plank that just couldn't stay quiet.

The kitchen welcomed her. Soft light spilled through the curtains and the old clock on the wall tapped out the languorous passage of time. Her first sip of caffeine hit her body like fat dropped into a hot pan. She set to work: chopping, stirring, frying. When Charlie Gibson stumbled out of his bedroom later, yawning and unshaven, she beamed at him.

"What's all this, kiddo?" He took a seat at the table and tried to straighten his hair. He failed.

"Breakfast," she said. "I wanted to do something nice for you." She abandoned the stove for a moment to set a cup of coffee in front of him, already fixed with sugar, which he liked, and almond milk, which he was beginning to appreciate for her sake.

He stared at his coffee, at the food, at his daughter. "What did I do to deserve a kid like you?"

She plated everything: perfectly-browned veggies, steaming grains, the eggs she'd caved in and cooked because he'd already bought them and he loved them. "Nothing except be the best dad a girl could ask for."

He sipped his coffee and squinted at her over the rim. "What do you want?"

"I don't want anything. Can't I just make a nice breakfast for the two of us?"

"Of course you can, sweetie, and you have, many times. But what do you want?"

She grimaced. "That obvious?"

"You're many things, but a good liar isn't one of them." He tucked into his food, gesturing at her with his fork. "Go on, tell your old man what you're after."

She bit her lip. "I want to transfer schools."

He froze, fork halfway to his lips. "What? Why?"

"We can't afford it anymore. Don't." She snatched his hand, cutting off his argument. "I know our finances better than anyone. We can't afford it."

"I'll take out more loans for you."

"Dad! Absolutely not!"

He stared at her hand on his. She watched him: tightening jaw, curling brows. He shook her fingers away. "You should be able to go to whatever school you want. Achieve whatever you want."

"I wish I could, but... that's not real life. Look, I've been thinking about this since I lost the scholarship. If I want to afford these payments... I have to do this."

Dragging his hand down his face, he slumped back in his chair. "This is my fault."

"It's not anyone's fault. Yours least of all."

Charlie shook his head. "It's nice of you to say so, kiddo, but this is my fault." He closed his eyes and sighed. "All I've ever wanted to do is take care of you. Keep you safe. Happy."

"I am happy. Wait, don't—"

He shoved his chair back and rocketed out of his seat. "I'll be in the office."

"Dad." She tried to follow him. "Daddy!"

But Charlie had already gathered his mug and swept out of the room, disappearing into the office and leaving his half-eaten breakfast behind.


He was avoiding her. Waverly marched down the sidewalk to the coffee shop near her house, backpack heavy on her shoulders, scowling all the way. Her dad was avoiding her, all because she was being financially responsible and trying to avoid tumbling headlong into crushing debt like so many of her American classmates.

Well... former classmates.

She blew through the front door of the shop, got herself a drink, and flung herself into a seat. She snapped open her laptop. Her fingers hammered its keys. She set her cup down after every sip with an impact strong enough to shake the table.

Partway through the process of gathering each and every form she'd need to fill out in order to drop out of her current school and start applying for new ones, the bell over the front door jingled.

She glanced up. Her jaw dropped. Nicole—hot Nicole, flirty Nicole, what's-a-woman-like-you-doing-in-my-bar Nicole—glided from the door to the counter, flashing the barista a bright smile.

Waverly watched her each step of the way. Her eyes mined the terrain of Nicole's silhouette, dredging up treasure after treasure: the way she shifted her weight from foot to foot as she waited by the register, the tendons in her hand as she fished for her wallet, the dimpled smile as the barista handed over her drink.

Then Nicole turned, eyes sweeping the room, and spotted Waverly.

"Waverly?" she said, her smile unfurling like a wind-laden sail.

"Hi! Nicole, right?" Waverly gave a little wave, then realized what she was doing and dropped her hand into her lap.

"You remember me!" Nicole crossed the shop to stand above Waverly's table. Waverly peered up at her and bit her lip: the blustery weather had run its fingers through Nicole's hair and she looked an awful lot like she'd been...

No, nope, definitely not. Waverly shoved that particular image into the filing cabinet marked "for later" and pulled out her patented friendly smile. "You're hard to forget. Do you want to sit?"

"You sure? You look busy." Nicole gestured to Waverly's computer with the hand clutching her coffee.

"Please, I need a distraction."

Nicole pulled out the seat across from Waverly and settled herself in it, laughing. "I don't know how good I am at distracting people. Usually I'm the one keeping people on track."

"Trust me, you're very distracting," said Waverly, leaning on her upturned hand. An easy smile slid onto her lips; for a moment, as the match to Waverly's smile spread on Nicole's face, Waverly felt as though they'd slipped into another world, just the two of them, and the urge to lean across the table and kiss the smile from Nicole’s lips nearly overpowered her.

She caught herself and forced herself back to reality. "Um, so... how are you?"

"Fine," said Nicole, sipping her coffee, eyes still smiling at Waverly over the cup. "Better than you. You seem a little frazzled."

"I am frazzled." Waverly plopped her head into her waiting hands. "I'm trying to transfer schools, which is a lot of work on its own, but on top of everything my dad is being a giant baby about it."

Nicole lifted one eyebrow. "Is it a money thing?"

"No! Well, yes, but..." Waverly groaned. "I want to transfer somewhere cheaper."

"And his problem with that is...?"

"He feels like I'm giving up on my dreams. But I'm not! I mean, sure, none of these new schools are my dream school or anything, but I'm still getting a degree. And I won't be paying off debt until I'm fifty!"

"Always a plus," said Nicole, with a smile. "It sounds like he just wants the best for you."

"I know," said Waverly. "He's a dad, it's what they do." She held her cup in both hands, spinning it between them. Staring down at it, she missed the flicker on Nicole's face.

Waverly lifted her eyes to Nicole again. "He thinks he's responsible. Like if he made more money or something, I'd have everything I ever wanted. But it's just... life, you know? He didn't ask to be a single dad."

"I'm sure he's doing the best he can," said Nicole. A tiny furrow appeared on her forehead, a familiar indicator of the question fermenting in her mind. Waverly sighed. "You can ask."

"What?" A blush dusted Nicole's cheeks.

"About my mom. It's okay."

Clearing her throat, Nicole stared down at the table, then looked up at Waverly from beneath her eyelashes. "What happened to your mom?"

"She died when I was little." Waverly eased the lid of her laptop closed. "I don't remember her much. Just bits and pieces. Dad didn't keep any photos so I don't even know what she looks like."

"Your grandparents don't have any pictures of her?"

"I've never met them, as far as I know. They didn't want anything to do with us, after." Waverly drew a shaky breath, held it in her lungs until they burned, and let it loose. "But it's okay. I'm his family and he's mine."

"It sounds like he loves you a lot," said Nicole. She rubbed the back of her neck. "Do you ever think about finding your mom's family?"

Waverly reached for her cup. The coffee had cooled, splashing lukewarm on her tongue. "I don't need them."

"What if they reached out to you?"

"I don't..." Waverly frowned. "I don't know."

"No, wait, I'm sorry." Nicole reached across the table, her hand settling on Waverly's wrist. Her skin was dry, her hands a little calloused, and the weight stilled Waverly like silencing a shrieking violin string. "I shouldn't have asked."

Nicole tried to pull away but Waverly pressed her own hand over Nicole's. "No, it was fine. I just never thought about it. Because... if they wanted to, they would have." She gazed down at their hands, at Nicole's cradled between her own, and retreated. "Anyway, can we talk about literally anything else? What about you?"

"Me? What about me?" Nicole glanced at the watch nestled on her wrist and grimaced. "Ah, sorry... I actually have to get going."

"Really?" Waverly watched Nicole stand and adjust her clothes, tugging her jacket back down. She felt compelled to follow, as if Nicole was the moon and she was the ocean at the mercy of Nicole's gravity. It took every bit of strength she could muster to stay in her seat.

"I've got a meeting with my boss," said Nicole. Her eyes went distant for a moment, picturing the dreaded meeting, and she lifted her hand and dragged her fingers through her hair.

The sight boiled Waverly from within; pressure built inside her, the question she had wanted to ask the night before rising and rising like a hot air balloon until she blurted out, "Can I have your number?"

Nicole blinked. Then a smile spread on her face, sculpting dimples in her cheeks. "Give me your phone."

Waverly obliged, unlocking it and handing it over. Nicole tapped at it, then handed it back with a new contact: Nicole, with a sly looking emoji.

"What, no last name?" Waverly leaned forward on the table, arms folded beneath her chest. Nicole glanced down, reddened, and snapped her eyes back up. Waverly bit back a laugh.

Caught, Nicole shifted her weight to one foot, smiling at Waverly and shaking her head. "You're trying to get me in trouble."

"I'm not doing anything."

"Oh, sure." Nicole backed up from the table, holding Waverly's gaze. "You better use that number."

"Tell me your last name!"

Nicole reached the door. "If you call me, I'll tell you. Deal?"

"Deal."

Then, with a wink, Nicole was gone.


Even after Nicole left the coffee shop, her distracting influence lingered. Waverly spent the rest of her time in the shop filling out paperwork between daydreaming sessions full of brown eyes and red hair. 

When she arrived at her apartment, Charlie still hadn't returned home from work. That wasn't so unusual. He worked late often, racking up as much overtime as he could. Still. His absence felt pointed and personal, and even Nicole couldn't crowd him out of Waverly's thoughts.

At work, Waverly wanted to sulk, but couldn't. The bar was busy and the customers thirsty, and even if she was transferring to a cheaper school, her existing loans would start snowballing interest soon. The cheerier she was, the heftier her tips.

So she smiled and laughed, trying to imagine Nicole instead of the ruddy-faced man sliding off his stool in front of her. She locked up and headed home with her wallet as plump as a Thanksgiving turkey.

She used the drive to run through the conversation she intended to have with Charlie as soon as he stepped through the door. She selected her words and loaded them into her mental shotgun: Childish. Absurd. Overprotective. Controlling.

It all ground to a halt when she pulled up to the curb and caught sight of a slim, red-headed woman folded onto the front steps of her building, a brown envelope clutched in her hands.

Waverly hopped out of her jeep, her steps light. "Nicole!" she shouted, raising her hand to wave.

Then her mind caught up with her.

Nicole shouldn't be here. Shouldn't know where she lived. And she certainly shouldn't be looking at Waverly like that: pale, drawn and cold.

Waverly frowned, approaching Nicole as if she were a snake rising on its belly, ready to strike. As she walked, she eased her hand into her pocket, and as quietly as possible slotted her keys between her fingers.

She stopped at the foot of the stairs, level with Nicole. "Um, Nicole? What are you doing here?"

"Miss Gibson," said Nicole. "I was looking for you."

"Miss... I didn't tell you my last name. Or where I live." Waverly took a step back, cold fear trickling down her spine. "Are you stalking me?"

Nicole scoffed, waving the question away with the envelope. "No."

"Then you're going to have to explain what the hell is going on, because I'm about five seconds from calling the cops."

Something flitted over Nicole's face; she unstuck herself from her perch on the front stoop and made her way down the steps to stand on the sidewalk several feet from Waverly. "I was paid to find you."

Waverly squinted at her. "Like a detective?"

"No," said Nicole, fast and sharp. "I work for people who need things done, discreetly. This time, my job was to find you."

"Why?" Waverly glanced over her shoulder before eyeing Nicole again. "What's next? Kidnapping me?"

Nicole flushed, one hand curling in a fist. "No! That's not what this is. That's not what I do."

"Why are you getting mad at me?" asked Waverly, propping her hands on her hips and glaring at Nicole. "You're the one stalking people!"

"I didn't stalk you," said Nicole. Waverly opened her mouth to retort, but Nicole cut her off. "Think what you want; it doesn't matter. My job is to give you this." She held out the envelope.

Waverly eyed it. "What is it?"

"It's something my employer wants you to see."

"Okay, but why?"

"Everything you need to know is in here." Nicole waggled the envelope; Waverly took a step back.

"Who are you working for?"

"Just take the envelope," said Nicole.

"No!" Waverly crossed her arms. "You don't get to make demands here! You showed up at my bar. You flirted with me. And now you're the one sitting outside my apartment, uninvited, scaring the pants off of me. So you tell me who sent you or I really will call the cops!"

Nicole grimaced. "I'm not the right person to explain any of this."

"I really don't care," said Waverly. She pulled out her phone.

Nicole’s mouth pressed into a hard line. "There’s no need for that. Put the phone away and I’ll tell you. And stop looking at me like that."

"I'll look at you however I want," said Waverly, glaring. She keyed in 911, holding the screen in clear view, and let her thumb hover over the button to dial. "I'm waiting."

Nicole sighed. She straightened her shirt. She tucked her hair behind her ears. Then she held the envelope out in front of her again. "My employers are Willa Earp and Wynonna Earp. You're their little sister."

Chapter Text

Waverly rubbed her ear, trying to clear the obstruction she was sure must be there. "What did you say?"

Nicole sighed. "I work for your sisters. They've been trying to find you. Wynonna's included an explanation in here." She shoved the envelope further into the space between them.

"I don't have sisters," said Waverly. "I'm an only child."

"Half-sisters, then. Whatever you want to call them. Please just take the envelope."

"Is this a joke? Because of what I told you before? Is this... but why would you... how can I have... I don't understand." Waverly backed away from Nicole. Her heel hit an uneven edge in the sidewalk and she stumbled, catching herself on a nearby railing.

Nicole rushed toward her, one hand extended. "Are you all right?"

Waverly flinched away. "Don't touch me."

"Sorry." Nicole jerked back. She glanced up and down the street: passersby gave her odd glances. She scanned up the front of the apartment building: Waverly's neighbors peered through their curtains. She held out the envelope again. "Seriously, everything you need is in here." 

Waverly looked askance at it. It bowed a bit under the curve of Nicole's thumb. Waverly followed the thumb, up the arm, to the face above hers. No smile, no dimples. Just furrowed brows and a down-turned mouth, impatience etched in every line.

"Can you just give me a minute?" asked Waverly. "This is a lot to process."

"If you take the envelope, I can leave you alone to deal with it."

"Fine!" Waverly snatched the envelope, then struck Nicole with it, whacking her on the arm. "I took it. Happy? Now you can leave and go creep on someone else."

Nicole made no move to leave. Waverly met her eyes again. Nicole's face was dark and apprehensive; Waverly's stomach plummeted.

"What?" asked Waverly. "What the hell is in this envelope?"

Nicole's mouth twitched, an answer caught and restrained. She shook her head. Her mouth moved again.

She sighed. "Good luck," she said, then she shoved her hands in her pockets and headed across the street to climb into a minivan.

Waverly watched Nicole go, watched her slam the door shut, watched her van grow smaller in the distance until she rounded a corner and vanished from view. Then she looked down again. A breeze tugged at the envelope. The envelope crackled in her crushing fist.

She turned on her heel and marched into the building. As she climbed the steps to her floor, tension coiled tighter and tighter in her shoulders. Storming into her apartment, she slammed the door shut and dropped into a seat at the kitchen table. She slapped the envelope onto the table and braced her fists on either side of it.

She stared at it. It bided its time. An ache built in her jaw while she ground her teeth to nubs.

Then she huffed, nodded once, and bent open the seal.

The envelope coughed up a packet of papers. A letter. Documents. Photographs. Waverly picked up what looked like a birth certificate, and her face contorted with each line she read.

Name: Earp, Waverly.
Father: Earp, Ward. 
Mother: Earp, Michelle Gibson.

Michelle Gibson Earp.

Gibson. Charlie Gibson.

How had her father ended up with that name? She pictured Charlie's smiling face, his worn hand heavy on her shoulder or ruffling her hair. 

Was he not her father? What did it mean if he wasn't?

What did it mean if he was?

Unease prickled her skin. She pawed through the pile of papers until she found the letter and deciphered its handwritten, uneven scrawl.

Hey Waverly or whatever your name is now,

Waverly wrinkled her nose.

I guess this is probably pretty weird. Long story short, I think you're my kid sister.

Long story long, you're technically my half-sister. Your dad was a guy named Julian Charles. He banged my mom and they had you. My dad didn't know at first so we spent a while thinking he was your dad, too. Well, you didn't think about it much. You were a baby. Cute baby. Lots of drool.

When you were four, Daddy found out he wasn't your daddy and shit hit the fan. Julian took you and ran and that was the last we heard of you. It sucked major balls. Even though you were four and SO ANNOYING you were still my baby sister, you know?

Anyway, the point is that Daddy died a few years back, so when Grandaddy died, he left everything to Willa and me and you to split. Willa is our other sister. Oldest. She's... well, she's Willa. Anyway.

The problem was, no one knew where you were. Willa's supposed to be the executor of the will but she didn't want to bother trying to find you. But I thought if we could find you, we should. So I sent Nicole to look for you. She's the redhead who gave you this envelope. I guess you probably already knew that, though.

I know you probably don't remember who the fuck I am, but I miss you, baby girl. So when you get this, send me an email or call me or whatever. If you want.

Wynonna

Waverly leaned back in her seat, stretching her hands flat against the table, and let out a long breath. Wynonna. Her sister. Something fizzed inside her, and if she closed her eyes she could just picture herself lifting right out of her seat, floating up and up on the bubbling warmth. Sisters. She named the feeling inside her: elation.

"Wynonna Earp," she said, testing the name on her tongue. "Willa Earp." The names bloomed sweet at first, but bitterness crept in behind, poisoning the taste. Earp. A name that wasn't hers. Her face crumpled like the letter balled in her hands. 

Waverly Earp? Gibson? Charles?

Waverly... who?


After gathering herself again, she dove into the pictures. All glossy three-by-fives, beginning to discolor with age, their corners dog-eared.

In one photo: A baby, swaddled and red-faced, in the lap of a dark-haired little girl. Their mother beside them, steadying the baby in her sister's arms. A third girl, seated beside her sisters, leaning away and eyeing the baby with distrust.

In another: The baby again, golden wisps of hair flying in the wind, laughing wide enough to reveal two tiny teeth. The dark-haired sister beside her in a pink windbreaker, face contorted, eyes crossed, hands splayed next to her head in a bid to make the baby laugh. A man with thinning hair behind them, his mouth open mid-speech, lost in the frozen moment.

They were all like that. Baby and sister, baby and mama. The third sister appeared occasionally and the father hardly ever.

One last photo. A sunny day outdoors. A man held the baby, now a toddler, on his hip. His hand hovered over his eyes, shielding them from the sun. His hair shone. His smile revealed perfect teeth. Dirt smeared his sleeveless undershirt and he wore a plaid shirt tied around his waist.

Charlie Gibson.

She turned the picture over. Julian and Waverly, 1997

Julian.

Her father. 

Her abductor.

She was still staring at the photo when she heard the key in the lock, heard the door creak open, heard her father's shuffling steps as he toed off his shoes and dropped his things just inside the door.

"Waverly?" he called. "Are you home? Gee whiz, it's dark in... here..."

He spotted her at the kitchen table, everything spread out before her, a tableau of his guilt. "Kiddo? What is all this? New research project?"

"Who are you?" she asked. The sight of him catalyzed the tight-clustered emotions within her, confusion and fear transforming into rage. She dug within herself for iron and hard stone and weighted her voice with every ounce of it she could find. "Who's Julian?"

Charlie straightened as though struck by lightning. He rushed toward the table. His hands grasped for the documents. Waverly leapt from her seat, dashing in front of him. She threw her palms into his chest, pushing him back.

At the contact, he retreated. "How?"

"My sister," she said, acid burning her tongue. "She sent someone to find me."

"Willa?"

"Wynonna."

He ran his hand over his hair, eyes still fixed on the spread on the table.

She crossed her arms. "So are you Julian? What's your real name? What's my real name?"

"Your real name is Waverly Gibson," he said, finally looking at her. His jaw clenched, muscle popping beneath his skin. "Whatever the government says, you always should have been Waverly Gibson."

Her emotions lashed her like swirling winds in a thunderstorm; she planted her feet and fought with all her strength to withstand them.

She stared her father down. "Take that chair, put it against the other wall, and sit down."

"Kiddo—"

"Just do it, daddy."

He obeyed, and she packed everything back up into its envelope, safe in her grasp.

"You gonna interrogate me now?" he asked, chiseling a smile onto his lips.

"Yes." She pulled the other chair over and sat facing him. "What's your real name?"

"Julian Charles," he said. "Legally. I was an orphan. I don't know where the name came from, but that's the name I got."

"My mother is Michelle Earp?"

"Michelle Gibson." He crossed his arms. "She married an Earp, but she was a Gibson through-and-through."

"You had an affair?"

"We fell in love,” he said, bristling. Then he softened. "I loved your mother, Waverly. Part of me still does, always will."

She opened the envelope, pulled out her birth certificate. "So why am I Waverly Earp on here? And Waverly Gibson now? Why not Waverly Charles?"

"They were married when you were born. I could have gone to court to get myself on the birth certificate, but Ward didn't know and Michelle didn't want him to find out. He... hit her, even before the affair. Plus, what was I going to be able to do for you? Ward had money. I had..." His hand hovered in front of his chest, fingers splayed, shaking. "I was a kid. I wasn't even twenty, doing their gardening, I... what could I provide either of you?"

"So what changed? Why did you..." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Why did you kidnap me?"

"I'm your father," he said. "I didn't... I—"

"Why did you do it?"

Charlie—Julian?—squeezed his eyes shut, warding off a memory. "He found out. Ward found out and he... he threw Michelle into a wall and he grabbed you and he..." 

He shot out of his seat, shaking his head. He thundered out of the room, into his office, and flung open the filing cabinet. Waverly followed on his heels. She clutched the envelope to her chest.

Charlie rifled through the folders. He found one, yanked it free, and let it fall open in his hand. He flicked through papers, white and yellow and pink. His face blanched. His arm shook.

When he found what he was looking for, he snatched it and held it out to her. "He broke your arm," he said. 

She accepted the paper, slowly, holding it as delicately as she would the rare books she'd studied in school. The words swam before her; she struggled to piece sentences together. Greenstick fracture. Suspected abuse. Child intervention. Charlie spoke, his voice muffled as though she were underwater and he was shouting down to her from above. Her lungs seized. She broke for the surface.

"He just wanted to scare Michelle," said Charlie, as Waverly gasped for air, "not actually hurt you, but I couldn't trust a man like that around my kid. I should have taken you sooner. The moment you were born, I should have run."

His sentences dissolved in her mind, words piling up without order or meaning. She raced to piece them back together. "Why didn't you try to get custody of me?"

"Because she wouldn't leave him!" He flung the folder onto the desk behind him. Papers blew out of its mouth, scattering on the desk and floor. "And if she wouldn't leave him, if she wouldn't testify against him, there was a risk the courts would let him near you and I couldn't take that risk. Not for a minute. Not for a second."

She watched his chest heave. Watched his mouth work, his jaw tremble, like a wail percolated inside him, unable to rip itself free.

"He's dead," she said. "Ward Earp. Wynonna said he died a few years ago."

"I know," he said. "I read about it in the paper."

"So why..."

"Because as far as the law is concerned, I did kidnap you." He smiled, ice and stone. "Your grandfather, Ed, is a decent man. He loved you like his own granddaughter, even after he found out you weren't Ward's. But he's like all the Earps, with a vengeful streak a mile wide. If he ever found me, the courts would be the least of my worries."

"Well, he's dead now, too." Waverly's arms fell to her side. Her free hand balled in a fist. "A loving grandfather I never got to know."

"I won't apologize for it." He had morphed, somehow. The raw energy rippling through him had solidified, cast like bronze. "I'm your father. It was my job to protect you and I did that. I won't... I can't apologize for it."

She added the medical bill—suspected abuse—to the top of the pile of documents in her folder. She tapped them square on the table. She tucked them away, centering them against the folder's spine.

"I understand," she said, and the tension in his shoulders cracked and crumbled away. "I'm going to stay somewhere else for a while."

"Where are you going to go?" He slipped his hands in his pockets, the crease of his mouth cutting deeper as he spoke.

"I don't know. Maybe Jeremy's." She took a step back, bracketing the folder against her chest. "I love you, daddy."

"I love you, too, Waverly," he said, then let her go.


She packed a bag with some clothes, her computer, and all of her important documents. Standing in her room, a locked door keeping Charlie on the other side, she called Jeremy Chetri: her best friend, and her staunchest ally. She cut him off before he could start his usual ambling conversation.

"Can I come stay with you?" she asked. "Just for a few days, maybe not even that long."

As she spoke, his silence grew heavy. "Of course, but what's going on? Are you okay? Is Charlie okay?"

"Charlie is just fine," she said, more venom in her words than she'd intended. "I'm... I'll tell you when I get there. Can I come over now?"

"Yeah, absolutely, do you need me to come get you?"

"I'll take the jeep," she said. "I'll be there soon."

She slung her bag over her shoulder and left her room. Charlie loitered in the hall outside.

"Are you eavesdropping now?" she asked, stomping past him.

"You're going to Jeremy's?"

"For now."

"Will you let me know if you go somewhere else? Just for my peace of mind?"

She stopped with her hand on the front door knob and turned to face him. "If anything happens to me, Jeremy will let you know."

"Waverly..."

"Julian."

He reeled back as if she'd slapped him. "I'm Charlie now. I haven't been Julian in a long time."

"I don't know who you are," she said. "Maybe I'll come back when I figure it out."


Jeremy was at work, but Waverly knew where he kept his spare key. She let herself in. She placed the envelope containing her secret history on the coffee table and sank into Jeremy's couch.

The envelope sat there. Silent. Unmoving. A shiver ran up her spine. She turned on Jeremy's TV and found a sappy Lifetime movie to watch, ignoring the envelope.

Her eyes only slipped to it once. Maybe twice.

When Jeremy woke her with a hand on her shoulder, she realized she'd fallen asleep, knees curled against her chest, head tucked against her knees. He settled on the couch next to her.

"Hey," he said, "you okay?"

She sat up, knees still knotted, and shook her head. He cast an arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him.

"What's going on?" he asked. "Did something happen with your dad?"

"Sort of," she said, and she produced the envelope and gave him a summary of the events.

He perused the contents. "Oh my god, cute baby Waverly," he shouted when he saw the photos. She fixed him with a glare and he had the good sense to look sheepish. "Sorry. So... wow. You've got a whole secret family out there. Your sisters sound... interesting."

"Wynonna wants me to contact her, but I'm kind of scared. The whole family sounds like bad news. Plus, I really don't want to see Nicole again. She's the worst."

"Oh, yeah, the one Wynonna mentions here." He picked up the letter. "So she was the one who gave you all of this?"

"Yeah. She tracked me down at work. And then we ran into each other in the coffee shop." She pressed her lips to the curve of one of her knees, nose crinkling. "She must have followed me there, too. And then when she gave me the envelope... I was freaking out because I found out I had a whole secret family and she acted like I was inconveniencing her!"

"Was she hot?"

Waverly sat bolt upright. She stared at him. "What? Why would you ask that?"

He shrugged. “You just got this look on your face when you mentioned her. I’ve seen that look before…”

"She's... okay looking, I guess."

"Oh my god, you were totally into her, weren't you?"

"Shut up, I was not!" Waverly covered her reddening face with her hands. "Okay, yes, when I first met her, I maybe sort of couldn't stop staring at her. And I got her number at the coffee shop."

He whooped, and she slapped his arm. "Hey! Not something to celebrate! She sucks, remember? And it's not like she really liked me." She buried her face in her arms. Her mind summoned a memory: Nicole, leaning over the bar, sleeves rolled to the elbow, light refracting in the faint hair on her arm.

"I hate this," she said. Tears stung her eyes and she pulled up the neck of her shirt to stanch their flow. "My life wasn't perfect before, but it was normal. You know? Little fights with my dad. Paying for college. A cute woman flirting with me in a coffee shop. But it's all ruined now. It's all... twisted."

"I know," said Jeremy. He squeezed her tighter against him. She fell onto his shoulder, clutching his sweater. Her tears spilled down her cheeks and soaked through to his shirt.

When the worst had passed, he hunted down a box of tissues and a little trash bin and took his place beside her again, knocking her knee with his.

"So what are you going to do now?" he asked, as she blew her nose. "Are you going to call Wynonna?"

Waverly crumpled up the tissue, sniffling. He passed her the trash bin.

She picked up Wynonna's letter and folded it, lining up the corners and carefully pressing a crease into it. "I don't think so. Not yet. I think I want to go to this town and see what I can find out on my own." She grabbed another tissue and laughed as she dabbed away tears. "If they're going to have someone investigate me, I think it's only fair I get to investigate them back."

"Ooh, like a spy mission." Jeremy bounced on the couch beside her. "Are you going to go undercover? Do you need backup?"

"You're a forensic scientist, Jeremy, not a detective."

"Well, I work with detectives!" Jeremy pouted for a moment, then his face brightened. "Ooh, and if you get a DNA sample, I can do science on it!"

Her body shook again, this time with laughter. "That's okay, you're already helping so much by letting me stay here."

"Any time. Really. You set me up with Robin, so I basically owe you forever." Jeremy grinned. Then his smile softened, and he took Waverly's hand in his. "And you're my best friend."

Waverly grabbed another tissue, feeling tears threatening to fall again. "You're mine, too."

Their conversation drifted into safer waters: their jobs, Robin, old memories. When Waverly yawned, exhausted by the day's events, Jeremy ushered her into his bedroom, urging her to take the bed. She found herself without the strength to fight him.

She tossed and turned, unable to slip into the warm embrace of sleep. With a groan, she flicked the light on and crept into the living room where Jeremy slept in a nest on the couch. Retrieving Wynonna’s letter from the table, she padded back to her room and settled in. She read the letter over and over until she tumbled into sleep at last, her sister’s words drifting, silent, to the floor.

Chapter Text

Waverly braced herself against the seat in front of her as the bus slowed to a stop. Purgatory waited beyond the scratched and yellowed window, beyond the rattling cage of the bus. She picked her way along the aisle and down the steps, taking a deep breath as she plunged into the fresh air.

The air lanced her lungs. Bitter pine and spruce sharpened its edge; the earth-sweet smells of dying leaves and distant fire softened it.

The bus driver freed her luggage from the belly of the vehicle and left her standing alone. Donning a pair of sunglasses, she gripped the handle of the suitcase, squared her shoulders and marched into town.

It was smaller than she'd expected. Her luggage rumbled over train tracks and cracked sidewalks as she made her way onto what seemed to be the main thoroughfare. Empty parking spaces lined the street.

The sky overhead hung low and gray, threatening rain; she spotted only one or two other people sharing the sidewalks with her.

Where next? The motel, to drop off her luggage? The local dive, to interrogate the regulars? Town hall, to dig up old records? She'd just made up her mind to make her way to the motel when she caught a flash of red coming around a corner and heading down the street toward her. With a yelp, she turned and power-walked in the other direction, dipping into the first storefront that seemed open for business.

The little diner was cramped, but welcoming; the aromas of roasting coffee and frying food greeted her. Photographs lined the walls, hanging above shiny leather booths.

"You can sit wherever you want," said someone from behind the counter as Waverly removed her sunglasses and hung them in the collar of her shirt. Waverly caught the eye of a waitress, leaning across the counter on her elbows, wearing a kind smile.

"Oh, sorry," said Waverly, and she slipped into a booth.

The waitress rounded the counter to stand over Waverly, still smiling. She slipped a menu onto the table. "Morning, I'm Chrissy. Welcome to Purgatory. First time here?" Chrissy's long ponytail bobbed against her shoulder.

Waverly met Chrissy's grin with one of her own. "Yep! Just got in today."

"What brings you all the way out here?"

"I'm... doing research," said Waverly.

"You a Wyatt fan? Don't answer that yet. Let me grab you a coffee—you do want coffee, don't you?—and you can tell me when I get back." Chrissy bustled away, leaving Waverly reeling. When Chrissy returned, she filled Waverly's cup, then leaned on the back of the booth opposite Waverly. "So? Wyatt Earp?"

Earp. Waverly kicked herself for not making the connection sooner, but reasoned that this was a perfect excuse for skulking around Purgatory, researching her family. "Not exactly a fan," she said. "I'm a historian."

"Oh, a historian. Yeah, we get a few of those around here every once in a while. What's your angle?"

"My... angle?"

"Your thesis, I guess. What are you trying to prove or disprove or..." Chrissy waggled her hand. "Your angle."

"Well," said Waverly, "I guess I'm interested in Wyatt's legacy. I heard that he settled here. Are there any Earps still in town?"

Chrissy pressed a hand to her chest, trying to contain her laughter. "Are there any Earps, she asks! We've got two by blood and one by marriage. You'll hear a lot of modern Earp stories if you ask around, but you'll have a hard time talking to them directly. They like their privacy."

"Why?"

Chrissy's laughter faded and she fixed Waverly with a suspicious look. "Because they're the richest people for hundreds of miles around, and that includes everyone in the big city. Aren't you a researcher? Shouldn't you know that?"

Waverly's eyes widened. "Well, I... honestly, my interest is mostly in Wyatt Earp, I hadn't really... I get so focused on one thing that sometimes I—"

"Hey, it's all right, I get it; you're one of those big-brain, absentminded types. We just don't have a lot of people like you around here." Chrissy offered Waverly a gentle smile. "If you really want to learn about Wyatt and the Earps, they donated practically their whole family document collection to the public library when they had it built."

Waverly tried to thank her, but Chrissy was on a roll.

"And if you want to try to talk to someone close to the family, I'd stop at Shorty's. That's the bar down the way a bit. The owner's name is Gus McCready. She's Michelle's sister."

"Gus McCready," said Waverly, more to herself than anything. She pulled a small notebook out of her pocket, noting the name in delicate script. Her mother's sister.

Aunt Gus had a nice ring to it.

"She'll probably tell you to get lost," said Chrissy, "but it can't hurt to try, right?"

Waverly lifted her head to look at Chrissy again. She let a smile bubble on her face, and Chrissy responded in kind. "Thank you, you've been very helpful. And I just realized I never introduced myself! I'm..." She stumbled over her name, suddenly aware that waving it around like a standard might not jive with her under-the-radar plans. "Elizabeth Windsor. Call me Liz."

"Nice to meet you, Liz. Now, can I get you anything to eat?"


Waverly ended up staying longer than intended in the little diner, chatting with Chrissy, who seemed thrilled by her presence. She hated to leave, but promised Chrissy on her way out that she'd stop by the next time she was in town.

The coast was clear, so Waverly hurried down the street and slipped into Shorty's.

The middle-aged woman behind the bar glanced up and then back down at the glass in her hand. Then she froze, raising wide eyes to Waverly, plain disbelief splashed across her features.

"Welcome to Shorty's," said the woman. She watched Waverly the entire way to the bar. "What can I do for you?"

"Hi, I'm in town doing some research and the waitress at the diner told me you're related to the Earps."

"Did she," said the bartender. Emotions flickered on her face, so quickly Waverly could hardly recognize them all. The final brew was equal parts determination and fear. "Mind telling me your name?"

"Why?" asked Waverly. She studied the woman's face, as sure that this was Gus McCready as she was of her own hummingbird heartbeat.

"It's just that you look an awful lot like someone I thought I lost a long time ago. And, well, if I'm wrong... I'd rather you just put me out of my misery now."

Taking a quick, deep breath, Waverly let a smile flood her cheeks. "My name's Waverly Gibson. I think you're my aunt." She offered Gus her hand.

Gus stared at her. Then, like a river bursting through a dam, she rounded the bar and pulled Waverly into her arms.

"Waverly. My god, Waverly, I never thought I'd see you again."

Waverly buried her face in Gus's shoulder, filling her senses with wood smoke and detergent, with Gus's light breaths and the scratch of Gus's sweater on her skin. When they pulled apart, tears stained both their cheeks; Gus cupped Waverly's face in her calloused hands and wiped away Waverly's tears.

"Look at you," whispered Gus. "Goodness, all grown and beautiful."

The reverence in Gus's voice, in her eyes, in her smile... it settled like a lump in Waverly's throat, choking her words. Gus loved her. Gus loved her, and Gus knew nothing about her.

"You really are my aunt," squeaked Waverly, sniffing and wiping away the tears that refused to stop falling.

"I am. I was there the day you were born, girl. I'd never seen a baby so happy to meet the world and everyone in it." Gus led Waverly to the bar; they each took a seat, facing each other, and Waverly reached out and gripped Gus's age-worn hand in her own.

As Gus studied Waverly, her smile dissolved into concern. "I imagine you're here because of Ed's passing? Did your old man send you?"

"He didn't," said Waverly. "He didn't tell me about any of this."

"No, I can't imagine he would," said Gus. "Can't imagine he wanted you trying to find us. Michelle convinced Ed not to send the dogs after him, but you best believe Edwin Earp would have had your daddy drawn and quartered if he ever laid hands on him."

"Yeah, he... he mentioned something like that."

Gus's thumb worried over Waverly's skin. "So if Julian didn't send you, what led you here?"

"Wynonna did," said Waverly. "She sent her... employee, I guess. Nicole?"

"Oh. That one." Gus sighed. "Can't imagine it was pleasant, finding out from her. Her bark's worse than her bite, but her bark is awful grating at times."

"That's one way of putting it." Waverly scowled. She fought the urge to cross her arms over her chest; the Nicole in her memories winked and flirted and showed up on her doorstep uninvited, dropping a bomb into the middle of Waverly's tidy, tiny life.

"So..." said Gus, forcing Nicole from Waverly's mind. "Have you seen your sister yet?"

"I... no. No, you're the first person I've seen." Waverly's hands fidgeted in her lap. "I don't know if I'm ready to meet everyone else. You won't tell them, will you?"

"Cross my heart, Waverly, I won't. They're a lot, that family, and if you need some time, I don't blame you. But if you'd like to meet your mama, I know she wouldn't let on to Wynonna or Willa, and it would mean more to her than you could ever know."

Her mother. Waverly chewed her lip, searching Gus's face and finding no hint of expectation, only love and understanding. She studied the lines around Gus's mouth and eyes and wondered.

Did her mother look similar? Would Waverly, someday? Or would she take after her father, creases spanning her forehead, streaks of gray spreading from her temples?

Would her mother look at her the way Gus looked at her?

Waverly sighed. "I'll think about it."

"That's all anyone can ask of you. In the meantime, how long are you planning on staying in town?"

"I don't know," said Waverly. "As long as I need to, I guess."

"Where you staying?"

"I don't have a room yet, but I'm going to get one at the motel."

Gus grimaced. "Absolutely not. That place is crawling with god only knows what kinds of vermin. Stay with me, I've got room for you."

"That's really generous," said Waverly, "but I feel like that would just lead folks to ask questions. I'll be okay at the motel, really."

Gus raised an eyebrow. "How about a compromise, then: I've got a room above the bar that nobody's renting. Here's the key. You let yourself in as you please. If anyone asks, you can say you're my new tenant."

Gus worked the key free of its ring and laid it in Waverly's open palm. Waverly's fingers curled around it, so tight the teeth bit her. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you so much."

Her tears threatened to fall again; she managed to fight them back. Gus offered her a smile.

"The only thing is," she said, "the longer you stay here, the more likely the Earps are gonna find out about you. There's not much that goes on in this town without the Earps knowing about it, and you can thank their red-headed hound-dog for that."

The Nicole in Waverly's mind held out a nondescript envelope, her eyes dark and her mouth rigid. Waverly felt the lash of betrayal sting her again. "I'll take my chances," she said, and smiled.


She left Gus and headed for the library. She affixed her sunglasses to the bridge of her nose, though the sky had begun to darken and a stiff wind had whipped up from the east. The library sat on the edge of the town, the most modern building she'd seen since she'd left the city behind, all glass and steel.

She slipped inside, taking a deep breath and filling her nose with old book smell, a potent brew of paper and glue and leather.

The reference librarian guided her to the periodicals, and with some effort, Waverly found the newspaper article from the day Ward Earp died.

Area Businessman Accidentally Shot, Killed By Daughter

PURGATORY, AB — Ward Earp, 44, son of Earp-Holliday Capital Group president Edwin Earp, was shot and killed in his home in the early hours of the morning on May 18, 2000. According to a statement released by the Purgatory Sheriff Department, a disoriented and possibly intoxicated man stumbled onto the Earp family homestead around 2:15 A.M. Earp attempted to turn the intruder away, but the intruder became aggressive and attempted to forcefully enter the home. Earp kept a gun for personal defense; his daughter found the weapon and attempted to shoot the intruder, but the bullet struck Earp instead. Emergency services were called; Earp was pronounced dead on the scene. The intruder fled the property when the weapon was discharged. The Purgatory Sheriff Department is searching for him.

Services for Ward Earp will be held at the First Church on Sunday, May 21 at 10 A.M. He is survived by his wife, Michelle, his two daughters, and his father, Edwin.

Waverly wondered which of her sisters had shot Ward.

She sank further into her research. She found a table by herself on the second floor of the library and set herself up with her laptop. Searches on the Earps turned up simple biographies: Wyatt, the famous gunslinger; Josiah, who made a fortune in oil; Edwin, with a cunning mind and a knack for business.

Then there was Ward: spoiled heir, languishing in a no-risk, no-responsibility position in his father's company, drinking through his trust fund with an eye to squandering his inheritance the same way, if he'd lived to see it.

She found only a few mentions of her mother's family: Michelle Gibson, Carnival Queen, Marries Earp Heir in Lavish Ceremony.

She'd just begun to research her sisters when someone slipped into the seat across from her.

Waverly glanced up to see Nicole, leaning back in her seat, arms braced on either side.

With a glare, Waverly turned her attention back to her screen.

"Hey," said Nicole.

Waverly typed in earp holliday caopital group, then backspaced feverishly to correct her typo.

Her laptop screen tipped forward and closed with a snick, Nicole's hand spread wide on the back of it.

"Excuse me," said Waverly, her face like a stormcloud. "I was using that."

"You were ignoring me," said Nicole, sinking back into her seat. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it and shook her head. "Those sunglasses are a terrible disguise."

Waverly pushed the sunglasses in question up atop her head, the better to glare at Nicole. "Is that what you wanted to tell me?"

"No. No, I... hmm." Drumming her fingers on the arm of the chair, Nicole tipped her head, studying Waverly. "You never contacted Wynonna."

Waverly opened her laptop again, shooting daggers at Nicole over the screen. "I'm not talking to you about that."

Nicole stood, placed all five fingertips on the back of the laptop screen, and eased it shut again. She leaned forward, hand still spidered on the computer. "Look. You need to talk to her. You should have talked to her first."

"I wasn't ready. Give me back my laptop."

Nicole lifted her hands, a show of innocence. "All right. Just... talk to her. As soon as you can."

"What are you—"

A voice drifted up from behind Waverly. "Thank you, Nicole, that will be all."

Nicole nodded, shoved her hands in her pockets, and rounded the table. Waverly turned as she went; she watched Nicole pause next to a woman with long, straight hair and full lips. Nicole craned her neck, bringing her ear level with the woman's mouth; Waverly wished she could read lips as the woman whispered something in Nicole's ear.

Then Nicole straightened, glanced back at Waverly—with something new in her eyes, not desire or indifference but something other—and left.

The new woman smiled. "Hello, Waverly," she said. "I'm Willa."

Chapter Text

Waverly shot out of her seat, eyes locked on Willa as she went. In the heartbeat that followed, Waverly studied her sister.

Willa's eyes tracked every move Waverly made. They followed her as she rose, as she touched one of her rings to remind herself of reality, as she rested her fingertips on the table as a precaution against a sudden, embarrassing fall.

Willa's smile held steady, stamped across her mouth.

Something clattered, shocking Waverly out of her trance. She looked behind her to see her chair lying on the floor, knocked over in her haste.

"Oh, let me," said Willa, rushing to Waverly's side. They crouched and righted the chair together. Their eyes met. Willa drew a sharp breath. Then she pushed her hair behind her ear and beamed. "Wow, you look just like Mama."

Waverly caught herself with her own fingers curling behind her ear, tucking away an unruly strand of hair. "Oh," she said. "I, um... thanks?"

"Yes, that was a compliment. Mama's very good looking." Willa's eyes flitted over Waverly's face, as if reading a book. "I can't believe you're really here."

"Well... tada!" said Waverly, with a shaky smile and a quick bout of jazz hands. She collected herself again with a cough. "So you're my sister."

Willa laughed. "Am I what you expected?" She waved one hand, as if to offer herself up for study.

She dressed in muted colors, but everything fit her perfectly, tailored to within an inch of its life. Her hair was immaculate, not a strand out of place. Waverly guessed that her shoes alone would cover a month's rent, with change.

If her smile wasn't quite warm, it was at least inviting, not a crackling fire so much as a cold river on a summer day.

Waverly met Willa's eyes again. "I didn't know what to expect. I saw pictures of us when we were little, but so much can change..."

"You're telling me," said Willa. "I hardly recognize you."

They stared at each other a moment longer. Waverly wondered if Willa was doing the same thing she was: searching for familiarity, for the tiny pieces of themselves that bound them together.

"So..." said Willa, edging around the awkward moment. "I know you weren't expecting me... but would you like to get lunch together?"

"I already ate," said Waverly with an apologetic wince. "At the diner in town."

"Nicole did mention you'd been there." Willa tapped her lips, thinking.

"She followed me?"

"Wynonna and I asked her to," said Willa. Her finger stilled. "I know this must be overwhelming, but you have to understand, as the executor of Granddaddy's will, I had a legal obligation to contact you."

"That's funny. Wynonna said you didn't want to find me."

"She never misses a chance to make me look bad." Acid dripped from Willa's tongue. She crossed her arms, fingers digging into the fabric of her coat, her rage burning so hot and bright that Waverly took a quick step back. Willa noticed, shook her head, and found her smile again. "Of course I wanted to find you. You're my little sister. You're an Earp."

Waverly nocked her next words carefully and let them fly. "Not really. I'm a Gibson."

Willa's smile grew brighter. "That's right. And so am I. "

Waverly's stomach still roiled from the acid in Willa's tone moments before. She wrinkled her nose. "So... you couldn't think of a less creepy way to find me?"

"If there was any other option, I would have taken it." Willa fiddled with her watch, slipping it up and down her wrist. Its crystalline face caught the light and scattered it around the room. "Not to knock Nicole's skill—she's good at what she does—but it's a miracle we found you at all."

Waverly slipped her laptop into her bag and hoisted the whole thing over her shoulder. "Didn't you have anyone less..." She grimaced.

"Who, Nicole? I know she can be a bit serious, but I'd trust her with my life." Willa breezed along to a new subject. "So lunch is out... would you like to join me at the homestead? It's probably time you see where we all came from."

When Waverly assented with a nod, Willa beckoned for her to follow. A sleek black car idled in front of the building, a driver with a curlicue earpiece standing by its back door. Waverly stopped in her tracks.

"How far is it? I don't have a car..."

"We're a half hour out," said Willa. "But don't worry, we'll have someone drive you back afterward."

Waverly worried anyway. She hoped Willa would be true to her word.

They slipped into the car and the scent of new leather assaulted Waverly. The driver shut the door behind her, boxing them in. Willa folded her hands in her lap, one thumb tapping against her skin like the drip of a leaking faucet, slow and heavy. "Nicole tells me you're studying history and languages."

Waverly pursed her lips. "Yeah? What else did she tell you? My blood type? The name of my first pet?"

Willa arched an eyebrow. "She wasn't profiling you. Any questions she asked you, any information she dug up... she just needed to make sure she had the right person."

"Yeah, well." Waverly crossed her arms and chewed the inside of her lip. "You know all sorts of stuff about me now. Stuff I should have been able to tell you myself."

Willa laid her hand on Waverly's knee. "I'm sorry, I should have realized how off-putting that would feel. Why don't we pretend I don't know anything?"

"If you want." Waverly sighed. "Sure, yeah. I'm in school now, double majoring in History and Ancient Languages."

"I like people with ambition," said Willa, eyes sparkling. "Do you graduate soon?"

"I planned to graduate next year, but I don't know if that's going to happen. I wanted to transfer to save money, but now..."

"Now you're on the verge of never worrying about money again, as I'm sure you know from your research."

"Never worrying..." Waverly retreated from Willa's knowing smile, turning her eyes to the window, to the prairie stretching away to the horizon. Earp-Holliday Capital Group. It sounded rich. Super, mega, never-work-a-day-in-your-life rich. She glanced back at her sister. "Just how big is this inheritance?"

Willa's smile spread, as slowly as a cat stalking its prey. "Let's leave that for when we speak to the lawyer, hm?"

Waverly stared dead ahead, trying to calm her racing heart. The enormity of it crashed into Waverly like a boulder careening down a cliff. Willa spoke about a lawyer like a hairdresser or a bank teller. The closest Waverly had ever been to a lawyer was leaning against the oversized face of an ambulance chaser while she waited for a bus.

She abandoned calm for lost and dove back into the conversation. "So... Willa. What do you do?"

Willa shrugged. "These days, it feels like I do everything. Officially, I'm the CFO of the company. And once Grandaddy's will makes it through probate, I'll join the board of directors in his stead."

"The CFO..." Waverly ran the numbers in her head, calculating Willa's age at just shy of thirty. Waverly's ideal late twenties involved keeping her loan interest just nipping at her heels and maybe even moving out of her dad's apartment. "But you're so young. That's incredible."

Willa tossed her head, her hair streaming over her shoulder. "Thank you. I've been preparing to take on the role of leading the company for some time. Since before Daddy died, really. I loved my father, but he wouldn't have made a very good executive."

"I read about him at the library," said Waverly. "I know I'm years late, but... I'm sorry."

Willa went as rigid as stone. Waverly's stomach soured and she scrambled for another apology. But Willa shook her head, gazing out the window at the clouds for just a moment before turning back to Waverly with a shrug.

"Don't be sorry," she said. "You're not the one who killed him."

Waverly knew, instantly, that Wynonna had fired the shot that killed him.

She knew, too, that Willa hadn't forgiven her sister, and never would.

Silence shouldered its way between them, thick and stifling. Waverly waded through it first, groping for Willa in the fog. "He worked at EHCG too, right? Did you... did he inspire you to work at the company, or—"

"What about your father?" asked Willa, trampling over Waverly's stuttering inquiry. "Was it just the two of you?"

"I think the less I talk about my dad, the better." Waverly leaned away from Willa, arms closing about herself.

"Waverly," said Willa. "I don't want to get your father in trouble. I'm not my grandfather."

"No?" Waverly felt like a threatened cat, its ears flat, its back arched, its teeth bared. "You know where he lives now, you sure I don't need to tell him to run before the cops show up?"

With the sigh of an exasperated older sister, perfected over decades, Willa shook her head. "Only Nicole knows where he lives, and she won't share that information with me."

"Why not? Aren't you her boss?"

"Wynonna likes to use Nicole to play petty little mind games. Nicole's forbidden from discussing certain topics with me. But in any case, I don't care where your father lives. I wouldn't ask."

Waverly raised an eyebrow. Willa pressed her fingers to her temple.

"Look, Waverly... you're clearly a spirited, intelligent young woman. He raised you well, and as your big sister, that's all I ever wanted for you."

"All the pictures Wynonna gave me..." Waverly picked a piece of lint off of her skirt. "You never looked happy about me. You looked like you hated me in some of them."

"I was a child." Leaning her head on the window, with the sun streaming in behind her, Willa seemed for a moment like the heroine of a romantic movie, lost in thought. "My parents were fighting more than usual and there was a new, loud baby demanding all of my mama's time."

She drifted into silence. Waverly waited. Willa turned to face her again, eyes lifted toward the ceiling; they shimmered with tears. "When he took you, it was like a piece of me was ripped out. Seeing you again, it's like I can finally start to heal."

Willa's hand stretched into the space between them, palm turned upward, shaking.

Waverly licked her lips. "Then why did Wynonna say you didn't want to find me?"

The outstretched palm curled into a fist. Willa withdrew it to the safety of her lap. "Like I said before... Wynonna plays fast and loose with a lot of things in her life. The truth is one of them, especially when it comes to me. Please don't let that influence your opinion of her, though. We're both products of the way we were raised. We just have different methods of coping."

"And how do you cope?"

"By being the best."

"The best at... what?"

"At everything, Waverly." Willa grinned. "By being the best at everything."


Waverly spotted the homestead on the horizon as they rumbled down the dirt road. The top of the main building peeked over the high wall surrounding the property. The wall seemed to roll on forever as they passed. Eventually, the wall split, parted by a heavy gate.

As their driver pulled out a keycard to unlock the gate, Waverly peered down the road. It stretched on past the homestead, and she could just make out a squat, antique building at its end, bearing the weight of the endless gray sky on its spine.

The gate clattered open and they plunged into the compound. Straight ahead, the main building sprawled, a home fit for an English noble dropped in the middle of the Canadian prairie. Smaller buildings surrounded it, orbiting like satellites. Waverly spotted more than one jet-black vehicle loitering on the grounds.

"That's the Earp homestead?" She turned to Willa, eyes wide. "That's where you live?"

"Some of the time, yes. I personally have a home in Vancouver, where EHCG's headquarters are located. This is Wynonna's primary place of residence when she's not drinking herself half to death in Europe."

The car came to a stop outside the main building and let them out. Waverly drew her coat tighter about herself and revolved in place, trying to take everything in. "Is that building down the road yours, too?"

"That's the old Wyatt Earp house," said Willa, drawing up next to Waverly. "My great-granddaddy grew up there. He built the big house when he struck oil, but left the little house. Men. So sentimental."

Willa took a few steps toward the big house, but Waverly remained rooted in place. "Is it period-accurate? Has it been maintained? Can I see?"

Without moving from her spot in front of the house, Willa shook her head and smiled. "You really are a history major, aren't you? No, it's been updated a bit to keep up with the times. The family has used it for different things over the years. Nicole lives there now. You're welcome to ask her for a tour."

Waverly's insides flash-froze. "Oh. Never mind." She took long, hurried strides toward the big house and flew toward the door.

"You really don't like her," said Willa, jogging to catch up.

"She didn't make a good first impression."

Waverly almost wished that was true. Nicole's first impressions had been good. Great, even. But they'd been fake. She'd lured Waverly in, then left her alone in the wreckage of the only life she'd ever known. Rage crackled over Waverly's skin and she swept into the house as if she could outrun it.

The house dwarfed her. She craned her neck to see the whole of it: rich wood paneling. Lush carpeting. A chandelier like someone had cast a net and reeled in all the stars in the sky.

She dragged her eyes back to Willa and snapped her jaw shut, suddenly aware that it had fallen open.

Willa grinned. "It has that effect on people."

She led Waverly down hallways dripping with wealth: portraits on the walls, gilded vases, furniture polished to a mirror finish. Waverly had to stop every so often to gawk, her fingers itching with the desire to touch. Willa breezed past everything.

She walked those halls every day. She'd probably sprinted through them as a child, knocking over furniture older than the Queen during her horseplay, while Waverly had made do with once cracking her forehead on a chipped formica countertop.

At the end of their journey, Willa ushered Waverly into an office. She guided her past a sturdy, leather-topped desk beneath a high window to a sitting area in the other half of the room. Waverly perched on a wingback armchair that was more comfortable than it looked.

"Would you like anything to drink?" asked Willa, still standing. "Tea? Coffee? Water?"

"Tea would be nice," said Waverly.

Willa tapped something on her phone and smiled. "It'll be here soon. So? What do you think?"

"It's a beautiful house."

"I heckled Granddaddy into letting me take over maintaining it a few years ago. This house is my baby." Willa walked to her desk, fished a key from a cord around her neck, and unlocked a drawer. She retrieved a manila folder from within. "I suppose now it's partly your baby, too. Granddaddy left it to all three of us."

Waverly studied the heavy curtains pulled away from the windows, the high ceilings, the light dappling the walls. She let out a trembling breath. "This is a lot."

"I know. When our lawyer gets here, we can discuss what you'd like to do."

"Our lawyer?" asked Waverly. Willa appeared not to hear her. Someone knocked on the door and she called them in.

Nicole came through the door, a tray in her hands. "Brought your tea," she said.

"Nicole?" Willa's brows furrowed. "All right, you didn't have to, but thank you."

Nicole set the tray on the coffee table and shrugged. "I thought I'd spare Kyle the trouble. Constance Clootie beat you here, by the way. She's waiting outside."

"Send her in when you leave. Have you seen Wynonna?"

"Maybe," said Nicole, slipping her hands in her pockets.

A corner of Willa's mouth curled in a smile. "You're much better at that these days, you know."

"I've had a lot of practice."

"Sorry," said Waverly, squeezing a cloth-wrapped lemon half into her tea. "Better at what?"

"Oh, it's an old joke," said Willa, waving her hand. "Thank you, Nicole, I'll speak to you later."

Nicole nodded, gave Waverly another enigmatic look, and headed for the door. "Ms. Clootie?" she said, to someone in the hall. "She'll see you now." Then she stepped back, pressing against the open door as a tall, thin woman swept into the room.

Waverly stood as Constance Clootie approached. Past Clootie, Nicole lingered in the doorway. She pointed at Clootie, shook her head and drew a finger over her throat with a grimace.

"Miss Gibson?" said Clootie, and Waverly's eyes juddered back to hers.

"Sorry, sorry. Nice to meet you." Clootie gripped Waverly's hand like a vice and pain lanced through Waverly's bones. Clootie grinned, teeth gleaming, and a chill prickled over the back of Waverly's neck.

"Your sister's told me about your circumstances," said Clootie. "It's so fortunate she found you, you poor dear."

Before Waverly could retort, Clootie settled on the couch, set her briefcase on the coffee table, and flicked the clasps open. She withdrew a folder and presented it to Waverly as Waverly settled back into her armchair.

"This is your grandfather's will and a basic accounting of the assets you'll be inheriting. I've annotated the relevant sections," said Clootie. "In summary, Edwin Earp left his entire fortune to Willa, Wynonna and you. Every bit of it. All of his bank accounts. Investments. Property. Shares in EHCG."

Waverly shuffled through the contents of the folder. "Wow. Um. So I'm going to be a millionaire?"

"Many times over," said Willa.

Waverly pinched her arm, yelped, and rubbed at the newly-sore spot. "Okay, definitely not dreaming."

Willa folded her hands over her knees. "I know this must be overwhelming, but I have a proposition for you that might make it a little easier to handle. I'd like to purchase your shares in EHCG. I assume cash is more useful to you than shares in a holding company."

"I... I don't even know what a holding company is," said Waverly.

Clootie let out a barking laugh. "Where did you dig her up, Willa?"

"Be nice, Constance," said Willa, laughing. Her smile lingered as she turned her attention to Waverly. "It's really just a company that owns other companies. Of course, that's simplifying it quite a bit. It's no small thing to be responsible for it, as a shareholder."

Waverly flicked back and forth through the pages in her folder. "Wynonna's not inheriting any shares in the company."

"Ah. No." Willa frowned. "Wynonna and Granddaddy spoke before he passed. She elected not to have a hand in EHCG. She didn't want the responsibility."

"And thank god for that." Clootie rolled her eyes. "Can you imagine? Wynonna Earp running EHCG? She'd burn the place down then pass out drunk in the ashes."

"What does she do?" Waverly closed the folder and held it flat on her bouncing knees. "Wynonna, I mean?"

"Nothing," said Willa. She shrugged. "And she's very happy that way. Anyway, back to the topic at hand... Constance has drawn up an agreement."

Clootie pulled out another packet and slid it onto the table. "I think you'll find this agreeable."

"What, right now?" Waverly picked up the agreement. "I don't even have the shares yet, do I?"

"The will is still in probate. But I thought—"

"I need time to think about it." Waverly's skin crawled. The primitive part of her started to panic, an animal cornered. "And get a lawyer."

"Constance is—"

"Your lawyer. She's your lawyer, not mine. Right?" She turned to Clootie, raising an eyebrow.

Clootie glanced at Willa, caught sight of her frown, and shook her head. "I'm not currently representing you, but it's a simple matter to make that relationship more official."

Waverly shoved the agreement and the will into her bag. "I know I'm young and maybe me and my dad don't have gobs of money like you, but I'm not stupid." She rocketed out of her seat.

Willa jumped up to follow. "Waverly! That's not what I think!"

"I want my own lawyer. And I think I want to leave."

"You don't have to go. Constance, give us a minute?"

Clootie gathered her things and strode out of the room.

Willa edged toward Waverly as though she might startle and flee at any moment. "Waverly. I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to rush you."

"Please just have someone take me back to town."

"You're welcome to stay here," said Willa. "We have plenty of rooms."

"No. No, I'm leaving." Waverly heaved her bag over her shoulder and stormed toward the door. "I'm sorry. This is just a lot really fast. I don't want to... I don't want to talk about all this... business. I came here to find my family, not... not all this."

Willa's heels clacked as she followed Waverly into the hall. "Waverly, please stop."

Waverly stopped, turned, and gazed at her sister, clutching the strap of her bag.

"I'm sorry," said Willa. "I didn't mean to pressure you. I have a very... straightforward personality. It makes me an excellent executive, but apparently a terrible sister."

"I get it," said Waverly. "I don't know how to be a good sister either. At least you have Wynonna."

"I wish that were true." Willa frowned, clutching her arms about herself. "Everything changed when... well. Everything changed. But you... we have a blank slate. I don't want to get off on the wrong foot with you."

Waverly took a tentative step toward Willa. "You haven't. I'm just... it's just... it's a lot. It's a lot, really fast."

"I know," said Willa. "Stay. Have dinner. We can just... talk. As sisters. No business talk, I swear."

"Thanks, but... I want to leave. I'm sorry. Maybe... maybe another time."

Willa sighed. "I understand." She closed the distance between them. Holding Waverly's gaze, she wordlessly asked for permission and Waverly granted it, lifting her arms to enfold Willa in a hug. "Whenever you're ready," said Willa.

Then they parted, and Willa led Waverly back to the front door without another word.

As they stepped outside, they caught sight of another nondescript black vehicle. Nicole's hair stood out against the car's glossy finish.

"Seriously?" said Waverly. "Her?"

"Sorry to disappoint you," said Nicole, "but it's either me or you wait an hour for Carl to get back."

"Fine. But don't talk to me." Waverly turned to Willa, lips trembling. "Do you want my phone number or anything? Don't tell me Nicole already gave it to you; I know I didn't give it to her."

"Exchanging numbers would be lovely."

Nicole waited, leaning against the vehicle with her arms crossed. When Waverly and Willa finished, Nicole peeled herself off of the car and hopped into the driver's seat.

Waverly hovered at the passenger door.

"Willa?" she called, and Willa raised an eyebrow. "Is my... is our... is Michelle here?"

"Mama is on vacation in Europe," said Willa. "I didn't want to let her know about you until... well, I didn't want to get her hopes up. I'm going to call her after this."

"When is she supposed to be back?"

"Two weeks. But she'll probably head home as soon as she hears."

"Don't tell her," said Waverly. "Please? Wait until she comes back."

"Why?"

"Because I want to meet her on my own terms," said Waverly. "Let me know when she comes back and I'll ask Gus if she can help me arrange a meeting. Don't just... don't just spring her on me like you did everything else."

"All right," said Willa. "I'll let you know when she comes back."

Waverly flung open the door of the car and climbed inside. "Drive," she said. Nicole did.


They were five minutes out from the homestead when Waverly started squirming.

"I know you told me not to talk," said Nicole, casting a sidelong glance at her passenger, "but are you all right? You look like you're ready to do a barrel roll out of this car."

"Maybe it's because I'm stuck in here with you," said Waverly. "And you're right, I did tell you not to talk."

"I'm not all that bad, you know." Nicole brushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Waverly kicked herself for the way it made her stomach twist.

"No? You didn't track me down at my bar, flirt with me as an excuse to get personal information from me, and then follow me home and report everything to your... shadowy employers?"

"Those shadowy employers are your sisters," said Nicole. She frowned. "I had a job to do. I know it seems cold—"

"Seems?" Waverly's hands knotted into fists. "You turned my whole life upside down. One minute I was a regular person, going to school, working, flirting with a pretty woman I wanted to see again and now... now it's all just complicated."

"You think I'm pretty?" said Nicole, her cheeks suddenly pink.

Waverly remembered the last time she'd seen Nicole that color: two beers deep and with a lopsided grin dangling from her lips.

A fake grin. A lie. "I can't believe that's what you took from what I just said."

"Sorry," said Nicole. Her fingers flexed and relaxed where they gripped the steering wheel. "I wish it was different. I wish I really had just walked into your bar that night and met you by chance."

"Well," said Waverly. "You didn't."

Silence slipped into the car with them, looming over them until they rolled back into Purgatory.

Waverly threw her shoulder against the door, spilling onto the street. She slammed it closed behind her, then marched toward Shorty's.

"Wait! Waverly, wait!"

She heard Nicole behind her. She refused to turn around. Just as she reached the bar, Nicole reached around her, blocking her path.

"Get out of my way."

"Just... just take my card, okay?" Nicole shoved a hand in her pocket, pulled out her wallet, and slipped a crinkled business card from it. "If you ever need my help, just call."

Waverly took the card, holding it shaking between her fingers. Nicole Haught, it said. Specialist.

She frowned and narrowed her eyes at Nicole. "Didn't I already get your number?"

The color drained from Nicole's face. "Oh. Right. Um..."

"It wasn't your real number, was it?" Waverly laughed, the sound frayed and manic. "It was all fake. You... wow. You're something else, really."

"It wasn't all fake," said Nicole. "Look, I really do want to help. I know a guy, a lawyer, he can help you. You don't want Clootie—"

"I don't want your lawyer! I don't want your help. Please just leave me alone." Waverly tried to duck under Nicole's arm.

"If Willa or Wynonna ask me—"

Waverly popped upright and planted herself in front of Nicole. "Leave. Me. Alone." Each word eked out through gritted teeth.

"Fine." Nicole threw up her hands and squeezed out from between the door and Waverly. "I was trying to make amends, but fine. I'll go out of my way to avoid breathing the same air as you. Have a nice day." She spun on her heel, stomped to her car, and threw herself into the seat, slamming the door behind her.

Waverly watched her go, arms still crossed, until the car disappeared around a corner. Shaking her head, she shoved Nicole's card into her wallet and flung herself through the door to Shorty's, ready to beg Gus for a drink.

Chapter Text

Waverly woke in the middle of the night, in a room she didn't recognize, and panicked. She threw off the covers and sat bolt upright. As her feet hit the floor, she remembered: this was the room above Shorty's. This was her room. This was Purgatory.

When Waverly had blown into Shorty's after her fight with Nicole, Gus had steered Waverly upstairs and given her everything she'd need: fresh sheets on the bed, a rundown of the workings of the shower, an insistence that Waverly would have free meals any time she asked.

"I can pay," Waverly had said. "I'm rich now."

"You ain't rich yet, girl," said Gus. "And besides, I've got sixteen years of aunting to catch up on."

They'd spent the rest of the day together. Waverly. had dinner with Gus at the bar before the saloon filled up with the tired denizens of Purgatory. Conversation bubbled like a spring between them. Waverly imagined a childhood with Gus in it, imagined hugs and forehead kisses and being carried on Gus's hip, imagined being scolded by a woman with a stern face and laughing eyes.

Later, lying in bed, her mind drifted to memories with Charlie instead. Her hand dwarfed by his. His shoulder broad enough for her tiny head as she sucked her thumb and drifted to sleep. She wrapped the memories around herself like a quilt, warm and thick, and sleep claimed her for its own.

Now, in the dark little room, she took a deep breath and re-acquainted herself with her new, temporary home. Moonlight drifted through gauzy curtains. Music filtered through the floor, twined with laughter and shouting. She felt alone.

Waverly pulled out her phone and dialed Jeremy. He answered on the second ring.

"Hey," he said, his voice sluggish with sleep. It picked up speed as he spoke. "Are you okay? You're not murdered or anything? Do I need to call the police?"

"No, I'm fine. I mean, I'm physically fine. Not murdered. Mentally... maybe I'm not so good."

"Bad family reunion?"

"It was okay. I met my aunt. She's really nice. But my sister Willa is... I think she thinks she's nice, but I think she might also be a robot."

"Maybe she's a nice robot." Jeremy waited, then sidled back into the conversation. "Are you coming back soon?"

"No, I'm actually staying here. Gus—that's my aunt—has a room she's letting me stay in."

"Are you sure? You know I'm always happy to have you here." She pictured his smile at that, the quirk of his head. Maybe Robin had also stirred awake at her call. She saw him, too, nodding encouragingly: yes, Waverly was always welcome.

"I know. I might still come running back to you. I just... there's so much going on here, so many people wanting things." She sighed, and it left her empty and cold. "Gus wants to pamper me. Willa wants a relationship, but she's also learning how to be human. I think Wynonna wants to play big sister, but she's apparently a bad seed, and my mother is on a weeks-long vacation in Europe."

"I hear Europe's nice this time of year."

"So not the point here! I—hang on."

Sirens pierced the murmur of the bar below. She slipped off the bed and padded to the window, brushing the curtains aside to peer through. A squad car rolled up in front of the bar. She squinted to ward against its flashing lights. A second car followed moments later.

Jeremy's voice broke through her curiosity. "Hello? Earth to Waverly?"

"Sorry. There are cops outside, I'm trying to see what's going on." The police slipped out of the cars and disappeared into Shorty's.

"Outside your aunt's house?"

"No, outside the bar."

"You're at a bar?"

The tenor of the noise beneath her feet changed: a ripple of curiosity, maybe. A burst of surprise. Then a moment of quiet.

"It's Gus's bar," said Waverly, distracted. "I'm staying in the room over it." One of the cops reappeared, wrangling a bulky man into the back of one of the cars.

The bar patrons melted back into their usual buzz. Another officer appeared, fingers clenched around the arm of a tall, dark-haired woman. The woman followed him without complaint, and when he opened the back door of the other cruiser, she dipped inside with practiced ease.

The officers lingered a moment in the street, and Waverly squinted to study the woman. She leaned against the window of the car, lips pursed, almost bored. Her eyes roved the street, then up the facades of the buildings. When they scanned over the window above Shorty's, Waverly gasped and ducked away, tripping back onto the bed.

"What's going on?" Jeremy asked, the panic in his voice accentuated by the rabbity beat of her heart. "Are you okay?"

"They just arrested her," said Waverly.

"Who?"

"Wynonna." Waverly crept back to the window, crouching beneath it, and peeked over the sill. The squad car rolled down the street, carting her sister away. "I saw her face. That was Wynonna."

"Um," he said. "That's... not good."

Waverly slipped to the floor, landing with a thud. Her head lolled against the wall. "What kind of family is this?"

"An interesting one?" suggested Jeremy. As if he could hear her scowling at him, he apologized. "Are you going to go talk to her?"

"She's in jail, Jeremy."

"That just means she can't get away if she doesn't want to answer your questions."

"I think my questions just got answered." Waverly groaned. "She's a drunk, just like Willa said. I thought maybe she was exaggerating, but..."

"So you're not going to talk to her? She's the one who found you! And I thought that letter she wrote you was really nice."

"I did too, but..." Waverly's mind drifted to the letter, nestled inside her suitcase. I miss you, baby girl. She tried to picture those words spilling from the lips of the woman sitting in the police car and couldn't manage it. "I don't know. And she didn't find me. Nicole did. I saw her again today, by the way. She's even more insufferable than I thought."

"We're talking about Hot Nicole, right?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Why are you so fixated on how hot she is? You're gay."

"So are you. Well, bi. You know what I mean. Come on, Waverly. You have every right to be mad about how she treated you, okay? But I'm sorry, this goes beyond mad. You're not just mad, you're horny, and you're mad that you're horny."

"I am not," she said, flashing back to a Vancouver bar and the fantasties she'd entertained there. Her mind sketched Nicole into the space beside her on the floor, curled beneath the window. Moonlight dappled Nicole's arms, her hands, her hair.

The image of Nicole leaned close. Her eyes fluttered closed. She hissed in Waverly's ear: just take the envelope!

Waverly sucked in a sharp breath, knifing through the specter, banishing it from her thoughts. She shivered. "I don't want to sleep with her. She disgusts me."

"She doesn't disgust you." His tone shifted, as if he was explaining his point to a recalcitrant preschooler. "You don't like her, but it's not like she stops being hot because she's an asshole. Look, I'm going to be really honest with you. You're disgusted with yourself. You fell for her act and you're embarrassed and instead of dealing with it, you're making Nicole the bogeyman."

"When did you get a degree in psychology?"

"No new degrees here! I just speak fluent Waverly. And I hate knowing that you're struggling. I think you'll be better off if you're honest with yourself about your feelings."

"O-kay," she said, with a fluttering gesture to dismiss what he was implying. "I'll think about it. But she is awful. That's not my opinion, that's just a fact."

"Whatever you say," he said, and sighed.

She pulled herself off the floor and leaned against the window, eyes fluttering closed at the cool contact. "I think I need to meet Wynonna."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. You were right before. She's the reason I'm here. I... I have to see for myself what kind of person she is."

"There you go," he said. "That's the Waverly I know."


She slept poorly, and when Gus knocked gently on her door in the morning, she was already up and dressed.

"Thought you might like to go out for breakfast, get out of this nasty old bar," said Gus, as they descended the stairs.

Waverly peered around the room. By the time she'd first set foot there, after noon, the space had seemed heavy, claustrophobic. In the lacy, white light of early morning, it seemed almost cozy. "I like it here," she said. "But I'll never say no to a little fresh air."

They strolled down the sidewalk, side-by-side. Every person they passed peered at Waverly, glancing between her and Gus and trying to decipher the connection there.

"How much do people here know about me?" asked Waverly, as they crossed the street toward the diner.

"Oh, most folks know the story in some form or another." Gus shrugged. "It's a small town. Gossip spreads like wildfire. Michelle doesn't come into town much anymore. People here don't cotton to cheating, no matter how much of a bastard her husband might have been."

"My dad said he hit her," said Waverly, as they ducked into the diner. They took their seats and Chrissy Nedley greeted them, bustling over with a pot of coffee.

"Morning, ladies," said Chrissy. "Gus, looks like you've met my new friend, Liz."

"Liz?" Gus raised an eyebrow as Chrissy poured her coffee.

"Oh. About that." Waverly grimaced. "Um, my name isn't actually Liz."

Chrissy paused, lifting the coffee pot with Waverly's mug still only half full. "You gave me a fake name?"

"Your new friend seemed to think she was in a spy vs. spy movie." Gus raised her mug to her lips, blowing away steam. Her eyes twinkled.

"I'm Waverly." Offering her hand for a shake, Waverly summoned an apologetic smile. "Waverly Gibson."

"Gibson? But isn't that..." Chrissy's head spun on a swivel, Waverly to Gus, Gus to Waverly. "You don't mean you're Waverly Earp?"

"Waverly Gibson," said Waverly again. "But... yes."

"Wow." Chrissy leaned in and took Waverly's proffered hand, giving it a weak shake. "I don't know what to say. You know, we used to play together? I think my dad still has some old photos of us as munchkins. I can dig them up for you, if you're interested."

Waverly was interested, and said so. Chrissy finished filling Waverly's coffee and hurried away to put in their orders. Gus sipped her drink, then let the mug settle on the table, wrapping her hands around it.

"What you were saying before..." She grimaced and dropped her voice lower, just above a whisper. "'Hit’ is too light a word for what Ward Earp did to my sister. He was mean when he was sober and he was a beast when he was drunk."

Nausea roiled Waverly’s stomach. She laid her hand over her purse, safeguarding the papers within that bore the evidence of Ward"s cruelty, the stark language telling the story of a four-year-old with a broken arm. "My dad said that's why he took me. To get me away from Ward."

"That's what I always thought," said Gus. "He was a good man, your dad. Thoughtful, quick to lend a helping hand. When Ward found out about you..."

Gus's words came to a sudden halt. Chrissy returned with their food, setting it on the table between them with an apologetic smile, then hurried away again. Gus leaned closer.

"When Ward found out your mama'd been having an affair, he damn near lost his mind. I don't entirely blame your dad for running off with you. Don't misunderstand me; it just about killed my sister and you don't know pain until you've had to explain to a pair of little girls that they might never see their baby sister again." Hands curling into granite fists, Gus drew a tortured breath. She held it; Waverly watched it burn through her, a cleansing fire. "But I know why he did it... and I don't know that I'd have done differently if I was him."

Waverly stirred her coffee, though she hadn't added anything to it. The gentle whirlpool mirrored the cyclone inside her head. "I don't know what to think. Sometimes I'm so mad, but not always. I don't know."

"You don't have to be just one way about it." Relaxing, Gus pulled her plate closer to saw through a pancake. "All right? It wasn't fair, what the people in your life did to you. They made their mistakes, but here you are, paying for them. You and your sisters."

"Are you close to them? Willa and Wynonna?"

"Willa and I get along all right, but that girl learned a long time ago to keep herself hidden. She doesn't let folks close, and that's a fact. Wynonna..." Gus sighed. "Wynonna's like an open wound. She can't help but let people get close, then she lashes out when they do. But I love her. I love them both, more than I can say."

Waverly spread jam over a piece of toast, her knife sweeping back and forth, her mind stuck on the memory of her sister lounging in the back of a police cruiser like it was something she"d done a thousand times before. "I think I saw Wynonna last night."

"Ah," said Gus. "If you mean when the law came to give her a ride back to her lodgings in the drunk tank, then yes, that was your sister."

"That happens often?"

"At least once every time she's here. She's not here most of the time, but the last few weeks she's been hovering around the place, getting in more trouble than usual. Last week it was drunk in public and public indecency."

Chewing her toast, watching Gus, Waverly considered her options. She swallowed. "Can we go get her? From the police station?"

"I was going to let her stew there for a bit. Though knowing her, she's probably happy to sleep there until noon."

"I... I want to see her." An itch rolled over Waverly, from her spine down to the small of her back. "I don't think I can wait."

Gus reached across the table and laid a hand on Waverly's wrist. "All right, then," she said. "We'll go and get her together."


Waverly followed Gus into the police station, her stomach full and her nerves on fire. They found it mostly empty, the faint sound of papers shuffling from within the sheriff's office the only indication that someone else was there.

"Nedley!" called Gus, and the shuffling ceased. A slope-shouldered, tired-looking man dragged himself out of the office.

"Gus," he said. "I assume you're here to collect your things."

"As always."

He grunted. His eyes landed on Waverly. "Who's this?"

Gus turned to Waverly, one eyebrow raised in question. Waverly nodded. "This," said Gus, "is Waverly Gibson. My niece."

Nedley let out a long, low whistle. "Well, I'll be damned. Pleased to see you again, Waverly. Last time I saw you, I think your sister'd just decided to use you as practice for her future career as a hairdresser. I'm glad your hair grew back all nice and pretty."

Waverly flushed, running her fingers through her hair. "Which sister?"

"Not the one sleeping off a hangover here," he said. "You met her yet?"

"No, this will be the first time. Well..." She swallowed. "The first time in a long time."

"You want me to warn her?"

"No. Don't tell her."

"Well, okay then. I'll go set her loose."

He hiked up his belt and disappeared into the depths of the station, keys jingling as he went. Waverly took a deep breath, trying to still the earthquake rattling her ribs.

When the first tinny echoes of Nedley's keys reached her ears again, she seized Gus's hand. Gus squeezed back.

Nedley reappeared. Before he could step fully into the lobby, Wynonna squeezed through the doorway around him.

"Come on, can't you go any faster? You're holding up the—holy shit."

Wynonna's eyes went as wide as the full moon. Her jaw hung loose. "Waverly?" she asked.

Waverly stared. She tried to study Wynonna, the way she had studied Willa, but she couldn"t tear her eyes from Wynonna's face, from the emotions dancing across her sister's features like the light from a flickering candle.

Her feet carried her forward without thought, and Wynonna's did the same. They crashed together in the middle of the lobby, arms thrown about each other. Wynonna cradled Waverly's head against her shoulder and Waverly cinched her arms around Wynonna's waist. Their joints protested. Neither let go.

"Baby girl," muttered Wynonna. "It's really you. Fuck. It's really you."

"It's me," said Waverly, burrowing into Wynonna's embrace. She pulled away, holding Wynonna at arm's length. "How did you know?"

Wynonna rolled her eyes. "Dude, I've got a picture of you in my wallet." She fumbled for her pocket, found the wallet, and opened it to a little photo: three sisters stacked one behind the other by height, decked out in Santa hats and ugly sweaters.

Willa looked grumpy. Wynonna crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. Tiny Waverly beamed.

"I mean, you've grown." Wynonna cupped the air in front of her chest for a moment before she stammered and held her hand level with the top of Waverly's skull instead. "But I'd know that face anywhere."

Bottom lip trembling, Waverly stepped into Wynonna's embrace again. She pressed her forehead into Wynonna's collarbone, and when Wynonna's chin settled on top of her head, she let herself loose and cried.

"I'm so sorry," she said, hiccuping. She flung out a hand, groping for Gus, who allowed herself to be pulled into the hug. "I met Willa and she said some pretty harsh things about you—"

"You saw Willa? When—"

"—and then Nicole drove me back and she's so weird but—"

"She what?"

"—you've got a picture of me in your wallet! I'm so sorry I wasn't here."

Wynonna stiffened. Waverly sniffed and looked up to see Wynonna's jaw clenching, her eyes sparking, her focus somewhere over Waverly's shoulder.

"Haught," said Wynonna, and Waverly whipped around, still in Wynonna's arms, to see Nicole Haught halfway through the front door of the station, looking for all the world like a deer caught in the headlights. "Why the hell didn't you tell me my sister was in town?"

Chapter Text

Nicole blinked at Wynonna, her head swiveling from the sisters to Gus and back again.

"Well?" asked Wynonna, fingers tightening around Waverly's shoulders.

"It was Willa." Nicole raised her hands in appeasement. "You know it was."

"That fucking..." Wynonna let go of Waverly to cross her arms and scowl. "She's really asking for me to kick her ass."

"What's going on?" Waverly stepped closer to Gus, leaving Wynonna alone in the middle of the lobby. "What is it with you and Willa? And Nicole?" She spared a glance for Nicole: hands shoved in her pockets, face blank. The look threw her back to the sidewalk outside her apartment, to an envelope shoved in her face, to her tidy, particular life lying shattered at her feet.

"I owe your sisters," said Nicole, and Waverly snapped back to the present. "Both of them. Equally. If one of them asks me to do something, I do it."

"Why?"

Wynonna snorted. "Don't get her started, baby girl. She's annoying when she has to defend her code of honor. Haught, please take the stick out of your ass and relax."

"You're the one yelling," said Nicole. A smile creased her face. "Enjoy your night?"

"It was great, thanks. I love waking up with my neck like a pretzel. Nedley needs to invest in some better beds."

Nedley, who had vanished back into his office, shouted, "The beds are already molded to the shape of your sorry ass, Earp! I'm not getting new ones just to repeat the process all over again."

"He thinks he's funny." Wynonna eyed Nicole again. "Why are you here?"

"To get you," said Nicole. "You called me last night, remember?"

"She told me to come get her, too," said Gus. "All that whiskey's rotting your brain, girl."

"Well, don't everyone gang up on me." Wynonna turned to Waverly, pouting. "You see what I have to put up with?"

Waverly looked from Gus's smile to Nicole's: the first warmed her, the second set her ablaze with fury. She choked back the acid bubbling in her throat and looked again, saw the affection on Nicole's face mirrored on Wynonna's, and decided to play nice. "You mean what they have to put up with? Yeah, I see it."

"Fuck, really? You're gonna side with them? Harsh, Waves." Wynonna shoved her hands in her back pockets and scuffed the tiles with the toe of her boot. "Did you see Willa?"

"Yeah. She's..." Waverly crossed her arms. "Interesting. She had a lot to say about you."

Wynonna froze, her eyes lifting to Waverly's, wide and blue. "Only the really bad shit, right?

"It wasn't nice." Waverly tilted her head, studying Wynonna. "Is any of it true?"

"Well, what did she say? Can't say if it's true if I don't know what she said."

"She said you're a liar. And a drunk."

Anger snapped across Wynonna's features, licking into her like the crack of a whip. "Fucking Willa. No, it's not true. God, she's... just... the worst."

"I don't know, Earp, she might have you on the second one," said Nicole, chuckling. Waverly and Wynonna both turned, fixing her with a glare. Nicole threw her hands in the air. "Sorry, I'll stay out of it."

"Why are you still here?" Waverly propped her hands on her hips. "Gus and I have got her. Go worship the ground Willa walks on or whatever it is you do in your spare time."

Wynonna laid a hand on Waverly's shoulder. "Baby girl—"

Nicole lifted her hands in appeasement. "Wynonna. It's fine. It's fine," she said, when Wynonna opened her mouth to argue. She turned to Waverly. "I'll go. Okay? I'm gone."

"Haught," said Wynonna, but Nicole was already halfway to the door. She stopped, hand on the push bar, and shook her head.

"Spend time with your sister. Okay? Just let me know if you need anything." Then she was gone.

Wynonna raised one eyebrow as she regarded Waverly. "What the hell was that about?"

"I don't like her," said Waverly. "And I don't want to talk about her." She took in the sight of Wynonna again: tall, lean, dark hair, bright blue eyes. They shared a mother, but it seemed not much beyond that. With Willa, she'd found herself in her sister's hair, in the color of her eyes, even in the walls they'd erected around themselves.

Wynonna was a stranger.

Except Waverly had a letter with Wynonna's words tucked in her pocket and the look in Wynonna's eyes burrowing into her heart. She barely felt Gus's arm settling around her shoulders.

"Come on," said Gus. "Let's get out of here and you two can get to know each other."


To Waverly's chagrin, Wynonna brought Waverly back to the homestead on the back of her motorcycle. Waverly wished again that she had her own car and the freedom to leave at a moment's notice without being at the mercy of an Earp or, god forbid, Nicole Haught.

They pulled up in front of the house, if it could be called that. Mansion was more accurate. Maybe castle. Fortress. Waverly leaned forward, chin on Wynonna's shoulder, and hummed.

"Did I really live here?" she asked.

"You did," said Wynonna. "Do you... do you want to see your old room? Mama kept it..."

"Yeah," said Waverly. "Take me there."

Wynonna veered away from the front door and followed a path around the side. Waverly, already with her hand on the door handle, scrambled after her. A side door led them through a bright, expansive kitchen. Wynonna breezed past a box of donuts on the counter, snatching one up and stuffing it in her mouth in a motion so smooth Waverly thought it seemed instantaneous.

The rest of the house was as it had been the day before: sumptuously decorated, long hallways with oriental runners, art in heavy frames on the walls. Wynonna spared none of it a second glance. Waverly couldn't help herself; she studied every bit of it, searching for any scrap of information about her sisters.

At the top of the stairs, Wynonna led her down another hall, around a corner, to a heavy door. A hand-painted plaque had been fixed to the door. "Waverly's Room," it said, spindly red letters capped by dots on the end of each stroke. A small purple handprint rested beside Waverly's name.

She laid her hand over the tiny one on the plaque. It disappeared beneath her palm, hidden like all her memories of the house, of the room, of the people who lived there.

Wynonna stood to the side, watching. When Waverly met her eyes again, Wynonna nodded, gripped the doorknob, and swung the door open.

It was pink. Fluffy pink rug, pink walls, pink curtains draped from the four-poster bed. A pile of stuffed animals filled one corner, unicorns and kittens, dolphins and puppies. Little knick-knacks sat atop whitewashed furniture. Waverly ran her finger over the dresser. It came away clean.

The bed called to her. She sank onto it, running her hand over the white coverlet. She imagined how warm it must have been, how it must have felt curling up beneath it each night, her head nestled in the pile of pillows against the headboard, her little fingers pulling the quilt up to her chin.

One more stuffed animal sat on the bed: a worn rabbit. She picked him up—it was a him, she was sure—and raised her eyes to Wynonna.

"He was your favorite," said Wynonna. She leaned against the closed door, hands in her pockets, eyes wet but tears contained. "You took him everywhere. He got so gross, dude, but one time Mama tried to clean him and you cried for like a week."

Waverly traced the stitches at his neck. "Did he get decapitated?"

Wynonna grimaced. "Willa."

Waverly lifted the bunny to her face and inhaled. Beneath the mustiness of age, she smelled something familiar. A hazy memory came to her: lying in another bed, a narrow, rickety thing, sobbing so hard her tiny body shook.

"I'll get you another bunny, kiddo," someone said. He sat on the bed beside her, his weight distorting the sheets, the mattress, the bedframe. She shook her head, tears splashing on her hands. Without the pressure-valve of words for the anger and fear boiling inside her, she howled her throat raw. He tried to brush his hand over her hair and she screamed harder. "It'll be okay," he said. Over and over. "It'll be okay."

The mattress beside Waverly dipped. She toppled toward Wynonna, her head just the right height to rest on Wynonna's shoulder. Her cheek slipped on the leather of Wynonna's jacket. It was wet. She was crying. When had she started crying?

"It's okay, baby girl," said Wynonna. "You let it all out."

She collapsed. Her head fell into Wynonna's lap. She clutched at Wynonna's thighs, her t-shirt, her belt, trying to hold on. Wynonna rubbed circles into her back, humming. Waverly cried, expelling the poison within her, the memories, the could-have-beens.

When it passed, Waverly pulled herself up. She wiped her cheeks. Wynonna patted her between the shoulder blades.

"Better?" she asked.

"Yeah," said Waverly. Her body threatened to collapse in on itself, empty of the despair and regret from moments before. They sat a moment in brittle quiet, and Waverly let herself fill with dust-flat air and hope and the weight of Wynonna's hand on her back. "Anyway. What do you do for fun around here?"

"Fun?" Wynonna laughed. "Nobody has fun in Purgatory. If you want to have fun, you leave."

"So why don't you?"

"I do. Often. Haven't you heard? I'm the dissolute heir to the Earp fortune, drinking my way across Europe. A regular chip off the old block." With a wink, Wynonna pushed off the bed. "I've only been hanging around here because Nicole gave you my letter. I wanted to be here if... if you called."

Wynonna stared at the rug, her face twisting with emotion. Waverly noticed that they were of a height: the mattress beneath her held her high above the floor. Even as an adult, the bed dwarfed her. How had she ever climbed into it by herself? Had her mother lifted her into it every night? Her grandfather?

Had Ward?

"Did he ever hurt you?" asked Waverly. Her fingers burrowed in the quilt, knotting and tight. "Your dad."

Wynonna flinched. "Sometimes. Yeah. Mama got it the worst. She... she protected us."

"That's why my dad took me," said Waverly. "He hurt me."

"I was there," said Wynonna. Her jaw flexed. "I never hit Daddy before that. That's when I started hitting him back."

Rising from the bed, Waverly glided across the room. She slipped into Wynonna's arms, tugging her sister tight against her. Wynonna chuckled in Waverly's ear. "I think I've been hugged more today than in the last three years combined."

"I'm a hugger," said Waverly. "You'd better get used to it."

"So you're staying? You're... you want to do the sister thing? I'll be honest, I'm not great at it."

"You're perfect at it." Waverly took a deep breath, inhaling her sister's salt-and-floral scent, then stepped back. "Okay. I want to go out."

"Out? Like, drinking-out? Are you even old enough to drink? Ow, not cool, dude!" Wynonna rubbed her arm where Waverly had punched her. "Sure, we can go out. Not many options in Purgatory... you okay drinking in Shorty's and getting the stink eye from Gus?"

Waverly laughed. "I think she reserves that for you."

"Just you wait. Spend enough time with me and you'll be just as much of a hooligan in her eyes." Wynonna grinned. "Oh man, baby girl, I can't wait to ruin your reputation."


Wynonna had a driver bring Waverly back to Shorty's and Waverly spent the rest of the afternoon tucked away in her little room, finishing up her applications for new schools. She wondered if there was any point. With the money she stood to inherit, she could afford any school she wanted.

It didn't feel real. She expected someone to break out in laughter at any moment, to tell her it was an elaborate joke, or a dream. So she wouldn't count on any of the dream coming true, not until she could pull up her bank account and goggle at the sheer number of digits on screen.

At the appointed time, Waverly descended the stairs to Shorty's and took a seat beside Wynonna at the bar.

"There you are," said Wynonna. Two already-filled shot glasses huddled on the bar in front of her and she slid one to Waverly. "Take this, then I'll explain the rules."

"We're playing a game?" asked Waverly, taking the shot glass and knocking the liquor back.

Wynonna whistled. "If I didn't know you were my kid sister before, I'd be sure now."

"I can hold my liquor," said Waverly.

"You can take the Earp out of Purgatory but you can't take Purgatory out of the Earp. Honorary Earp. Whatever." Wynonna took her shot and slammed the glass on the bar with a clink. She refilled both glasses. "Right, so, we're gonna play twenty questions. We take turns asking questions, whatever we want to ask. Nothing too depressing though, all right? We're in public. Don't make me cry in public."

"When do we take a shot?"

"Oh, the shots are just for fun. Drink if you feel like it." Wynonna took a second shot and Waverly followed suit. "You wanna go first?"

"Sure. What was your favorite place to visit in Europe?"

"Greece," said Wynonna. She poured herself another drink. "I go there a lot. There's this one place with this one dude—"

Wynonna's voice filtered through Waverly's head, in one ear and out the other. As Wynonna poured her drink, Waverly's eyes flitted around the bar. They scanned past drunk men and women, people laughing, people getting fleeced at pool, and landed on a table in the far corner. Nicole Haught sat alone, one beer in front of her, her eyes on her phone. She looked up, met Waverly's eyes, and nodded.

"Hey, you listening?" Wynonna leaned toward Waverly, waving her hand in Waverly's face. "Kind of defies the point of asking a question if you don't listen to the answer."

"Why is she here?" asked Waverly, glaring at Nicole, who now looked awfully apologetic but made no move to remove herself from the premises, which Waverly thought would have been the appropriate thing to do.

"Who?" Wynonna whipped around, caught sight of Nicole, and gave a sarcastic sort of salute. Nicole rolled her eyes and dove back into her phone. "Seriously, dude, what's your problem with Haught Wheels? I know she's not always the easiest to get along with, but..."

Whatever look brewed on Waverly's face, at the sight of it, a scowl arose on Wynonna's. "Seriously, what did she do? I love her, but if you need me to kick her ass, I will."

"No." Waverly gripped Wynonna's arm, anchoring her. "No, don't, it's... at this point I'm mostly angry at myself. For falling for... it. Falling for it." Blood rushed to her cheeks, its passage eased by the alcohol in her system.

Wynonna blinked, awareness dawning on her face like a sunrise. "Oh. Oh. Huh. Been a while since she..." Wynonna drifted off, studying Nicole, then snapped her attention back to Waverly. "Yeah, she can be a charmer... when she wants to be."

"That's what really sucks." Waverly grabbed the bottle of whiskey and poured a sloppy shot. Her shot glass came away from the bar with a tiny slurp and she hissed as the liquor burned her throat. "She made me feel special. And I really liked her. She came in, looking like..."

Her eyes drifted to Nicole again. Nicole still stared down at her phone. She lifted her beer and sipped it, throat bobbing, then she ran her fingers through her hair, brushing it back from her face.

Waverly sighed. Then she remembered herself and shook herself out of her daze. She gestured at Nicole's brazen display resignedly. "She looked like that." Her face grew even warmer. She cursed Wynonna and whiskey and wantonly attractive redheads. "I got her phone number."

Wynonna waggled her eyebrows and grinned. "Damn, baby girl got game."

Waverly accentuated a burst of laughter with a light slap on her sister's arm. "Wynonna!"

Wynonna laughed and tipped another shot down her throat. She threw a wink Waverly's way. "I'm just saying, we're definitely related. Okay, okay, I get to ask a question now, you got two in a row. My question is... bartending? Really? Isn't there something else you'd rather be doing?"

She dissolved into laughter at the indignation on Waverly's face, but soon Waverly joined her. They tumbled through questions, until the game fell away around them and they were just talking like old friends.

Until Wynonna, spinning on her stool to point out one of Purgatory's less-reputable citizens, froze. She pushed away from the bar. Waverly, already three sheets to the wind, blinked at her sudden absence. "Wynonna?"

Wynonna crossed the room to stand next to Nicole, who had moved to stand over another table, hands flat on its sticky surface, her face just inches from a smug-looking man with a piebald beard.

Waverly couldn't hear what she said, but Nicole's face was contorted with anger and Wynonna's was quickly curving to match. Waverly hopped off her stool, wobbling. She was drunker than she'd thought. She reached out to steady herself and instead of catching the bar, she knocked the beer out of the hand of a man passing by.

"Hey!" He stared down at himself, beer dripping down his front. "Watch it!"

"Sorry," said Waverly. She tried to step around him, but he got in her way.

"Wait. You're the Earp baby, aren't you?"

"'m Waverly," she said. "Gibson. Wav'ly Gibson."

She tried to dodge him again. He blocked her. "Who knew Baby Earp would grow up so hot?"

"Out'f m' way," said Waverly. He gripped her arm.

"I think you should stay. We can get to know each other. I'm Champ." He grinned, his teeth perfect and bright.

Waverly, unable to free her arm from his meaty hand, scowled. "I said, outta my way!" Then she wound up, drove her leg forward, and kneed him hard in the gonads.

He doubled over. "You fucking bitch!"

His shout drew the attention of both Wynonna and Nicole. They tried to run to Waverly, but Wynonna careened into another bar patron. They fell to the floor, a tangle of limbs and angry yelling. Nicole, not drunk, made it to Waverly's side and hauled her away from the doubled-over idiot beginning to regain control over his body.

"You okay?" asked Nicole, as she guided Waverly through the crowd.

"'m drunk," said Waverly. She swayed on her feet and Nicole held her shoulders to steady her. "Is 'Nonna okay?"

Nicole chanced a look over her shoulder. Whatever she saw made her curse. "We should get you upstairs before—"

Someone shouted. There was a crash. Glasses shattering. The thud of colliding flesh and bone. Someone stumbled into Nicole and Waverly, jarring them apart. Waverly collapsed to the floor, her jaw striking the wood.

Nicole grunted. "Waverly!" she shouted. Bodies swarmed between them. Feet and legs filled Waverly's vision. It seemed like every single person in the bar had decided to get in on the fight.

She pushed herself upright. Through the churning sea of people, she caught sight of the bar and stumbled toward it. People buffeted her. She ricocheted through the crowd and spurted out the other side, falling against the bar with a yelp.

Guiding herself along the bar like a sailor clinging to the railing of a storm-tossed ship, she made her way behind it. She ducked down. Her hands and knees stuck to the floor.

"Hey," said someone behind her. She whipped around, fists up, and found Nicole crouching beside her. "You all right?"

"Fine," said Waverly, scowling at Nicole, at her heaving chest, at her bright eyes. "I'm... fine."

Given how difficult it was to say the word 'fine', the rational part of Waverly suspected she was anything but. Still, neither the rational nor irrational parts of her wanted to give Nicole Haught the satisfaction.

"Sure you are," said Nicole. She tensed. Someone else clomped into the space behind the bar.

"There you are, baby Earp," said a familiar voice, and Waverly lifted her gaze to find Champ standing over them. "I told you, we should talk."

Nicole rose to her full height. "Back off," she said.

"What's it to you?" said Champ. He pushed past Nicole and hooked his hand under Waverly's armpit, jerking her upright. Her shoulder screamed in pain and she gave it voice, crying out.

Nicole's face contorted. She buried her fingers in his collar and yanked him away from Waverly.

He staggered back. Waverly threw herself out of his grasp. When he recovered, he growled. His fist flew through the air and connected with Nicole's cheek. She reeled back, striking the bar and slumping to the floor.

Above Nicole's head, tucked back on a shelf, sat a shotgun.

Waverly scrambled toward it, snatched the gun, and pointed it at the Champ. His body went rigid, hands snapping into the air over his head.

"Back up, bozo," she said, climbing to her feet. He obeyed, and she herded him out onto the floor.

The fight still raged beyond them. Waverly surveyed the crowd. She found her sister: somehow armed with the blunt ends of two pool cues. The bearded man was nowhere to be seen.

Wynonna took a hit. Blood sprayed from her nose as her head snapped back. She recovered and glared at the person who'd hit her, licking blood from her lips and letting a smile build like a nuclear reactor approaching a critical meltdown.

At the sight of her sister's bloody face, rage bubbled deep in Waverly's chest. With confidence brewed from whiskey and the piss and vinegar that were apparently Gibson family traits, she clambered atop the bar and shouted. "Hey! Shit tickets! Listen up!"

At the sound of the pump-action on the shotgun, half the crowd stopped and turned to her. At her high-pitched call, the other half gave her their attention. She grinned. "Good. You're listening. So here's the deal: I want everybody but my sister out of this bar before I turn you all into swiss cheese."

Most folks seemed to acquiesce, slinking toward the door.

Between them she saw bearded man. He lurked at the back of the crowd, leaning against the railing, apparently unbothered by the chaos. Their eyes met. He grinned, then jerked forward, teeth snapping together. She took a step back, disgust flitting across her face, but the alcohol in her bloodstream betrayed her. Her foot slipped on a coaster and she tumbled toward the floor.

"Waves!" shouted Wynonna, so far away. Waverly threw out her arms to break her fall. The ground rushed to meet her.

Then something soft collided with her. She looked down and caught a flash of red before her head hit something hard and everything went black.

Chapter Text

Waverly woke to someone humming.

The bed was soft and deep. Blankets cocooned her. She peeked her head free, met by pink and white and lace. Despite not remembering where she was for the second morning in as many days, she couldn't find it in herself to freak out. She'd never slept in such a comfortable bed. The humming was familiar, somehow, and soothing.

She rolled to face the ceiling. The humming stopped.

"Are you waking up?"

Waverly lifted herself, just a bit. A woman sat by the bed in a rocking chair. The smile on her face was as soft and warm as the quilt piled over the bed.

Waverly knew this woman.

"Mama?" she said, and the word bloomed sweet on her tongue. Michelle Earp smiled and leaned toward Waverly, laying her hand on the bed beside her.

"Hey, little one," she said. "How are you feeling?"

Waverly stared. She sought for the words to answer her mother's question, but they wriggled out of her grasp, as slippery as soap. Even without words, even in the language of faces and gestures and touch, she had a thousand answers and no answer at all.

She eased herself up on her elbows to buy herself time. Her head throbbed with each motion. Her body ached. Something sour seethed in her stomach. An answer, blunt and inadequate, came to her. "I feel terrible. Like I got run over."

"Drinking with your sister will do that to you." Michelle chuckled, patting the quilt. She searched Waverly's face and anxiety crept into her own. "Is it all right? Me being here?"

"Of course," said Waverly. Her hand lay inches from Michelle's. She wanted to let it creep forward, let it curl around the hand that had once held her, had once soothed her, but she couldn't. Fear bound her in place.

She scrambled to break the silence. "How long have you been sitting there? What time is it?"

"It's about nine. Not too late. I got in early this morning," said Michelle. "Caught a red eye from London. Nicole had already brought you and Wynonna back here. Nonna's still sleeping."

"Did Willa tell you I was here?"

"Wynonna did," said Michelle. "She called me yesterday."

The irritation fluttering within Waverly died, snuffed out like a candle. "Oh."

Seeming to sense Waverly's pique, Michelle leaned away, pulling her hands into her lap. "Is that all right? Should I get going?"

"No." Waverly sat up and leaned forward, casting her hand toward her mother's. "No, stay. Please," she pleaded, her voice soft and high. She was a little girl again, a little girl without a mother, and with her mother in front of her, she couldn't let her leave.

"If you want me here, I'll be here." Michelle lifted herself out of the chair and crossed the space between them. She settled onto the bed beside Waverly, reached out, and after a moment's hesitation, brushed the hair from Waverly's forehead. Her eyes went distant; perhaps she sank into a memory. "My baby, all grown up."

Waverly nuzzled into her mother's touch. She felt the lost years between them like a knife beneath her ribs. "Did you ever try to find me?"

"Of course I did. Well, Ed did most of the work," said Michelle. Her fingertips eased down Waverly's jaw, chucking her on the chin, before settling on the bed again. "He had the money. Spent so much of it on private investigators, but never turned anything up. I don't know how that girl found you, but I owe her a debt."

"You mean Nicole?"

"I do. The poor thing. I heard she gave you a hard time."

"That's an understatement." Waverly flopped back into the bed; the pillows deformed with a whoosh and an explosion of downy fluff. Her mind puzzled over Michelle's "poor thing" comment but decided, ultimately, that it didn't matter how miserable Nicole Haught was... if she was even capable of feeling misery.

Michelle hummed. "Well, I'm still glad she found you."

"Why did she bring me here?" Waverly gestured at the room. "I have a room above Shorty's."

"According to your sister, it was easier to drag you out the front door than to try to get you up the stairs, what with all the chaos at the bar."

For the first time, Waverly didn't feel itchy at the thought of spending another moment in the Earp homestead. Something did feel itchy, though. She ran her hand over her collarbone and frowned; she wasn't wearing her own clothes.

"Did Nicole change me into pajamas?" Heat rushed into her cheeks as she lifted the quilt and stared down at the unfamiliar t-shirt and shorts she was wearing. "Where are my clothes?"

"Wynonna chased her off as soon as they got you up here," said Michelle. "Don't you worry about that. Not that I think that girl would have been anything but respectful."

Waverly scowled. "Why do you say things like that? You and Wynonna, even Willa. It's like you've all got a soft spot for her. I don't get it at all."

Michelle raised her eyebrows. "What the hell did she do?"

"She—"

The door swung open, and Willa rushed through. "Mama, Is she up yet?"

"If she wasn't already, she would be now." Michelle shifted on the bed to face Willa, who stood framed in the doorway. "Were you worried?"

"Of course I was. What kind of question is that?" Willa scowled at her mother, then turned her attention to Waverly. "Good morning, Waverly. How are you feeling?"

"Hi, Willa," said Waverly. She pushed herself back upright, buying herself a moment to adjust to the nervous energy radiating from her sister. "My head hurts a bit, but otherwise I feel okay."

"Oh, good." Willa smiled. "Make yourself at home. And if you need anything, let one of us know."

"Thanks," said Waverly. "But I'm just concussed and hungover. I'll be fine."

Willa hadn't moved, standing stock-still within the doorway like a statue in a niche. "Would you like to join us for dinner tonight? With Mama and Wynonna both home I thought it might be nice to sit down as a family."

"Sure, count me in," said Waverly. "Sounds like fun."

"Great." Willa nodded. "I'll get everything ready. Feel better."

Then she was gone. Waverly let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

Michelle opened her mouth to speak, then stopped. She shook her head, gripped Waverly's knee beneath the covers, and offered up a smile. "Do you want to go for a walk?"


They bundled up; the Purgatory weather was fickle and had swung toward cold overnight. Michelle led Waverly onto the grounds of the homestead, following well-manicured footpaths and weaving between hardy shrubbery.

"My dad said he was your gardener," said Waverly, as they passed a barren flowerbed. She reached out, tracing the crackling stems of a rose bush, careful of its thorns.

"He was."

"Is that how you met him?"

"It is. I used to spend time in the greenhouse," said Michelle. "Before he came here, but more after he arrived. I didn't think there was any harm in looking. God, I was a fool."

Michelle's eyes drifted over the empty grounds, her mind far away. Waverly drew up beside her, and when Michelle put her arm around Waverly's shoulders and pulled her close, Waverly's heart thrilled. She leaned her head on Michelle's shoulder, savoring the scritch of wool on her cheek. "Is it still here?"

"The greenhouse?" Michelle tugged Waverly along. "Where did you think I was leading you?"

They rounded the main building and another building appeared behind it: wood and brick and glass. Waverly stepped inside and inhaled, filling her lungs with heavy, wet air.

Greenery surrounded them, bursting from pots on the floor and atop tables. Vines tumbled from hanging bowls. Waverly wandered down the aisles between the tables, her fingers brushing waxy leaves and delicate blossoms.

"This is incredible," she whispered, her voice melding with the hum of a fan somewhere in the building.

"If Willa's passion is the house and Wynonna's is that bike of hers, this is mine. It's my little paradise."

Waverly meandered deeper into the building. "Was it like this when my dad worked here?"

"Not at first. We started transforming it together."

Michelle's eyes swept over the room. Waverly took the opportunity to study her. She imagined her mother as she must have been: less lined, less bowed, less circumspect. She imagined Charlie, too, young and bright and eager. They shared shy smiles. Fleeting looks. Laughter. Touch.

Waverly slipped back to the present and found that she had also become the subject of study. Michelle guarded her emotions, her face carefully neutral, but Waverly caught her tells: uncertainty in the curve of her lips. Fear in the furrow of her brow. And in her eyes...

Hope.

The echo of her own hope in her mother's eyes undid her. She looked away before it flared out of control, before she collapsed, sobbing and speechless.

She collected herself in the space of a moment, then affixed her patented smile to her lips. "So you spent a lot of time here with him?"

"Whenever I could get away."

"And you got closer and closer and eventually..."

Michelle leaned toward a bloom and inhaled. "Eventually, we had you."

The first room of the greenhouse ended. Waverly stepped through a glass-paned door into the next, which did away with the aisles of flowering plants and instead featured a shallow pond. Lilies floated on its surface and koi fish darted beneath them. She crouched, watching their scales shimmer.

"Did you love him?" She peered up at her mother. "He loved you."

Michelle's face crumbled. "I did love him. I didn't know it was possible to feel that way about a person. I love you and your sisters, more than anything, but I'm your mama. I carried you for nine months and held you when you came screaming into the world. It was a different kind of love. He walked into my life, holding a door for me and smiling so bright..."

She shook her head. Her jaw trembled. Waverly rose to her feet and drew Michelle into her arms.

Michelle sank into the hug, one hand cradling the back of Waverly's head. "You look like him," she whispered, as she pulled away. Her eyes flickered between Waverly's. For a moment, her face went hard, and Waverly saw Willa in the set of her jaw. "I... I don't know how that makes me feel."

"If it's any consolation," said Waverly, "I look in the mirror and I don't know how it makes me feel, either."

The central room of the greenhouse towered over the others. A huge tree stretched toward the ceiling, its boughs nestling in the arched roof. All sorts of flowering plants surrounded the base of the tree, most at least as tall as Waverly. A little stone footpath darted between them. Waverly followed it to a clearing and found a bench, occupied by Nicole Haught.

The room was loud with the hum of the climate control system and the humidity splashing from leaf to leaf. Nicole didn't look up as they approached. She bent over a notebook, sketching. Her pencil flew over the page.

Waverly stopped short. She tried to back up, but Michelle had followed her.

"Waverly, honey, what's the hold up?" she asked, and Nicole looked up.

A bruise saturated the skin around her eye, stretching down across her cheekbone. Waverly remembered Nicole towering above her, fists knotted with anger. She remembered the sound of Champ's fist sinking into Nicole's cheek. She remembered the thud of Nicole's body falling against the bar.

The face staring up at Waverly now was soft, despite the violence that marred it. For the first time since Nicole had upended Waverly's world on a Vancouver sidewalk, Waverly felt something inside herself loosen in return.

Maybe it was because she was concussed. Maybe it was because seeing Michelle had cracked her open like an egg. Maybe it was the sight of Nicole, bruised and alone, clumsily sketching a flower and concentrating like the world depended on it.

Michelle squeezed past Waverly. "Oh, hi, Nicole. I always seem to run into you here."

Nicole dragged her eyes away from Waverly, face going carefully cool again. She offered Michelle a tight smile.

"I like it here. It's quiet."

"I imagine that's quite a difference from dealing with that pair of hellspawn I call daughters. Or maybe I should say trio, considering that shiner you got in this one's defense."

"You probably should, ma'am," said Nicole.

Michelle laughed. "At least you're honest."

Nicole flinched. "I try to be." She stood, unfurling to her full height. "I can get going if you'd like to sit here."

"No, no," said Michelle. "Sit your ass back down. We're not done with our tour."

Nicole hesitated, holding her sketchbook in front of her. She fiddled with her pencil. "Hey, Waverly?"

"Yeah?"

"You remember that lawyer I told you about?" Nicole took a deep breath and steadied herself. "If you want to talk to him, he's willing to make a trip out here. I have his card."

"Lawyer?" Michelle gaped at Waverly. "What on earth do you need a lawyer for?"

Waverly grimaced. "Willa... um, she offered to buy part of my inheritance."

"That girl," said Michelle, with a sigh that screamed I'm not surprised, just disappointed. "Bet she had the paperwork all drawn up and pretty, didn't she?"

"Hence, the lawyer," said Waverly. She held her hand out to Nicole. "Okay, let me see the card."

Nicole set her notebook down, freed her wallet from a pocket, then procured a card and offered it to Waverly. Waverly took it. Their fingers brushed. The name Xavier Dolls stood in stark black lettering on the card.

"He's good?" asked Waverly. "Doesn't have anything to do with Willa?"

"As far as I know, he's never met an Earp in his life. He's got a good head on his shoulders and his firm does good work. If he doesn't know the answer to something, he knows someone who does."

"Okay," said Waverly. "I'll call him. But if he sucks, I'm blaming you."

Nicole shoved both hands in her pockets. "That's only fair."

The bruise stood out against Nicole's skin. Waverly stared at it until she caught herself and realized she was caught in turn; Nicole had been watching her the whole time. Warmth pricked her cheeks. "Sorry about your eye."

Nicole reached up to touch it, as if she'd forgotten it was there. She flinched when her fingers made contact. "Oh. Don't worry about it. It'll fade."

"But you got it trying to protect me."

Nicole shrugged. "Wynonna'd do worse to me if I let her little sister get hurt."

"Oh," said Waverly. "Yeah, she definitely would."

Frustration buzzed along Waverly's nerves. She shouldn't feel disappointed to be reminded, again, that everything Nicole did was for her sisters' benefit. But now, when she looked at Nicole, she saw the bruise, saw the Nicole of the previous night standing over her, saw the Nicole from the night they'd met, her smile glowing under a different set of lights in a different bar in a different town.

"Well," said Michelle, shattering the silence building around them. "I think we'll keep exploring. Nice seeing you, Nicole. Take care of that bruise."

"I will. Don't worry about me, ma'am." Nicole settled back on the bench. As Michelle and Waverly turned to leave, she said, "take care, Waverly."

Waverly looked at her, gave a tiny nod, and followed her mother away.

As they left the atrium behind, Michelle hummed. "Not so bad now, is she?"

Waverly sighed. "No, that wasn't so bad. But being polite in front of her employers' mother doesn't make it better."

"No, it wouldn't. But I don't think the Nicole that works for your sisters—Willa in particular—is the real Nicole." Michelle paused by a flowering citrus tree, peering at the fruits dangling from its branches. "The one that comes here is closer to who she must have been before."

"Before what?"

Michelle ignored her. She stopped at the next citrus tree, and the next. Waverly huffed, about to press the question further, but Michelle diverted her.

"She reminds me a bit of your daddy when I first met him."

That stopped Waverly dead in her tracks. "What?"

"Thoughtful. Kind." Michelle chuckled. "Easy on the eyes."

"Mama!"

"What? I wish I looked like that when I was her age."

"Moving past that..." Waverly muttered, massaging her temples. "I still don't see it."

"Keep looking," said Michelle. "I think you will."


Waverly had Wynonna take her home after her walk with Michelle.

Home. The little room above Shorty's felt as much like home to her as anything else. She had a room to herself, a comfortable bed, and no one demanding anything from her. Gus had loved her instantly and had given Waverly as much space as she'd needed.

Sitting on her bed, Waverly scheduled an appointment with Xavier Dolls. His tone was clipped and direct, which she appreciated. He agreed to meet her in Shorty's before it opened.

She killed time until Willa's family dinner by spending it with Gus. She found her aunt polishing the bar, and after a little scolding for getting shoe prints all over Gus's pristine bar top, they fell into easy conversation.

Everyone else wanted something from her. To be a sister. To be a daughter. To forgive.

Gus wanted to love her and dote on her, but beyond that, Waverly sensed that if she walked away, Gus would understand. Perhaps it was because of that that Waverly knew she couldn't walk away.

But that had never been an option. Not really. Finding these people, diving into the chaos that was the Earps, had been a mess, but they were her family. They were in pain. They were fragmented. Charlie had stolen her away to protect her from Ward, and in doing so had fractured the bonds between everyone else.

Maybe, she thought, she could help glue them together again.


She arrived back at the homestead in the nicest clothes she'd brought with her. They weren't all that nice, compared to what she'd seen Willa wearing. She felt decidedly under-dressed. To her relief, Wynonna had decided that a midriff-baring shirt and leather pants were appropriate for the occasion. To her dismay, after Michelle greeted her at the door, she was led to the ancient, ornate dining room. A portrait of a lean, mustachioed man gazed down at them.

"Do you like it?" asked Willa, appearing at Waverly's elbow as silently as a hunting cat. "That's my great-grandfather, Josiah. Wyatt's our most famous ancestor, but Josiah made us who we are today."

"A bunch of stuck up pricks?" Wynonna loped past them, throwing herself into the chair at the head of the table. She kicked her feet up on it.

Michelle crossed the room toward Wynonna and cuffed her across the back of the head. "Feet down, girl. Were you raised in a barn?"

"You're the one who raised me," Wynonna grumbled, but obeyed.

The long table sat eight to their mere four. Waverly took a seat at Wynonna's left hand. Willa took the other end of the table, glaring down its length at Wynonna. Michelle sat opposite Waverly, halfway between her two eldest daughters.

Whether they had servants regularly or whether Willa had hired people for the night to make an impression, Waverly didn't know. She sat, stiff and awkward, as people placed food in front of her. Wynonna tucked in without any hesitation, and while Willa and Michelle ate with a little more caution, neither seemed bothered, either.

Michelle tried to make conversation. She asked Waverly about school. Asked Wynonna about Europe. Asked Willa about the business. Waverly answered readily, feeling herself start to babble as she filled the chasm between her sisters. It exhausted her. She stopped answering, and Michelle stopped asking. Knives and forks clinked against plates. Their clothes rustled. A clock ticked in the hall.

"So, Waverly," said Willa, as they waited for dessert. She seemed an ocean away, an island by herself, far across the table. "Have you thought any more about my offer?"

"Is that all you can think about?" Wynonna leaned back in her seat, one arm flung over its spine, and glared at Willa. "Don't bring business to a fucking family dinner. Which was your idea, remember?"

"It's not business," said Willa. She leaned away, mirroring Wynonna, and folded her hands in her lap. "I'm really doing Waverly a favor. Why overwhelm her with partial ownership of a multinational corporation?"

Wynonna snorted. "Who says it's gotta be overwhelming? She's a smart kid."

"It was overwhelming for you, wasn't it?" said Willa. "Even with the assistance of your financial advisors, you didn't want the responsibility."

"I can get people to help me, too," said Waverly. "Or even teach me. Maybe I want to be involved in the company. I appreciate that you're trying to look out for me, but I can handle myself."

"Baby girl," said Wynonna, still glaring at Willa, "she's not looking out for you. You know why she wants your shares? She wants majority ownership. She wants to control the whole damn thing."

A muscle ticked in Willa's jaw. "Is that so wrong?" She narrowed her eyes at Wynonna. "Our grandfather controlled the company, and if Waverly hadn't appeared, I'd own the majority of the shares anyway. I can't believe he intended to end up in a situation without an Earp at the helm."

"It was in his goddamn will!" Wynonna rose, hands planted on the table. Her brows knitted tight and her shoulders shook. "He kept her in it knowing we might be able to find her."

"It was a sentimental gesture!" Willa had pushed herself to her feet as well, tilting toward Wynonna as though she could charge at any moment, no matter that there was a table between them. "Sixteen years, Wynonna, and no one found her. And all that time, I was the one who worked at the company. I was the one who was there, by his side, learning everything he could teach me before he passed. There's just no way that Grandaddy intended to leave half his investment in the company to a girl who isn't even our real sister!"

Waverly stiffened as though Willa had slapped her across the face. She searched for something beneath Willa's anger, anything to put the lie to her words, but she found nothing.

Michelle shot out of her seat, shouting Willa's name with a mixture of fury and pain that made Waverly's bones ache. Wynonna snarled, shoving her chair back so hard it clattered to the floor, and marched around the table. Waverly joined them on her feet, catching Wynonna as she tried to rage past.

"Don't listen to her," said Wynonna. Her eyes zeroed in on Willa, who stood, arms crossed, her face as cold as ice. "Don't listen to her, okay? You're my sister. More my sister than Willa ever has been." Wynonna shouted the last words, hurling them at Willa. Willa rolled her eyes.

"I know," said Waverly. Her fists curled in the worn fabric of Wynonna's shirt and she tugged until Wynonna tore her eyes away from Willa and looked town. Waverly smiled. "I've got this, okay?"

She twisted, clinging to Wynonna even as she glared at Willa.

"If you're trying to chase me off, I'm not going anywhere," said Waverly. Her arm curled around Wynonna's waist and she squeezed. "And I'm not taking your deal."

Willa tossed her head. "Really? Are you sure? What will you do with a third of this house? Shares in the company my family built?"

"I don't know," said Waverly. She stood as straight as she could. "I'll figure it out."

"Fine." Willa propped her hands on her hips, spitting each word. "Fine. Remember: just because you're inheriting part of Granddaddy's fortune, that doesn't make you one of us. If you do anything, and I mean anything, to interfere with my life... I'll make you regret it."

She stormed away from the table.

"Willa!" called Michelle. She scrambled to follow her daughter.

"Forget her, Mama," said Wynonna. She drew a deep breath and shouted. "Nicole!"

Nicole appeared in the doorway, so quickly she must have been hovering outside the whole time. "Yes?"

"Over here. And don't talk to Willa until you're done with me."

Willa stopped, glaring at Nicole. "See me immediately afterward."

"Of course," said Nicole, and she stepped aside as Willa thundered out of the room.

Waverly watched Willa go. Her eyes slipped to Nicole.

"You okay?" asked Nicole.

"I—" Waverly's eyes slipped past Nicole to Michelle, hands braced on either side of the doorway, head bowed. "Mama?"

Michelle turned, her face pale, her lips hanging open. She shook her head. Her eyes were wide and unseeing, and Waverly took a step toward her. "Mama?" she said again.

At her daughter's voice, Michelle jerked upright. She brushed her palms over her cheeks and hurried back to Waverly, running her hands up and down Waverly's arms. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm so sorry. She's never... she's just never handled change well. And who can blame her, really, what with... well. We've all seen our fair share of change." She faded again, the fog of memory like a cloud over her eyes.

When Michelle's hands skimmed her cheeks, Waverly gripped them, holding them there. The tears in her mother's eyes overcame her last defenses, and she felt a drop roll toward her chin.

"I'll talk to her," said Michelle. "She'll come around."

"I don't think she will," said Waverly in a whisper.

Michelle ignored her. "Let's get you to bed." She started leading Waverly out of the room.

Waverly pulled out of her mother's embrace. "I'm going back to Shorty's."

"You can't leave." Michelle gripped Waverly's forearm.

Reaching down, Waverly disentangled her mother's fingers from her sleeve and pressed Michelle's hand between her own. "Mama. Please. Let me go."

Michelle sucked down a quaking breath. "You promise you'll come back?"

"I will. Just... not tonight. Okay?" Waverly squeezed Michelle's hand, begging her to understand.

The tension within Michelle dissipated with a sigh, leaving her small and shriveled. She nodded. "All right. Okay. But let me walk you out."

Just before they left the room, Waverly glanced at Nicole. Nicole stood with Wynonna, their heads bent together, speaking rapidly and gesturing wildly. When Waverly's gaze fell on Nicole, as if she felt it, Nicole looked up.

She offered Waverly a small smile.

The old anger simmered low in Waverly's stomach, melding with the despair and rage born from Willa's rejection. For a moment, Waverly was sick with it; it threatened to spill out of her.

But Nicole's smile soothed it. Cooled it. Numbed it.

Waverly nodded, and the smile grew, just a bit. Just enough.

Chapter Text

Waverly stood on the landing outside the Earp mansion, ringing the doorbell over and over. Behind her, pulled as close to the door as she could get it, sat Gus's truck, its bed piled high with boxes.

The front door swung open. Willa stood beyond it, looking about as peeved as a drenched cat. She glowered at Waverly. "What?"

Waverly grinned, deploying the smile she reserved for defusing bar fights and, once, getting out of a speeding ticket. "I'm moving in."

"You're what?" Willa backpedaled as Waverly grabbed the doorknob and swung the front door open as wide as it would go.

"J'emménage." Waverly pulled a box from the back of the truck. "Nunc hic habito. I'm bringing my possessions from one location to another, with the intent of living in the second location. Colloquially known as moving in."

Willa followed her. "You can't just move in."

"Why not? I'm about to own this house, right?" Waverly flitted past Willa and into the house. She sprinted up the stairs with the box—a portion of her clothes, packed and shipped by Robin and Jeremy at her behest—and deposited it in her bedroom.

Willa lingered at the foot of the stairs, arms crossed, when Waverly descended to retrieve another box. "In point of fact," she said, with a voice like striking flints, "you don't own this property yet."

"Neither do you." Waverly pushed past Willa, knocking her in the side. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I should be more careful." She forced as much innocence into her tone as she could, until her voice was tacky with sweetness and her words as solid as spun sugar.

"Maybe I don't own it," Willa shouted up the stairs after her. "But I'm the executor of the estate, and if I say you can't live here..."

Waverly dropped the box on the floor and walked to the railing, leaning over to shake her head at Willa. "Go ahead. I dare you." She grinned, adding the last flourishing touch to her taunt. "See how well that goes over with Mama."

Willa's eyes narrowed. "Maybe I will."

With a shrug, Waverly walked away from the railing, picked up the box, and carted it to her room. As she turned back to the open doorway, she found Willa lying in wait.

"What are you doing?" asked Willa.

"I'm—"

"If you say moving in one more time, I will make you regret it."

Waverly shut up. Willa smoothed out her hair. "Now. What are you trying to accomplish with this... show?"

"I'm not trying to accomplish anything besides getting my clothes into my bedroom," said Waverly. "This house really is going to be partly mine. And my sister lives here. My mother lives here. I want to be close to them. That's it."

"I see." Willa shifted, shoulders and arms curling like a shell about herself. "So you'll move in, worm your way into my family's hearts, and then what? When you have your money and decide you're done with us?"

"Why do you think I'm going to cut and run?" Waverly stomped down the hall, the effect ruined by the plush carpet dampening her every step.

Willa followed, floating along. "We're not your family. Not your real family. I know how we seem. Wynonna's abrasive and annoying. Mama's overbearing. I'm cold." As Waverly reached the steps, Willa snatched her arm. Waverly tried to shake her free, but Willa's fingers burrowed into her jacket.

A smile worked its way onto Willa's lips. "Your father clearly loved you. He's your family, and you're going to go back to him."

"It doesn't have to be either-or," said Waverly. She stepped out of her costume of anger and annoyance and loaded her voice with all the sincerity it could carry. "I can have my dad and my mom and my sisters, can't I? Both of my sisters?"

"If our mother didn't want your father thrown in jail on a good day and outright murdered on a bad one... maybe."

"Does she really hate him that much?"

"He destroyed her when he took you." Willa's smile vanished. She dropped her hold on Waverly. "I lost my mother long before I lost Daddy."

"I'm sorry," said Waverly.

"Why? You didn't ask to be kidnapped. And you can't fix it now. No matter how nice and sweet you are." With a huff, Willa straightened. She flipped her hair back over one shoulder, smoothed her clothes down, and let her mask fall back over her face. "If you stay out of my way, I'll stay out of yours. And don't even think of trying to redecorate anything other than your bedroom."

Willa left Waverly at the top of the stairs, and Waverly let her go.


Xavier Dolls sat at a sticky table in Shorty's, completely at ease despite the less-than-professional locale. Waverly found him contentedly reading through some papers and sipping a glass of water she assumed Gus had provided him. Gus, for her part, had made herself scarce in another part of the building.

Waverly gripped the back of the chair opposite him. "Mr. Dolls?"

He looked up, then stood, offering a handshake. "You must be Waverly Gibson. And please, just call me Dolls."

When he beckoned for her to take a seat, she obliged. She tried to stop from fidgeting as he rearranged the papers on the table and folded his hands in front of him.

"So," he said, regarding her with a sort of reserved curiosity, "Nicole tells me you're the beneficiary of a very generous will and you're trying to decide if you'd like some help handling everything going forward?"

Waverly felt Nicole's name on her skin like a mosquito bite. "Is that all she told you?"

He stilled, his curiosity sharpening at the suspicion in her tone. "She told me that if I met with you, I'd be doing her a huge favor. But she wouldn't tell me much else, other than to be discreet, which really goes without saying."

"Do you know each other well?"

Dolls shrugged. "We know each other in a professional capacity, from..." He frowned, just slightly. "Before her current employment, let's say."

"And you don't know my family? The Earps? You don't know them?"

"I know of them. But I've never crossed paths with them. Nicole's my only connection to you, and I'd tell you the same thing under oath." He pulled a pen from his pocket and clicked it. "Let's go back to the beginning. What made Nicole feel like you need my help?"

Waverly folded her hands in her lap, hiding her fidgeting beneath the table. "Well, originally I needed a lawyer because my sister wanted to buy part of my inheritance. I'm inheriting shares in a company. She wanted to buy those."

"Originally?" Dolls tapped his pen on the table, the clicker end bouncing on its spring.

Waverly winced. "I kinda, sorta rejected her offer. Right after I called you, actually."

His eyebrows lifted, just a bit, betraying the barest hint of surprise. Then they knitted tight again. "So what's your interest in a lawyer now? Are you looking for help renegotiating?"

"I don't want to negotiate." A hard smile knocked at the corners of her mouth. "I'm keeping everything."

He hummed, considering. "In that case, all you really have to do is wait for your grandfather's estate to make it through probate, which shouldn't be more than a few months, assuming everything is above board and no one is contesting the will. No lawyer needed."

"About that..." Waverly fiddled with her necklace. "How do I know everything is above board?"

"You're entitled to an accounting of the estate." Dolls leaned back in his seat. Waverly had thought herself the subject of his study before; now, she was a slide under a microscope, every detail of her words, her expression, her body language the subject of his scrutiny. "But it sounds like you don't trust the executor of the will. Am I hearing that correctly?"

She chewed on her lip. "Well... yeah. Willa—that's the sister who wanted to buy my shares—is the executor of the will. And she was going to leave me out of it. My other sister found me and let me know about it. It's a long story."

He frowned. "She's legally obligated to uphold the will as the testator wrote it."

"Try telling her that." Waverly reined in her frustration with a sigh. "Is there... I don't know, can I report her to someone?"

"You can petition the court to have her removed as executor. The judge will consider the evidence and decide whether or not to do so."

"And what are the odds of that happening?"

Dolls drummed his fingers on the table. "I can't evaluate that without the specific facts of the situation. And in any case, I can't advise you one way or the other unless you're retaining me as your lawyer."

"So I'll hire you," she said. "I have a feeling I'm going to need a lawyer before this is all said and done. How do we make this official?"

Dolls walked her through the specifics of it, and when the contract was signed and back in Dolls' pile, he cracked his knuckles. "Okay," he said. "Let me see this offer your sister made you."

Waverly pulled the folder with the highlighted-and-annotated papers from her lap and handed it to him. He reviewed the documents, humming occasionally, then looked up again with a shake of his head. "We'd need a financial expert to review this, but based on my experience, she was seriously low-balling you with this."

"Of course she was," said Waverly with a heavy exhalation. "My sister—my other sister—said Willa probably wants control of the company."

"I'd agree with your other sister," said Dolls. He smiled and slid one of his neatly-arranged files toward her. "I did a little research. Before Edwin Earp passed, he was the majority shareholder. The two Hollidays—John Henry and Kate—had the bulk of the remaining shares between them. Most people expected your grandfather to leave his shares to Willa. She likely expected that herself. It would have given her a controlling interest in the company."

"But then I showed up." Waverly leafed through the folder, skimming financial statements and news articles.

"Then you showed up," he agreed. "Once the dust settles, no one will have a majority. If Willa wants to make the decisions for the company, she'll have to play nice with the Hollidays... and with you."

"And that's all it took for her to try to keep me cut off from my family." Waverly scowled. "She shouldn't be the executor anymore. I can't trust her."

He nodded. "I think it's worth looking into. We can start by auditing the estate and looking for any other irregularities."

"What about petitioning a judge?"

"It may come to that." He pursed his lips and tapped his pen on the table. "Right now, as far as the law is concerned, nothing has happened."

"But it did happen!"

"I know, and I understand that it's frustrating. But all a judge will see is that whether or not she neglected to find you, you were found, and she's taking you into account now. That said," he cut off Waverly before she could build up a head of steam to protest, "save everything you have that indicates she intended to leave you out. Document any conversations you remember. If she does try anything, that should go a long way toward showing a pattern of behavior that would make a court take interest."

They sorted out the final details, then Dolls packed his things away and stood, draining the last of the water in his glass. "I'll be in touch."

"Wait," she said, turning in her chair to face him again. He stopped and regarded her, tall and straight-backed. She took a breath to quell her nerves. "Thanks. For coming out to see me."

"I'm happy to help. But if you're looking for someone to thank... try Nicole. She's the one who convinced me to come out here."

He left Waverly alone with the annoying truth: she did owe Nicole her thanks. And, maybe, she owed her an apology, too.


After her meeting with Dolls, Waverly headed upstairs to retrieve the last of her things and tidy the room. As she puttered around the room, getting her meager belongings together, she called Jeremy and put him on speakerphone.

"Hey, you!" he shouted. "Everything get there okay?"

"Everything's safe and sound," she said. "Thank you so much, again. I owe you one."

"Make me dinner the next time you see me and we'll be even." He laughed. "How are you?"

"Oh, you know," said Waverly. "My sister threatened to evict me if I move into the big house and my lawyer doesn't think a court will care that she tried to leave me out of the will. Basically, Jer? The situation is balls."

"You sound pretty chipper for all that," he said.

"Well, I decided I'm not going to let her get to me. I'm going to do what I want and I'm going to get to know Wynonna and my mom, and if Willa has a problem with that?" Waverly remembered the venom in Willa's eyes at dinner, the rejection of their sisterhood like a punch to the gut, the pain scrawled across their mother's face afterward. "She can just deal with it."

"Oh man, feisty Waverly is my favorite Waverly! Seriously, though, I'm glad to hear you're okay."

Waverly smiled, folding a shirt and adding it to the growing pile on the bedspread. She imagined Jeremy in her apartment with Robin, packing up her clothes, being mildly scandalized by her underwear to Robin's endless amusement. Then she imagined Charlie, skulking in the hallway. Her heart gave a clumsy, twisting beat.

"How is he?" she asked. "Charlie?"

Jeremy's laughter faded. "He's okay," he said. "He asked about you."

"What did you tell him?" Her breath caught in her throat as she waited for an answer.

"Just that you seemed to be doing okay, that you wouldn't be home for a while, and that I couldn't say anything else." Jeremy sighed. "He said he loves you and he misses you."

Waverly ran her hand down the crease on her newly folded shirt, as though she could press it as crisp as if she'd ironed it. In her mind, she stood in the doorway of her apartment in Vancouver, staring down the hall, watching Charlie move through the space. From the kitchen to his study to their living room. He didn't notice her. She was a ghost, even in her own imagination.

"It'll be all right," said Jeremy, when she didn't respond.

She gave a noncommittal little grunt, dispelling the specter of her father, and went back to folding.

They drifted to safer topics as she packed the rest of her things, and she kept him on the line as she swung her backpack over her shoulders and headed back outside. As soon as the door swung shut behind her, she noticed an oddly familiar man leaning against Gus's truck. He watched her closely, ogreish in the fur coat piled around him. Waverly pulled her phone from her ear but left Jeremy on the line.

"Can I help you?" she asked, glaring at the man. Jeremy's indistinct voice bubbled up to her from the phone hanging at her side.

"I don't know," said the man. His voice was low, as greasy as his slicked-back hair. "Are you... Waverly Earp?"

His lips popped her last name like a needle plunged into a balloon. His eyes glinted.

She studied him back. "You were at the bar the other night. Wynonna and Nicole were arguing with you."

"Oh, I'm sure you've seen me around. But you didn't answer my question."

She tossed her head. "I'm not Waverly Earp." She rounded the truck and tossed her backpack in the cabin.

He peeled away from the engine and followed, not closing the distance, moving just enough to watch her every move. "My apologies. Then you must be Waverly Charles."

Her head snapped up, eyes locking on his. "Excuse me?"

"Well, Julian Charles is your real father," he said, his grin growing as a bonfire swelled inside her. "That's the rumor, anyway. In a small town like this, a rumor like that, it might as well be..." He shrugged. "Gospel."

She huffed, her nostrils flaring like a bull readying to charge. "Look, I don't know who you are, but leave me alone." She rounded the truck and hauled the driver's side door open.

"I'm just asking questions," said the man before she could climb inside, holding up his hands in a show of innocence.

"That better be all you're doing," said another voice.

Nicole.

She stood, arms crossed, a few feet down the sidewalk. The man glanced at her and smiled, backing away from Waverly.

"My intentions were pure. Can you say the same, Officer Haught?"

Nicole flinched. The man smiled wider.

"So sorry. Miss Haught. But I can see when I'm not wanted. Good afternoon... ladies."

He strode down the sidewalk past Nicole, his coat billowing behind him.

Nicole watched him go, her face dark. Waverly abandoned the truck and closed the distance between them.

"Nicole?"

"Hm?" Nicole's eyes refocused, her mind snapping back to the present. "Sorry. Was he bothering you?"

"A little. He gave me the creeps."

"He gives everyone the creeps."

"Who is he?"

"Bobo Del Rey," said Nicole, nose wrinkling with disgust. "Just a miserable excuse for a human. But enough about him. Wynonna's looking for you."

"She didn't need to send you to tell me that."

"You weren't responding to her texts," said Nicole, "and I was already in town making a beer run for her. It was easy enough to check and see if you were here."

"She has you running errands for her?"

Nicole shrugged again. "She's paying me. And it's not like I have anything better to do." Her eyes danced between the truck and Waverly. "But I think you do, so I should let you get going."

"No, wait!" Waverly reached out and caught Nicole's sleeve, then dropped it like a hot poker.

Nicole hadn't moved. She lifted an eyebrow. Waverly was glad for the cool wind on her burning cheeks. "So, um... I have a lot to thank you for." She lifted her hand, counting on her fingers. "You referred me to Dolls, who was super helpful, you just chased off the creepiest guy in Purgatory and... well. The other day, in the bar. You tried to protect me from that idiot. I know Wynonna would have killed you if you didn't, but I appreciate it all the same."

Nicole tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and refused to meet Waverly's eyes. "It was no problem, really." Her eyes slid up, wide and earnest. "All of it. It's the least I can do, after how I behaved. But... I didn't just do it for Wynonna. I wanted to keep you safe. Though I'm learning pretty quick that you can take care of yourself."

A grin spread on Nicole's lips. Warmth tinged Waverly's skin. She shook her head to chase it away. "I was drunk. Threatening a bunch of people with a shotgun wasn't my brightest idea."

"It worked, didn't it?" Nicole shoved her hands in her pockets. "It was a very Earpy thing to do."

"And if anyone knows anything about Earps, it's you." Waverly wasn't sure who was more surprised by the lack of rancor in her voice, her or Nicole. She decided to get all of her surprises over with. "I owe you an apology."

Nicole blinked. Disbelief flooded her expression. "For... what?"

"For how I've been treating you." Waverly fiddled with the cuff of her shirt, unable to meet Nicole's eyes. "I... took it too far."

"It's fine."

"It's not." Waverly took a deep breath, quenching her anxiety, tempering it into sharp, hard courage. "I'm sorry."

She caught Nicole's gaze. Something hid behind those wide eyes, that hint of a smile: something that seemed to reach out and turn a key in a lock nestled beneath Waverly's ribs. Waverly fought the sudden weakness in her knees, the coiling in her stomach, and wondered if she was getting sick.

"I'm—" Nicole's eyes fell to the phone in Waverly's hand. "Are you on a call with someone?"

"Oh, shit! Jeremy! Sorry, I should—"

"Don't worry about it." Nicole chuckled. "I've got to bring Wynonna her beer anyway. I'll see you around."

Waverly watched her go, then brought her phone back to her ear and hurried to the truck. "Jer? Are you still there? I'm so sorry I made you wait."

"Oh my gosh, don't be sorry, that was really interesting," he said. "Well, not the first part. I wasn't even there and that dude sounded super creepy. But the part with Nicole."

"Are you going to psychoanalyze me again?" She set Jeremy in the passenger seat as she backed into the street and reclaimed the phone as she started on her way.

"No, I promise. That just sounded... actually friendly," he said. "And she tried to protect you in a bar? What's that about?"

"Oh my god," said Waverly. "I went out with Wynonna—bad idea, by the way—and we got so drunk. Long story short, there was a fight and Nicole got slugged trying to get a guy to leave me alone."

"Very gallant! So you're friends with her now?"

She wrinkled her nose, thinking. "Maybe not friends... but better. I don't know. Wynonna and Mama seem to like her and she's been nothing but helpful since I got here. More than helpful. I think maybe... maybe I'll give her a chance."

"Well, good! You've got enough on your plate with Willa, I'm glad you don't have two enemies now." He laughed. "And just to be sure, this has nothing to do with her being hot?"

Waverly sighed and shook her head. "No, Jeremy, that has nothing to do with it."

But she thought back to Nicole standing before her, smiling down at her, and didn't notice that she'd started smiling too.


She was in her pajamas, rearranging her bedroom furniture for the third time in a bid to find the perfect setup, when her phone rang. She checked the caller ID: Gus Gibson. Confusion pulled her brows tight as she answered the phone. "Gus?"

"Waverly, thank god." Gus's panic seeped through the phone. "Where are you? You all right?"

"Yes?" Waverly's confusion dug deeper troughs in her skin. "What's wrong?"

"Your room," said Gus. "It's a mess."

"What? I swear I cleaned it!"

"No, girl, it's—get your sister and Nicole and bring them here. Someone broke in."

"What?" Waverly's heart kicked into another gear. "Are you okay?"

"We're fine, that's what I'm tellin' you. They weren't after us. Shorty's is fine. This was personal. Someone's after you."

Chapter Text

The floorboards of the little room above Shorty's creaked under Waverly's heels. She surveyed the damage.

The mattress had been slashed. The mirror lay shattered. The curtain rods had been yanked from the windows and left scattered on the floor, and the gauzy curtains puddled like clouds at Waverly's feet.

On the table rested an envelope.

Waverly Gibson, it said.

Of all the chaos in the room, that envelope threatened her the most. Her eyes darted away from it.

Wynonna stood beyond the doorway, hands on her hips. Waverly had banished her when her frantic energy had threatened to explode in the confined space of the room. "Fuckers," said Wynonna. "Motherfuckers. I'll kill them, whoever they are. They think they can fuck with my baby sister and get away with it?"

Nicole methodically moved around the room, phone out and snapping photos. A faint crease marked her forehead. Her normally bright eyes had gone dark and distant. "They were trying to scare you," she said. "This is a blatant threat."

"But why?" Waverly brushed a finger against the old bed frame, exploring nicks in the brass coating with her fingernail. The faint ping-ping-ping chipped away at the fear icing her skin. "I don't understand."

"The letter will probably have some kind of answer." Nicole slipped her phone back in her pocket, gave the room one last look-over, then stepped toward Waverly. "We should head downstairs."

"I haven't read the letter yet." Waverly refused to move. Nicole stopped short before they collided. Waverly found herself with a close-up view of collarbones and the hollow of Nicole's throat. She swallowed, and watched Nicole's throat bob in response.

"The Sheriff's department will be here soon," said Nicole. "I'll talk to Nedley, make sure he lets you read it when they're done."

"But—"

"They're professionals," said Nicole. She laid a hand on Waverly's shoulder and gently guided her toward the door. "And we can't interfere in their investigation."

"Haught's got experience with this sort of thing," said Wynonna, stepping aside to let them pass.

Nicole stiffened. Her fingers tightened on Waverly's shoulder—a flinch, too short to be painful—before she yanked her hand away as if she'd been burned.

Wynonna winced. "Sorry."

"It's fine," said Nicole. She pushed past Waverly and Wynonna and headed down the stairs, taking them almost at a run.

Waverly stared after her. "What was that about?"

"Not my business to share, baby girl," said Wynonna, guilt hanging over her like a veil. "Come on, let's go back down before Gus has a heart attack."

Downstairs, they found Nicole already talking to Nedley and his deputy. Gus waited at the bottom of the steps, and she pulled Waverly and Wynonna into a hug as soon as they were within arm's reach.

Gus's embrace melted away more of Waverly's fear. Even Wynonna let herself be comforted. As they all pulled apart, Waverly peered over Gus's shoulder just in time to catch Nedley and his deputy taking their leave of Nicole. Nicole's eyes followed the cops until they disappeared upstairs. Pain flashed across her features. Jaw clenching, she turned on her heel and flew outside.

In the quiet of the empty bar, Waverly could hear the ceiling groan beneath the cops' footsteps. She thought of the broken room, the violence, the envelope stuffed with more secrets, and fled.

She found Nicole on the bench outside Shorty's, curling over herself like a wilting bloom. Waverly tiptoed over and cleared her throat. "Hey."

Nicole looked up. "Hey. Do you... do you need something?"

Waverly shook her head. "I just needed some air."

"Yeah, me too."

"You okay?" Waverly wrapped her arms around herself. Nicole lifted an eyebrow.

"Your room got trashed and you're asking me if I'm okay?"

Waverly shrugged. "I'm trying not to think about that until I have to. And... I don't know, you always seem like you have things under control. Seeing you so miserable is kind of unsettling."

"I'm not... I'm not miserable," said Nicole, tearing her eyes away from Waverly. Her hands, clasped between her knees, shook with bitten-back truth.

"If you say so. But something's bugging you. You can tell me. If you want."

Nicole gave Waverly a skeptical look. "Really?"

"Yes, really." Waverly sighed and took a seat next to Nicole. A breeze rushed down the street. They both shivered. "I know we got off on the wrong foot. But I like to think I'm a nice person, so if you need someone to listen... I'm here."

The wind refused to let up, slicing through their clothes. Waverly rubbed her arms. Without meaning to, she inched closer to Nicole, toward the warmth of her, until their arms and legs brushed.

They didn't speak. Waverly felt Nicole shift, felt the tension seep out of her even as the wind forced them to coil tighter and closer against its chill.

"I didn't get a chance to tell you before," said Nicole at last, "but I'm sorry, too. For the way I went about everything at the beginning. At the very least, I shouldn't have just showed up at your apartment like that. I should have been kinder about it."

"And what about all that... flirting?" Waverly tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "You didn't have to do that."

"That was..." Nicole gripped her knees, rubbing them. "That was an accident."

"You flirted with me by accident?"

"Well... not exactly. I'm explaining this all wrong." Nicole pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "I didn't start out intending to flirt with you. But when I saw you for the first time... what can I say? I'm only human."

Nicole shrugged. Waverly's eyebrows shot toward the sky. "Oh."

"Yeah. I won't flirt with you again, I promise. That ship sailed, and that's my fault. But I still... I don't know, I guess I'm holding out hope that someday we can be... friends."

"Friends," said Waverly. Her eyes skimmed Nicole's face, her nervous eyes, the fading bruise. "A few days ago, I would've laughed at that, or worse. But... yeah. Okay. I'm willing to try."

"Really?" Nicole grinned, and despite the biting wind, Waverly felt as warm as a cat napping in summer sun.

She turned her attention back to Nicole, watching her through narrowed eyes. "Really. But you know, friends tell each other things. So... what is it about the police that gets under your skin?"

Nicole laughed, shaking her head. "You Earp girls. Too smart for your own good, all of you." She crossed her arms and screwed up her mouth. "I was a cop."

Waverly studied Nicole: the Nicole in front of her, the Nicole in her memories. Her attitude, her posture, everything Waverly had observed lined up with Nicole's confession. "Why aren't you one now?"

"I resigned." Nicole curled over her knees again, elbows supporting her, and glowered at the ground.

"Why?"

Only Nicole's lips moved. "It doesn't matter. It just... hurts, sometimes, to be reminded of it."

"Is that when you started working for my sisters?"

"Your sisters helped me out when I was in a tight spot," said Nicole. "Both of them. I owe them a debt I'll never be able to repay, so helping them out when they need it? It's the least I can do."

"And when they disagree about what you should do?"

"I do as much as I can for both of them, to the best of my ability."

Waverly gripped the bench with both hands, steadying herself. "So where do I fit in? Willa doesn't like me. What if she wants to use you to mess with me? If we're friends... are you going to tell her to back off?"

Nicole stared at the sidewalk. Waverly traced the line of Nicole's jaw, watched it flex as Nicole sorted through the question she'd posed. The breeze gusted past them again and Nicole lifted her eyes to Waverly's. "I owe her."

Waverly sighed. "I really do think I want to be your friend. You're... different. You're not who I thought you were. But I need to know I can trust you, too." She stood and peered down at Nicole. "I still want to try. Being friends, I mean. Just... think about it. Okay?"

Nicole looked up, her face pained, her body stiff. "Okay," she said, little more than a croak.

Another gust of wind lanced through Waverly's clothes. She tore her eyes away from Nicole's. "Now I really need to see what's in that envelope."

With the wind at her back, Waverly hurried toward Shorty's.

Nedley waited at the bar with Wynonna. As Waverly approached, he held the envelope aloft. She reached for it, and he pulled it out of range.

"This is evidence, you hear? I've read it, and my deputy's read it, but whether or not this lot gets to read it, too," he said, gesturing at Wynonna, "is up to you."

Waverly held out her hand, and he placed the envelope on her palm.

She stared at it a moment. It was a regular white envelope, sliced open at the top. Her name had been scrawled in thick, black ink. It contained a single sheet of white paper, one line scratched across it.

Tell your daddy he owes me.

An icy hand reached into her chest and closed around her thundering heart. Waverly stared at the letter, tried to draw the connection between it and the smiling memory of her father, and failed. She looked up and found Nedley studying her.

"I think you know what I'm 'boutta ask you," he said.

Blood drained from her face. "No."

"Miss Earp—"

"Gibson." She folded the letter back up, hiding the tremor in her hands with the motion. "It's Waverly Gibson, and I'm not telling you anything about him."

Wynonna had been leaning back, elbows propped on the bar. At the change in Waverly's tone, she sat upright and glared at Nedley. "Okay, what the hell's going on?"

Waverly handed the letter to Wynonna, who unfolded it, took one glance at it and got a look on her face like she'd just sucked on a lemon. "Oh, nice. Real helpful note."

"I want to talk to Mr. Charles," said Nedley. "Just talk to him, nothing else."

Wynonna scoffed and handed the letter back to Waverly, whapping her on the shoulder with it. "Don't tell him anything, Waves."

"I won't." Waverly took the letter and offered it to Nedley, arm held stiff and straight in front of her. "I'm sorry, Sheriff, but I'm not going to speak to you without my lawyer."

"Ooh, nice move," said Wynonna, as Nedley's scowl deepened.

"All right," he said. "I won't press it. We'll keep on investigating, but I can't guarantee I can help you if you won't cooperate."

"I'll cooperate," said Waverly. "With my lawyer."

Nedley shook his head, settled his Stetson on his crown, and shuffled out of Shorty's, a deputy with a box of evidence on his tail.

"Now that he's gone..." Wynonna crossed her arms. "You probably should talk to your dad."

Waverly's shoulders slumped. "Oh, god, my dad." She pressed her fingers to her temples and scrunched up her face. "He's going to freak out."

"No shit."

"This wasn't supposed to involve him. I was going to come here and sort through all this... this Earp stuff on my own. I'm not ready to deal with him again."

"Earp stuff doesn't seem so bad now, does it?" Wynonna took a seat at the bar and slapped the stool next to her. "Come on. Sit."

Waverly obeyed, slumping onto the stool and dropping her head onto the bar, burying it beneath her hands. "Every time I feel like I'm getting a handle on things, the rug gets pulled out from under me! Now there's someone ransacking my room? What if I'd been there? Alone? This is too much, it's—"

She lifted her head, clasping her hands over her mouth. Her eyes fell closed. She took one shallow, thick breath through her fingers.

Two breaths.

Three.

"No," she said. "No. I can handle this. Nobody's going to scare me off that easy. And nobody's going to threaten my dad and get away with it."

"That's the spirit," said Wynonna. "Speaking of..." She hefted herself onto the bar, spun over it, and dropped down onto the other side.

Just as Wynonna popped back up, a bottle of vodka held aloft in a show of victory, Gus came down the stairs and snatched the bottle away. "Oh no you don't," she said. "You want this, you pay for it."

Wynonna whined, and Gus held her ground. As they squabbled, Waverly dove into her thoughts, breaking the surface and letting them drown out the rest of the world.

Her father. She'd pushed him deep into the corners of her mind, and now he'd been dragged to the fore. He didn't fit, not in Purgatory, not with the Earps, even though he'd lived in Purgatory long before she'd been born and though she was even more of a stranger to it than him.

But he'd had a different name when he'd called Purgatory his home.

Julian Charles.

It sent a trickle of unease down her spine, and another man lumbered into her thoughts, baited by her father's given name.

"Who's Bobo Del Rey?" she asked, and Wynonna and Gus froze.

"Why're you askin' about Del Rey?" asked Gus. "That man ain't nothin' but trouble. I banned him from the bar years ago."

Waverly frowned. "But he was in the bar the other night."

"Why'd you think me and Haught started yelling at him?" said Wynonna. "He knows he's not allowed. He just likes to push people's buttons. But seriously, why are you asking about him?"

"I ran into him again," said Waverly. "Right outside here, actually. He's really... weird."

"Understatement of the century," said Wynonna. "He runs a local gang, the Revenants. Rumor has it they've been up to some real nasty shit since he took over, but no one can prove anything. No offense to Nedley, but his toolshed's got some real dull folks in it."

"He called me Waverly Charles," said Waverly. "I mean, I guess it's a reasonable assumption... but it was just so strange. Everyone here defaults to Waverly Earp."

"You think he had something to do with..." Wynonna pointed toward the ceiling.

"I don't know. It's just weird that he'd mention my dad right before someone decides to ransack my room to try to get money out of us. And the other night at the bar, he looked at me like..." Waverly shook her head, pursing her lips. "I don't know. Something feels off."

Wynonna shrugged. "Hey, if you've got a gut feeling, trust it. I'll talk to Nedley later, let him know Bobo was sniffing around."

"Thanks," said Waverly. She lifted herself off the bar. "Now... let's go home. I think I need to call my dad."


As soon as she returned to the Earp fortress, Waverly retreated to her room. She paced, the plush carpet cushioning her steps, and held her phone in front of her.

She needed to redecorate this room. It was too bright. Too soft. Too much of a monument to a childhood she couldn't remember.

Beneath all of those thoughts ran a single, swift current threatening to drag her under: call Charlie.

The phone rang. She swore she stopped breathing.

"Kiddo?" he said, and it ripped all the stitches from her still-healing heart. "Is that you?"

"Hi, Daddy," she said, her voice high and wavering. She heard the same unsteadiness in him.

"Oh god. Waverly, I missed you."

"I missed you too, so much."

"When are you coming home, sweetheart?"

Her breath caught in her throat. "I'm not," she said. "I'm moving in with the Earps."

"Moving in?" There was a pause, the gearwork of his mind snagging on her confession. "You mean... moving in, moving in? Permanently?"

She sighed. "Permanently enough. But that's... that's not why I called. Something happened."

"What's going on?" His voice grew heavy and demanding, fat with the puffed-up anger of a protective father.

"I was staying in town and someone trashed my room," she said. She cut off his anger again. "I'm okay. But someone left a letter. It just said, 'tell your father he owes me.'"

The silence on the other end of the line lingered, stark against his crackling rage just moments before. She prodded. "Please tell me this is just a case of mistaken identity or something."

Words poured out of him like a hailstorm. "You have to understand, kiddo, I was young and broke and I had to get you out of Purgatory, fast. I had to get you out and then I had to hide you, somewhere even Ed Earp and all his money couldn't get us."

She rested her forehead in her hand, applying pressure to try and quell her mounting headache. "What did you do?"

"I bought us new lives. New identities so airtight I didn't think anyone would ever find us. And I... I bluffed. I promised some people money I didn't have."

"Well, now they're after me," she said, a lashing whip. "Thanks, Dad." She regretted her tone almost instantly.

"I'll handle it," he said. She imagined him in their kitchen, sitting at the table, head bowed. She imagined his fist curling on the tabletop. "I'll be there today."

"What?" Her voice rose. "No! You're the primary suspect in a kidnapping, you can't just waltz back into the town where it happened! I'm going to have money soon. I'll handle it!"

He matched her volume. The Charlie in her minds' eye rose from the table, his blue eyes clouded with frustration. "This isn't yours to handle!"

Between her shouting and his, she missed the door opening behind her. A hand on her shoulder startled her back to reality. She jumped and found her mother beside her.

"Mama?" she said, and the line went so quiet, all Waverly could hear was her beating heart.

Charlie's sharp inhale filled her ear. "Michelle's there?"

"Who're you talking to?" asked Michelle.

Charlie's voice went tight. "Can I talk to her?"

Waverly shook her head, phone still pressed to her ear. "My dad."

"Julian?" Michelle took a step back, hand groping wildly behind her. She caught the rocking chair and wobbled before steadying herself. "Let me talk to him."

"Please?" said Charlie, said Michelle, and Waverly let out a strangled scream.

"No, you can't talk to each other. Dad, stay where you are. Okay?"

"All right, kiddo," he said, and with a rushed goodbye, she hung up.

Michelle waited as Waverly tucked the phone back in her pocket. She waited as Waverly stared at the carpet. As Waverly's eyes met hers.

"What was that about?" asked Michelle, the edges of her voice neatly clipped.

Waverly held her mother's gaze. "Nothing."

"Nothing?" Michelle eased into the rocking chair and gazed up at Waverly. "It wasn't about the fact that someone trashed your room at Shorty's and left you some kind of threatening letter? Come on, girl, you think my sister wouldn't give me a heads up about that?"

"Okay, maybe it was about that. But it's between me and my dad."

Michelle gripped the curved end of the chair's arm rest, then relaxed, dragging her open palm over the surface. Waverly waited for an argument, a plea, but Michelle surprised her.

"I used to sit with you in this chair, you know. Nurse you." Michelle's fingers followed the carvings along the side of the arm rest, trapped in the whorls. "Wynonna used to creep in and beg for a story and I'd read to her, with you in my arm and her in my lap. She liked being able to reach out and touch you. I'd look down and her little fingers would be curled around your ankle or just nestled in your blankets."

As Michelle spoke, emotion tightened its grip on Waverly's throat. She fought to breathe, to think, drowning in want for the family she could have had.

Michelle looked up. "Did he read to you?"

Waverly let out a shaky breath. "Every night."

"Good." Michelle nodded. "Good. Makes me hate him a little less."

Her statement caught on the edges of Waverly's thoughts. "Do you?" she asked.

"Do I what?"

"Hate him. Do you really?"

The question sparked something in Michelle like the strike of a flint. "He took my baby from me."

"Because Ward hurt me," said Waverly, below a whisper. "I've seen the medical records, Mama. He broke my arm."

Michelle's hands gripped the arms of the rocking chair. She wouldn't meet Waverly's eyes. Waverly knelt in front of her mother, hands on Michelle's knees. "Mama? Why didn't you leave him?"

Her voice was soft and small, and the tension in Michelle's jaw dissipated like fog beneath the rising sun.

"Oh, my baby," said Michelle. She leaned down, cupping Waverly's cheeks in her hands. "I tried. The first time Ward laid his hands on Wynonna, I packed up your sisters and tried to go. And do you know who came knocking at my door?"

Michelle shook her head. "Edwin fucking Earp, that's who." Her hands drifted upward, easing the curtain of Waverly's hair out of her face. "Edwin Earp showed up and told me if I wanted to divorce his deadbeat son, that was all right by him, but if I took his grandbabies away, I'd regret it for the rest of my life.

"Everyone always said what a good man Ed was." Michelle traced the curve of Waverly's jaw, brows furrowed, as if she sought answers in the shape of her daughter's face. "And maybe he was. But he kept giving Ward money. Gave him a job. Never once held him accountable, not when he was a boy and definitely not when he was a man. And for all Ed's talk about me divorcing Ward, if I'd have tried, Ward would have had all Ed's money and the best lawyers in the province at his back."

"Mama..." Waverly caught her mother's hands and held them tight.

Michelle returned Waverly's grip, strong and fierce. "I couldn't lose you. If he hit me, that was all right. Gibsons are tough, you hear me? It was nothing I couldn't handle. But I couldn't lose you or your sisters." Her lip quivered; she choked on a mirthless laugh and tears rolled down her cheeks. "And I lost you anyway, dammit. I should have fought harder for you. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, baby girl."

She leaned down and gathered Waverly against her. Waverly melted into Michelle's embrace. She sifted through her mind and struck gold: a memory, buried deep beneath old scars. In a moment, she was small again, held in her mother's arms, dozing in her mother's lap, her head pillowed against Michelle's chest.

A sob welled up in her. She clutched at Michelle. She didn't know who broke down first, whose tears wetted her collar, whether she pulled Michelle to the floor or whether Michelle sank down to meet her.

She let her mother hold her, kneeling on the floor of a room that was far too pink. "I'm back, Mama," she whispered. "I'm back, and I'm staying, and I'm never letting anyone hurt us again."

Chapter Text

A knock sounded at the door, jarring Waverly and Michelle from their embrace. Waverly dashed her tears away and retreated to the safety of her bed. "Come in," she said.

The door creaked open, revealing Wynonna, her face drawn and her shoulders slumped. "Hey. Nicole's here, too."

Nicole slunk into the room behind Wynonna, leaning against the closed door. Wynonna crossed her arms and eyed Waverly warily. "So... I have a proposal. But you're not going to like it."

Waverly lifted an eyebrow. "What is it?"

"Go back to Vancouver." Wynonna held Waverly's gaze, dead serious.

Waverly blinked. "What?"

"Go back to Vancouver. Stay with Julian. Someone just tore up a room trying to threaten you. It's not safe for you here."

"I'm not doing that." Waverly crossed her arms, matching her sister's pose. "No. Definitely not."

"Waverly—"

"Wy!" Waverly's jaw ached, her muscles tense and her teeth clenched. "I'm not going anywhere. Plus, have you seen this place? It's a fortress. I doubt I'll be any safer back in Vancouver."

"But they don't know where you live there. You were hidden for sixteen years."

"Nicole found me," said Waverly, with a glance toward the woman in question. "And if Nicole could find me, other people can find me. I'd rather be here, protected by a state-of-the-art security system and literal bodyguards."

Wynonna raised an eyebrow. "So you agree you need some sort of protection?"

"What?" Waverly felt suddenly as if she'd set her foot in a bear trap: one icy moment of regret before the teeth clamped around her ankle.

"You need protection. You said it yourself. And since you mentioned bodyguards... surprise! Nicole's yours now." Wynonna smiled, sharp and fierce.

"What?" Waverly's eyes snapped to Nicole. Nicole's lips pressed into a thin line. "That's... this is ridiculous."

"It ain't that ridiculous," said Michelle, who had lifted herself back into the rocking chair. "Wynonna's right. Someone threatened you to get at that man. If they're willing to be that bold about it, they'll do it again."

Waverly looked between Wynonna and her mother, waiting for one of them to laugh and give away the joke. Neither did. "Did no one hear what I said about this house being a literal fortress?"

"Oh, I heard you," said Wynonna with a shrug. "I just ignored you. Look, I wanted to march in here and tell you I was gonna lock you in this room until we catch this bastard. You're lucky Haught talked me down."

Nicole stared at the ceiling, avoiding Waverly's gaze.

"The point is," said Wynonna, "I can't trap you here. You're gonna want to see Gus and Chrissy Nedley and your lawyer and whoever. So... just take Nicole when you go. Okay?"

"I'll be in the background," said Nicole. "You can pretend I'm not there."

"Nicole," said Waverly, with an exasperated sigh. "You're not going to do that, because you're not going to be my bodyguard!"

"Baby girl." Wynonna planted her hands on her hips. "She is. I told her to, and I'm her boss, so she's going to stalk you regardless. Up to you if you want to waste time being mad about it."

Nicole squeezed her eyes together, shaking her head.

Pressing her fingers into her temples, Waverly mirrored the look. "Okay, let's say I agree to this—"

Wynonna muttered, "It's not like you have much of a choioomph," as Nicole elbowed her in the ribs.

Waverly raised her voice. "If I agree... does no one else care why this is happening? If you have Nicole investigate, we can find who did this and stop it before it happens again."

"I care," said Nicole, but Wynonna steamrolled over her.

"Oh, no. I see what you're doing. The police are already looking into it, all right? They don't need Nicole's help. You do, so she's going to stick to you like shit on a shoe. And I'm done arguing about it. This," she said, pointing between Waverly and Nicole, "is non-negotiable."

Waverly looked between Wynonna and Nicole. Wynonna's stubbornness had crystallized into stony resolution. Nicole still looked like she wanted to claw through the floorboards and escape, but there was a set to her jaw and a squareness to her shoulders that spoke the truth: as much as she disagreed with Wynonna's methods, their end goal was the same.

When Waverly glanced at her mother, Michelle just shrugged.

Three against one.

Waverly sighed. "Fine. Fine! But I want to talk to Nicole. Alone," she added, glaring at Wynonna.

"Ooh, kinky," said Wynonna. When Waverly's glare sharpened, she threw up her hands and backed toward the door. "Yeesh, sorry. See you kids later."

Michelle rose, kissed Waverly on the forehead and followed Wynonna out. She shut the door behind her, and Waverly heard her chiding Wynonna as they made their way down the hall.

Silence settled around Waverly and Nicole like a sheet flung over a bare bed. Waverly wrung her hands in her lap. "So you talked her down from keeping me under lock and key?"

"Yeah, after I talked her down from marching into the sheriff's office and challenging Nedley to a duel for not making an arrest yet."

Waverly couldn't help the laugh that bubbled from her throat. She pressed her hand to her forehead. "Oh, geez. She's... something." She crossed her ankles, feet dangling above the floor. "What do you think about this?"

Nicole considered for a moment, searching for something in Waverly's face, and Waverly wondered how Nicole always seemed to see through whatever facade she wore. "I know you'd rather not, but it's not the worst idea. Someone is threatening you. I'm better protection than nothing. And like I said... I can just disappear into the background."

A laugh bubbled out of Waverly before she could stop it, sprinkled with delight and disbelief. "You are aware that you have bright red hair, right? You stand out."

Running her fingers through her hair, Nicole grinned. "Really?"

"Of course." Waverly let her eyes trace the waves spilling between Nicole's long fingers, the way it curled behind her ears and brushed her collar. "Your hair was the first thing I noticed about you. It's really pretty."

"Oh." Nicole slowed and went stiff, a wound-spring toy spent of its kinetic energy. "Um."

"It's a compliment." Waverly's eyes danced with merriment. "If you want to be friends, you're going to need to learn how to take a compliment."

"I know how to take a compliment, it's just—" Nicole stopped herself, letting her hair fall back into place, and smiled. "Nothing. Never mind. Thank you."

"Okay, that's a start." Waverly laughed again. "So you want to be my bodyguard? You've got to do something for me in exchange."

Nicole straightened, hands folding behind her back for a moment before she caught herself and let them hang loose. "It's not a negotiation but... what are you after?"

"This person threatening me... I want to know who it is."

"The sheriff's—"

"I don't trust the sheriff's department. Not with everything going on with my dad. I want you to help me figure this out on my own."

Nicole crossed her arms. "What makes you think we can do any better than the police?"

Waverly grinned. "Because I have you."

"And what makes me special?"

"You're a specialist, aren't you?" The chagrin on Nicole's face drew a giggle from Waverly, which only made it worse. Waverly waved her hand in the air, shooing her laughter away like a fly. "All I mean is, people have been looking for my dad for years, but you're the one who found us. That means something."

"I got the same training as any other cop. Nedley's team can handle this."

"But you're different. You're... okay, special. I don't know why, but you are. I've never met anyone like you, and..." Words flooded Waverly's mouth, sweet and terrifying on her tongue. She swallowed them before they could spill free. "Nicole. Please. I won't ask you to do anything illegal or dangerous."

Dragging one hand through her hair again, pushing it back from her forehead, Nicole stared at the wall beyond Waverly. She let out a slow breath. "If I say no, you're just going to make my life miserable, aren't you?"

"You're my bodyguard now," said Waverly, not bothering to hide her creeping grin. "There are so many ways I can mess with you."

Nicole's laugh trickled toward a sigh. She gathered herself and her twinkling eyes danced toward Waverly again. "All right. I'm in."

"Yes!" Waverly clapped her hands together. "Thank you!" She grinned and found her grin mirrored on Nicole. She bit her lip and Nicole's smile sharpened, as though the sight were a whetstone. Waverly wanted to reach out, to lay her fingers against Nicole's lips, smooth that smile away and replace it with something else entirely.

She tripped over the thought and stumbled, but found her footing again. "Okay," she said. "Let's get to work."


Nicole led Waverly to a room in the Earp mansion that Waverly hadn't discovered yet: Nicole's office. It was a modest little room, a single window on the back wall spilling light over a simple desk. Nicole sat at the desk and Waverly pulled up a chair. She filled Nicole in on as much of the situation as she could.

"My first question," said Nicole, as Waverly trailed off, "is whether or not you'll let me talk to your dad."

"Do you have to?"

Nicole grimaced. "I don't have to... but it would make this a lot easier."

Waverly screwed up her mouth and considered. "Are you going to tell Willa about any of this?"

"Nothing."

Waverly narrowed her eyes. "Really?"

"Really." Nicole nodded gravely. "You have my word."

Crossing her arms, Waverly flopped back in her seat. "How much is that worth, though? What about her being your boss? And you owing her? What if she asks you?"

"Wynonna got to me first," said Nicole, as if it was totally normal to be the rope in a game of tug o' war between two sisters. "I'm not allowed to disclose anything I do as your bodyguard to Willa without your permission."

"Well, thank god for Wynonna." Waverly's foot bobbed. She sucked on her teeth, then sighed. "All right. You can talk to him. But I have some ground rules for you."

"Of course you do," said Nicole, even as she pulled a leather-bound notebook from a drawer and clicked a pen to the ready.

"Hey! No sassing me! Okay, rule one: I get to be on the call."

"Of course." Nicole's pen glided over the page.

"Two... don't mention Mama. Don't mention anything about... this," said Waverly, gesturing at the room, at the house, at everything, "unless you absolutely have to. But especially don't mention Mama."

"No... mentioning... Michelle," Nicole narrated as she wrote. "All right, what else?"

"Last..." Waverly twisted one of the rings on her finger. "If I say hang up... you hang up. No buts. No arguing. I don't care if you're in the middle of a sentence. You hang up."

Nicole scribbled, then underlined, the pen grinding into the paper. She held up the page for Waverly to see: 3. Hang up means HANG UP. She smiled. "Good?"

Waverly nodded. "Good."

After Nicole procured her cellphone and dialed Charlie's number, she put the call on speaker and set the phone on the desk between them. His voice filled the room.

"Waverly?" he said. "Is Michelle there?"

"She's not." Waverly glanced up at Nicole and found her face carefully blank. "I have someone here who wants to ask you some questions."

Charlie paused. "Why?"

"Because someone's threatening us, remember? We need to know who, but I can't trust the police not to arrest you."

"Waverly—"

"Dad, I'm not just going to lie down and let this happen!" Waverly's voice soared, a wire stretching to its breaking point.

She heard the frustration rumbling through him, tremors warning of an imminent eruption. "These people are dangerous!"

Nicole cleared her throat. "Sir, I can assure you that I'll keep Waverly as removed from this investigation as possible."

"Yeah? And who are you?"

Nicole didn't flinch. "I'm Nicole Haught. I work for Wynonna Earp. I'm a... private investigator." Nicole leaned toward the phone, face serious. "I'm a professional, sir, and I'd never let anything happen to Waverly."

Charlie made a noncommittal, considering sort of noise. "Kiddo, do you trust her?"

Waverly found Nicole watching her, waiting for her. She huffed. "As far as this investigation goes? Yeah, I do."

The corner of Nicole's mouth twitched. Charlie sighed. "All right. Nicole, ask your questions."

"Thank you," said Nicole. "Waverly told me you bought a 'new life' when you fled Purgatory. Who did that for you?"

"I never had a name for the actual supplier," said Charlie. "My contact was a local guy. Malcolm Ramaker."

"Ramaker?" Nicole turned to her computer and typed something. She narrowed her eyes at whatever the screen displayed. "Member of the Revenants? The biker gang?"

"That's the one," said Charlie.

"I didn't know the Revenants had connections like that back then," muttered Nicole. She scribbled something in her notebook. "So Ramaker set you up with someone who could make you disappear. You paid through him?"

"Yeah, that's the only reason I was able to get away without paying in full. Ramaker was a lot of things, but smart wasn't one of them."

"Not much has changed." Nicole chuckled. "Ramaker's still here, and still a dumbass. Did you have any other contacts?"

"No, he was it. I tried to stay out of the Revenants' path. I only knew Ramaker because we picked up the same odd jobs a few times."

Nicole jotted a few more things down in her notebook. She ran through more questions, but Charlie had little else in the way of information. She tried to thank him and wrap up her interrogation, but he cut her off. "Hang on. I have some things I need you to do for me."

She blinked. "You do?"

"I do. Here's the thing: I don't trust anyone else when it comes to my kid. But she seems to trust you, so I'm going to follow her lead. If you do anything to betray her trust..." He let silence slip into the conversation behind him.

"I understand," said Nicole. "I won't let either of you down."

"Good. Now, can I talk to my kid real quick? Waverly, you still there?"

Waverly, who had been watching quietly, parsing the minute changes in Nicole's expression, jumped. "I'm here."

She kicked herself for the way her voice went small when she spoke to him, but Nicole smiled, and the irritation buzzing in Waverly's ears faded.

"I love you, kiddo," he said. "Please, no matter what happens... be careful."

"I will. I love you, too." She hung up. Nicole had turned back to her computer, eyes narrowed as she stared at whatever information blinked back at her. Waverly cleared her throat.

"All set?" asked Nicole. She flipped her notebook shut. "Your dad gave us a good lead. Malcolm Ramaker's an idiot, so I should be able to get something interesting out of him if I tail him. I wouldn't be surprised if he's the one who left you that note. Hopefully we can just tip Nedley off to—"

The door swung open and Willa shot through it. "Nicole," she said. "I have—oh, Waverly. Hello."

"Hi." Waverly crossed her arms. "Haven't you ever heard of knocking?"

"Nicole and I have an... understanding," said Willa. "And she's my employee. But it's good you're both here. Waverly, I heard about your room at Shorty's. It's awful, and they won't get away with threatening a member of my family like that. Nicole, I want you to find out who did it so I can make their life hell."

"The sheriff—" said Nicole.

"The sheriff is old and slow and you're the best. I want you on this."

Nicole touched her fingers to her brow in a mock salute. "You got it, boss."

"Good." Willa turned to leave, but Waverly called out.

"Wait," she said. "I thought I wasn't family?"

"Yes, well," said Willa, shifting uncomfortably. "If you're taking the shares and the house, you're committing to us. We may not like each other—don't shake your head, there's no point lying to ourselves about that—but I'm not about to let some thug think he can do this to an Earp. Gibson. Whatever. Nicole, keep me informed."

Then she stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

As her footsteps vanished out of earshot, Nicole and Waverly turned to each other, made eye contact, and burst out laughing.

"Imagine if you told her you were already working on it!" Waverly leaned forward, hands on the desk, stretching toward Nicole. "I wish I could have seen the look on her face."

Nicole bit her lip and shook her head. "It would have been a good face. She likes to be the one with the ideas. But like I told you, I won't breathe a word of this to Willa unless you ask. Plus," she said, grimacing, "provoking Willa's never a good idea."

"I don't know, I think I've been doing a lot of that lately and it seems to be working out okay." Waverly hummed. "Anyway... when do we start watching Ramaker?"

"We?" Nicole raised an eyebrow. "Oh, no. There's no we in this. If Malcolm's the one threatening you, you're the last person who should go near him. I'll make some preparations and start tomorrow night. Alone. After I make sure to tuck you in with Wynonna keeping watch."

"You're no fun." Waverly slunk down in her seat and stuck out her tongue.

Nicole ignored her. "So, as your new bodyguard, I need to know... what's your plan for tomorrow? You've got a whole day to kill."

"Me?" Waverly smiled. "I'm going to go look at some baby pictures."


Waverly arrived at the Nedleys', Nicole in tow, and greeted Chrissy with a smile and a bouncing hug. When they parted, Chrissy eyed Nicole, who shoved her hands in her pockets and returned the gaze placidly. That seemed to be enough for Chrissy, who welcomed them inside.

A box of photos sat on the coffee table in the living room next to a stack of VHS tapes. A dust-coated VCR huddled on the floor in front of the TV, a mess of cables snaking around the back.

"You have videos?" said Waverly, rushing the table and seizing the tape on top of the stack. It read: Friends Chrissy's 3rd Bday. "Am I in this?"

"I think so," said Chrissy. "The others, I'm not so sure, but I thought you might want to try."

Waverly was already on the floor, slipping the tape out of its cardboard sleeve and offering it up to the VCR. The machine swallowed the tape, and after some fumbling with the TV, the picture burst into life.

Beneath a slowly rising band of crackling static, a group of people milled around in someone's backyard. Adults congregated near folding tables draped with cheap paper tablecloths and laden with all sorts of food. Children darted in and out of view. Waverly saw an inflatable wading pool, a swing set, a sun-bleached plastic sandbox.

"Chrissy!" said a woman, the camera operator, and the camera panned to a pigtailed little girl splashing in the pool. "How old are you today?"

Chrissy beamed and held up three fingers. Another little girl beside her watched her, then mimicked her.

"No, Waverly, you're still two," said the woman, chuckling.

"Yeah, you're two," said Chrissy, grabbing Waverly's hand and folding down a finger.

Another child ran into the picture: older, spindly, wild-haired. She dipped a sand bucket into the water, filled it, and dumped it over Waverly's head.

"Wynonna!" shouted someone off camera, and eight-year old Wynonna blanched and sprinted away, followed soon after by a much younger Gus McCready.

The camera dropped for a moment as its operator hurried over to a now-sobbing Waverly. In its new, shaky, perspective, Waverly could just make out her mother, standing away from the crowd, gesticulating at a scowling man in a well-tailored suit.

Ward Earp.

The tape paused. Beside Waverly on the couch, Chrissy shook with laughter. "God, your sister was already such a little troublemaker! I forgot about that. I thought it started after..."

Chrissy looked at Waverly, suddenly stiff, and stammered through the rest of her sentence. "I just thought that started later." She popped off the couch. "Do you want something to drink? Let me get you something. I'll be right back."

She vanished into the depths of the house.

"Geez," said Waverly, watching Chrissy's retreating back. "No talking about my family's tragic past, I guess."

"I know, she ran out of here like she was going for the record in the 100-yard dash," said a voice behind Waverly. She jumped and whirled around to find Nicole leaning against the wall by a window, peering outside.

"Have you just been standing there this whole time?"

"I'm keeping an eye out," said Nicole. "And being unobtrusive."

"You're being weird. Sit down right now or I'll call Wynonna and tell her you left me here by myself."

"Okay, okay!" Nicole strolled over, perched on the loveseat and leaned against the arm that was as far away from Waverly as possible. "She really was a terror, wasn't she?"

"I guess some things never change."

Nicole sat, stiff as a statue, hands planted on her right-angled knees. Waverly hummed. "What were you like, when you were a kid?"

"Me?" Nicole's eyebrows leapt toward the ceiling. "Well... my hair was even redder, if you can believe it. Very carroty."

"Did you wear it in braids?" asked Waverly, leaning an elbow on the arm of the couch. "Like Anne of Green Gables?"

"Not usually." Nicole crossed one leg over the other, her ankle propped over one knee."I didn't know how to braid it. I could manage a ponytail on my own. When I was really little, it was just wild. Like me."

"I can't picture you as a wild child." Waverly let her eyes roam the landscape of Nicole. Even lounging on the loveseat, legs tangled, arms draped over the furniture, she seemed neat and orderly, the artfully arranged subject of a still life.

"My parents weren't really into parenting." Nicole shrugged. "I had to learn a lot of things on my own. Sometimes it feels like I raised myself."

A veil seemed to drop over Nicole's features, one Waverly had seen before: In Shorty's, face to face with the police; in the greenhouse the morning after the bar fight; on the sidewalk in front of Waverly's apartment, the truth held in her outstretched hand.

The corners of Waverly's lips lifted. "From what I've seen so far... you did a good job."

Nicole looked up. "Really? You think so?"

"I do."

A smile to match Waverly's spilled across Nicole's lips, but vanished when her phone buzzed. She pulled it out and frowned. "It's Willa. I'll be right back."

Nicole took the call on the front porch. Waverly watched her go. The reminder of her sister chilled her, but only just; the embers of the memory of Nicole's smile kept her warm.

"Damn, you got Haught to smile."

Waverly turned to find Chrissy returning with a bottle of wine in one hand and a pair of glasses clutched in the other. She grinned. "Nine more smiles and I think she has to give someone a hug."

Chrissy filled a glass and handed it over with an easy smile. "That'll be the day. Seriously, I don't think I've ever seen her laugh."

Outside, tires crunched on the gravel driveway. Nicole's muffled voice filtered through the wall, answered by a deeper one.

"I'm as surprised as you," said Waverly. "She really rubbed me the wrong way when I first met her."

"It's all that time she spends with Willa." Chrissy raised her eyebrows knowingly as she sipped her wine. "That would mess anyone up."

Waverly leaned back against the couch. "Yeah, I know." Her foot bobbed. "I think we're friends. Me and Nicole. Or at least, we're getting there. But the Willa thing worries me. Willa hates me. To put it lightly."

"God, your sister sucks," said Chrissy. She froze. Her eyes went wide and she nearly choked on a gulp of wine. "Sorry. I shouldn't have let that one past the filter."

"Don't apologize. She does." Waverly shrugged. "But that's the problem. How am I supposed to build a friendship with someone when Willa's holding her puppet strings? Even if that person turns out to be brave and thoughtful and has a really nice smile?"

Waverly stared into her wine, swirling it in the glass. She looked up to find Chrissy watching her, a sly sort of grin on her face.

"What?" asked Waverly.

"Nothing," said Chrissy, quickly. "For what it's worth, I think you can win her over. Nicole, I mean. Not Willa. God forbid."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," said Chrissy, drawing out her words. "I think you can win her loyalty away from your sister. I'm telling you, Nicole's normally like a robot. But with you, she was... human. I almost liked her."

"That's—"

The door opened, and Nicole slipped into the house, followed closely by Nedley. Nedley grumbled his way through a greeting to Waverly, then made a hasty exit, clearly unnerved by the sight of his daughter and her friend lounging on the couch, wine glasses in hand. Waverly's eyes drifted to Nicole's. They twinkled, bright and amused. Nicole shook her head with a barely suppressed laugh.

A smile bubbled on Waverly's lips in answer. She extended a hand over the back of the couch and beckoned Nicole to join them. To her delight, Nicole did.

Chapter Text

"Haught, are you stupid?"

Wynonna stood in the Earps' enormous kitchen, shoving a donut into her mouth in as few bites as possible. Nicole stood across the granite-topped island from her, leaning forward on widespread hands. Waverly sat on a stool beside Nicole, legs crossed at the ankle, head swiveling between them.

"I just don't get how you hear the sentence 'keep my sister safe' and end up at 'help my sister investigate known jackhole Malcolm Ramaker, possibly putting her precious little butt in danger.'"

Nicole shook her head. "You realize she's related to you, right? You know what she would have done if I told her no."

"Couldn't stop at being whipped by two Earps, could you?" Wynonna dragged the back of her hand over her mouth, smearing powdered sugar across her cheek. "Had to collect 'em all."

Waverly bit the inside of her cheek to stop from laughing at the chagrined look on Nicole's face.

"All right, fine," said Wynonna. "She would have bullied you into it anyway. But this is still a dumb idea."

"I need to figure out what he's up to," said Nicole. "If he is the one who threatened her, he's just dumb enough that he'll get impatient and do something else soon. And if he's not, he might lead us to the real culprit."

"Okay, Sherlock." Wynonna leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms. "So you need me to babysit Watson while you check him out?"

"I still want to come along on the stakeout," said Waverly.

Nicole and Wynonna answered like twin gunshots:

"Absolutely not."

"Hell no!"

Waverly harrumphed. "It's not like he's going to know we're there."

"It's not worth the risk. I'm going to tell you everything I learn anyway." Nicole turned to face Waverly head-on, laying one hand on her shoulder. "Stay with Wynonna. Have a good time with your sister. Don't play any drinking games."

"You're the definition of no fun," said Wynonna.

Nicole pulled away from Waverly to regard Wynonna placidly. "Face it, Earp, you'd be miserable if you didn't have me around."

Wynonna scoffed. "Pretty sure I'd have so much more fun without you here to ruin it."

"Have it your way." Nicole grabbed her jacket, slung over the back of a chair, and shrugged it on. "One of these days I'm going to up and walk away and you're going to beg me to come back."

"In your dreams!" shouted Wynonna at Nicole's retreating back. When Nicole ignored her and kept going, Wynonna turned to Waverly and shrugged. "She'd be devastated without me."

"She probably would," said Waverly, gripping the seat of her stool and spinning back and forth. "It's nice that you have a friend."

Wynonna scrunched up her face. "Ew. Dude, Haught's just someone I met when we were dumb teenagers, and we did dumb teenager shit together. And now she works for me. I only keep her on because she's obnoxiously good at her job." She pushed off the counter and stalked toward the refrigerator, bending down to rummage through it.

"Liar liar, pants on fire." Waverly stopped spinning. "There's something I can't figure out about her, though."

"Big surprise," said Wynonna, her voice muffled as she leaned into the fridge and sniffed something. "Little Miss Mystery likes to keep people guessing."

"That's not it. She told me she used to be a cop, and it made so much sense to me. But then she told me she resigned, and I just can't imagine what would make her do that."

Emerging from the fridge, clutching a bottle of beer, Wynonna raised an eyebrow. "You've been doing a lot of thinking about Haught for someone who doesn't like her."

"I think I misjudged her," said Waverly, clutching her hands in her lap. "You helped me see that, actually."

"Me?" Wynonna threw open a drawer and fished for a bottle opener. When she found it, she swung her hip into the drawer and sent it crashing closed. "What'd I do?"

Waverly hopped off her stool and rounded the island to stand next to Wynonna, leaning back against the counter. "Well, you like her. And you don't like Willa. You're a surprisingly good judge of character. So if you like her... I figured she deserved a second chance."

"What do you mean, 'surprisingly good'?" Wynonna tipped her bottle back and took a sip. "Whatever. I'll take credit for it. And you're right about Haught. She's a good person. Like, grade-A, bonafide good human. The cop stuff... her past caught up with her. If she hadn't resigned... well. She didn't have much choice."

"Is that when she started working for you? She said you and Willa helped her out."

"She was going through some shit. As someone who's also been through some shit... I get it, you know?" Wynonna stared down the neck of her bottle. "She acts like I saved her life, but Willa's really the one who saved her. I'm just her friend, you know? All I did was worry and scrape her off the floor a couple of times."

"It sounds like that was enough." Waverly leaned into Wynonna as Wynonna lifted her arm and draped it over Waverly's shoulders. They let their heads fall together. "If she says you saved her life, I believe her."

"I don't save lives." Wynonna swirled her beer, spinning lace inside the bottle. "I ruin them. Just ask Willa. Or Daddy."

Waverly lifted her face to peer up at Wynonna. Her sister took another sip and shook her head. Waverly nudged her with her shoulder. "Maybe this is weird, since things have been all kinds of kooky since I got here, but my life is better with you in it. Really!" she said, when Wynonna gave her a look of utter disbelief. "I loved my life before. I did. I love my dad. I loved growing up with him. But now I have sisters. I have a mom and an aunt and a Chrissy Nedley and—I can't believe I'm saying this—even a Nicole. I don't care that there's some asshole out there threatening me. My life is full now."

Wynonna raised her eyebrows, opened her mouth to say something, and snapped it shut again. "Well... shit."

With a chuckle, Waverly lifted up on her toes and pressed her lips to Wynonna's cheek. "I love you."

"I love you, too, baby girl." Wynonna sniffed, blinking rapidly, and broke away from Waverly. "And that's why we're going to go out and practice shooting. I saw you with that shotgun at Shorty's and you need lessons."

She opened the fridge again, bundled a crate of beer under her arm, and slammed the door shut. Lifting her half-drunk bottle in the air like a baton, she shouted, "onward!" and marched out of the kitchen, Waverly close on her heels.


They swayed with the tall grasses beyond the homestead, full to the brim with beer. They passed Wynonna's pistol—the long-barreled Buntline Special named Peacemaker that had tumbled down the Earp family tree into Wynonna's hands—back and forth between them.

Waverly squinted at their empties propped up on the rail of a distant, old fence. Four left: Wynonna hadn't missed a single shot, and Waverly had missed every time. She squeezed off a shot. One of the bottles exploded, its shards tinkling like a wind chime, and Waverly threw her arms in the air and whooped.

"Nice shot, baby girl!" shouted Wynonna.

With a grin, Waverly aimed again. She fired and reduced another bottle to bits and pieces. "I'm really getting it!" she said, handing Peacemaker back to Wynonna.

Wynonna destroyed another bottle, then Waverly took another shot. The weapon kicked in her hands and she missed. She frowned as Wynonna finished off the last bottle and holstered the gun.

"We're done?" asked Waverly.

"Outta bottles." Wynonna patted Waverly on the back as they trudged toward the house. "You did good, though. We'll keep practicing."

The ground crunched beneath their feet, frozen solid by the cold snap of the past few days. The smell of smoke hung in the air, whispering the story of a bonfire somewhere nearby. Waverly rubbed her hands together and wished she'd remembered gloves.

She thought of Nicole, camped out in a car somewhere in town. Nicole was probably cold.

"She's a big girl," said Wynonna. "She knows how to dress warm."

Waverly's face went pale. Had she said that out loud?

Wynonna stopped and goggled at her. "Um, yeah, you did."

"Shit," said Waverly, awareness of her own mouth catching up with her. "Uh, I mean..."

"O-kay," said Wynonna. "I think we've found your beer limit. Seriously, though, don't worry about Haught. She's a professional. She can take care of herself."

"I'm not worried," said Waverly. The house was close enough that she could make out the garage to one side. An idea trickled into her mind. "Do you want to go say hi to Gus?"

"Sure," said Wynonna, rolling the word on her tongue. "But I can't drive you."

"So we'll ask one of the drivers." As they reached the house, Waverly changed direction, angling toward the garage. She flung open the door and stepped inside, finding several Earp employees gathered around a table, cards in hand.

They all jumped out of their seats. One hid his hand behind his back. When Wynonna stomped into the space behind Waverly, they relaxed a bit, but still eyed Waverly nervously.

"Chill," said Wynonna. "She's not Willa. She doesn't give a shit if you play. Right?"

"Oh, definitely not. Have fun." Waverly dismissed their concern with a wave of her hand. "I just wanted to ask if one of you could drive us into town?"

"Of course," said one, flinging his cards down, scooping his winnings into a pocket, and hurrying to one of the enormous, black vehicles caged in the garage. He flung open the door and held it as Waverly and Wynonna climbed inside, then settled into the driver's seat and started the trip into town.

His name was Kyle, Waverly learned. He'd been working for the Earps for a few years, and he and Wynonna had some kind of awkward sexual history that neither wanted to talk about.

It made for a silent, stifling ride.

Waverly watched out the window instead. Until they hit Purgatory, her view held the same things it had back at the homestead: brown fields and shadowed trees on the horizon, a darkening sky stretched unbroken over them.

They passed the outskirts of town, and the view got a little more interesting. Waverly peered down side streets, trying to make out features she hadn't yet explored. Down one street, she saw a minivan, parked along the curb. Her beer-addled mind chugged, then offered up a suggestion: wasn't that Nicole's minivan?

She eyed Wynonna, who was doing everything possible to avoid acknowledging Kyle's existence. Kyle was trying to get her attention while still keeping his eyes on the road. Waverly stumbled onto her next brilliant idea. When they pulled up to Shorty's, she asked Kyle if he still had feelings for her sister.

Kyle sputtered, and Wynonna was forced to look at him at last. As they rolled through their confusing emotions together, voices growing louder with each word, Waverly hopped out of the vehicle and sprinted in the direction she'd seen Nicole's van.

She found it down a side street and walked up alongside it. The front seats were empty, and she frowned. Craning her neck, she tried to peek into the back, and saw nothing. She tried again, pressing close to the window and fogging it with her breath. "Nicole?" she said. "Are you in there?"

She got no answer. She stepped back from the van, crossed her arms, and stamped her foot like a child. Somewhere beneath the beer haze, she was dying of embarrassment at her behavior, but she couldn't seem to care. She called Nicole's name again.

Just as she was debating going back to Shorty's—once she figured out where Shorty's was—the back door of the van slammed open. Waverly threw her fists up in front of her.

Crouching in the back of the van, face contorted with annoyance and pink with cold, was Nicole Haught. "Are you trying to draw attention to yourself?" she hissed. "Get inside or go away, right now!"

Waverly rushed to the van and hopped in, ducking past Nicole, and Nicole drew the door shut behind her.

"What the hell?" asked Nicole, when Waverly plopped herself into a seat. She sat stiffly across from Waverly, arms crossed, her red hair sticking out from beneath a snug toque.

"I want to help," said Waverly. "Please?"

Nicole sighed, then settled deeper in her seat. "I don't know how much help you'll be, but you're here now and you're not leaving until I say it's okay. So I guess you might as well keep watch with me."

With a grin, Waverly did exactly that.


Wynonna texted Waverly. She called her, too. Every minute or so, Waverly's phone vibrated, and every time, she silenced it.

Then Nicole's phone rang.

"Don't answer it," said Waverly, but Nicole only gave her an exasperated look before bringing the phone to her ear.

"Hey, Wynon—"

Waverly could just hear her sister's garbled freak-out pouring through the speaker.

Nicole sighed and tumbled through Wynonna's interrogation. "She's fine. She's with me. No, I didn't. No, she just—Wy—Wynonna—she's fine! I'll bring her back later, okay? Bye."

Nicole leaned forward, her forehead striking the back of the seat in front of her. "She's going to kill me. I can't believe you ditched her and left her with Kyle."

"Okay, overly dramatic." Waverly giggled. "Why would she kill you? I'm the one she should be mad at."

"Because I'm the one who agreed to this whole thing." Nicole rubbed her fingers together, blowing on them to warm them. "Why didn't you stay with her?"

"I don't like being left out."

"I wasn't trying to leave you out. I was trying to keep you safe," said Nicole. "The more distance you have from all of this, the better."

"But I don't want to be protected." Waverly sighed. "Okay, sure, sometimes it's okay. I appreciated you trying to protect me when you got that black eye."

"So it's okay, except when it's not?" Nicole let her head loll to the side, a grin spreading on her cheeks. "You give me whiplash, you know that?"

Waverly tried to contain her smile, but it slipped free. "Someone needs to keep you on your toes."

Nicole raised both eyebrows at that. She started to say something, stopped, and started again. "Honestly, Wynonna had that job covered before you got here." Her focus shifted, drifting away from the van and Waverly. Whatever memory she'd dredged up, it drew a single, snorting laugh from her.

The cold ran its icy fingers down Waverly's spine. She shivered, and it caught Nicole's attention.

"I just don't like being treated like a little kid," said Waverly. "Does that make sense?"

"Of course. But this isn't about your maturity. I'm trained for this. I'm prepared." Nicole lifted her jacket, revealing a handgun tucked in a holster beneath her arm.

Waverly eyed the gun, biting her lip. "Do you think this really rises to the level of... that?"

"Ramaker broke into Shorty's, trashed your room, and threatened you. The longer he goes not getting his money, the more the violence will escalate. So yeah, I think it does."

A woman passed by the mouth of the street ahead of them, her shadow stretching across the asphalt. Waverly watched her until she disappeared. "I'm sorry," she said. "In my defense, I had several beers. And I guess I figured that if I'm with you, I'm safe."

"Why?"

"Why?" Waverly wrinkled her nose. "You were a cop."

"Yeah, but I got forced out." Nicole drummed her fingers on her knee. "And you don't know why, so as far as you know, I got forced out for being the worst cop."

Waverly crossed her arms. "Did you get forced out for being the worst cop?"

"No." Nicole chuckled, once, low and rough. "No, I was very good at what I did, right up to the end."

Waverly bit her tongue. Nicole stared out the window at the door of the bar. Waverly watched her, fighting her curiosity.

"I didn't lead the best life before I became a cop," said Nicole, still gazing outside. "I did the best I could, but some of the decisions I made... I regretted them the moment I made them. And I just kept trying to outrun them."

"But they caught up to you."

"I lost the second thing that ever really meant anything to me." Nicole shook her head. "Wynonna was the first. She's the only part of my old life I kept. She's the reason I'm here instead of..."

"Instead of... wait." Waverly had been watching Nicole, but Nicole had trailed off, her attention drawn to movement near the bar across the street. Two men walked down the sidewalk and paused just outside the door. For a moment, they stood close, heads bent together. Then one headed inside.

The other leaned against the wall just beside the door, tugging the collar of his fur coat higher around his neck.

"Bobo Del Rey," said Nicole, snarling.

Nicole blocked Waverly's view. Waverly scooted closer, leaning over Nicole's shoulder to peer through the window. She laid a hand on Nicole's shoulder to steady herself, and Nicole drew in a sharp breath.

"Sorry," said Waverly.

"You're all right." Nicole twisted to offer Waverly a smile, and between the curve of her lips and the glimmer in her eyes, Waverly was glad she was already leaning on Nicole for support.

Attention back on Bobo, Nicole muttered under her breath. "Is he waiting for someone? Maybe the guy who went inside... his name's Red, I think." Nicole screwed up her mouth. "Let's wait and—"

The door of the bar opened. Light spilled past two bodies into the street. One was Red. The other...

"That's Ramaker," said Nicole. Ramaker clapped Red on the back, grinning. His hair hung in hanks over his shoulders. His clothes were in desperate need of washing. He hadn't noticed Bobo.

Then Bobo peeled himself from the wall, and Ramaker jumped.

He held up his hands. His mouth moved a mile a minute. Bobo watched him, unmoving. Then he leaned in and placed one fingertip against Ramaker's chest. He shoved, and Ramaker stumbled back. Red caught him, pushing him back toward Bobo.

Bobo thrust his face into Ramaker's, the fur of his coat seeming to stand on end like a hissing cat's. He snapped one ring-laden hand back, swift and sudden. Ramaker flinched. Bobo patted him on the cheek.

With a flick of Bobo's hand, Red dropped his grip on Ramaker and followed Bobo down the street. Ramaker stood, stock still, staring after Bobo. His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. Then he turned on his heel and slunk off in the opposite direction, muttering to himself.

"Shit." Nicole's head swung back and forth, between the vanishing Revenants and Waverly. "I need to get you back to Wynonna."

"What? Why?" asked Waverly, as Nicole climbed into the driver's seat.

"Because I promised Wynonna I would." Nicole started the engine and pulled away from the curb.

"Why can't I stay with you? We can both keep watching him."

"You're not staying the night in this van with me." Nicole's eyes flicked toward Waverly's in the rear view mirror. "I'm bringing you back to Shorty's, as ordered."

The finality in her tone stifled the rest of Waverly's arguments. She slouched back in her seat, and the scene she'd just witnessed played over again in her head. "So... what the heck did we just see?"

Nicole hummed, thinking. "I keep asking myself the same thing. I expected to find Bobo mixed up in this, but..." She frowned and shook her head. "I don't know what it means. If I can find Ramaker again before he gets too far, maybe I can find out."

"What, tonight?" Waverly stared at Nicole. "Do you really think you can find him?"

"It's a long shot, but it's worth trying." They pulled up in front of Shorty's. "All right, go make sure Wynonna doesn't blow a gasket."

Waverly laid a hand on the latch of the sliding door, but made no move to leave. Nicole turned to face her. "Go on. Don't worry about me."

"I don't think I can help it." Even in the dark, Waverly could see Nicole soften. Cheeks burning, Waverly flung open the van door and leapt onto the sidewalk.

"Waverly!" called Nicole, before Waverly could plunge through the door to Shorty's. She leaned through the rolled down window of the van. "Be smart. Be safe."

"I will," said Waverly. The window started to rise. She stuttered out, "you too."

She didn't know if Nicole heard. The van backed into the street, and Waverly watched it go. Then Nicole drove away, leaving Waverly with a goodbye on her tongue, the sweet scent of engine exhaust on the air, and the creeping, cold touch of unease on her skin.

Chapter Text

When Waverly saw Nicole again, she looked haggard, the bags under her eyes complimenting her slow-healing bruise. She'd picked up Ramaker's tail after dropping Waverly in front of Shorty's, followed him to the trailer park on the outskirts of town and lost him in the thicket of trailers and people.

Either he was sleeping off the mother of all hangovers, or he'd gone to ground. With every day that passed seeing neither hide nor hair of him, Wynonna and Nicole grew more and more nervous.

"It doesn't mean anything good for a guy like Ramaker to just up and disappear," said Nicole, pacing in front of a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the Earps' study.

Wynonna sprawled on the couch, her booted feet kicked up on one plush arm. "What the hell is that weasel playing at? I wish he'd just show his ugly face so I could shoot it."

Waverly sat cross-legged in an armchair, a book balanced on her knees. She'd retreated to the study for some peace and quiet. When Nicole found her, she'd allowed the intrusion. Nicole knew when to be quiet, even if worry clouded around her like musk. She'd given Waverly a nod before entertaining herself studying the old, leather spines of the hundreds of books on display.

Nicole was more of a distraction than Waverly had anticipated. She’d caught herself looking up from her book, her gaze drifting to Nicole, to her pushed-up shirtsleeves straining over her arms, to her lip trapped between her teeth in concentration, to her slender, strong fingers tapping an aimless beat against the shelves.

Then Wynonna had stomped in, and Waverly's little moment of peace was gone.

"If you get a single smudge on that couch, Willa's going to kill you," said Waverly.

"She can try," said Wynonna. Her head lolled toward Waverly. "Forget her, though. What do you think about this Ramaker shit?"

Waverly shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I'm nervous knowing he's out there, but there isn't anything I can do until Nicole finds him again."

"Okay, but you're acting like everything is normal. Seriously, it's freaking me out that you're not more worried."

Waverly slammed her book shut. "You two worry enough for an army. I don't see the point of adding to it. And anyway, I think Nicole and I have my safety handled."

"Maybe Nicole does, but what if Nicole's not with you? You're basically defenseless." Wynonna gestured to Waverly in her entirety, to her short stature and small frame.

Annoyance flared across Waverly's cheeks. "What if I just start carrying Gus's shotgun around, will that make you feel better?"

"Because that's not extremely illegal or anything," said Nicole.

Wynonna plowed ahead, brimming with years' worth of unused older-sister condescension. "You still don't actually know how to shoot."

"I would if you would let me leave the house to go practice on my own!"

Nicole groaned. "Did nobody hear me before? Open carrying without a permit? Super illegal? No one?"

Waverly glanced at Nicole, and an idea sprang into her mind. "What if Nicole teaches me self-defense?"

"What?" Nicole abandoned her attempt to wear a trail into the carpet by the bookshelves to stand between Waverly and Wynonna. "What makes you think I can teach you?"

"You were a cop," said Waverly, frowning.

"That's not—"

"Nicole, shh. Waves, I love this idea. I'm so glad you turned out so smart." Wynonna popped upright, her boots clomping on the floor. "Nicole can keep you out of trouble, and you can learn how to break all of Ramaker's fingers if he tries to pull anything."

"But—"

As she headed out of the room, Wynonna clapped Nicole on the shoulder. “Thanks for volunteering, Haught!” Nicole flinched as the door slammed, then turned to Waverly with a pained expression.

Waverly traced the edge of her book, found the ribbon spilling from between the pages and worried it between her fingers. "Sorry, is that... if you can't actually teach me, that's fine—"

"No, it's—” Nicole rubbed the back of her neck. “Okay, so, I just want to make sure... you're serious? You didn't just say that to get her to leave?"

"I mean, I did, but I actually kind of like the idea." Waverly's eyes skimmed the wrinkled outline of Nicole's shirt, the suggestion of the woman within. "It wouldn't hurt, right?"

"I guess not..."

"Really, if you don't want to, you don't have to." Waverly held her breath. Her heart tolled each moment that passed as dread and hope waged war within her. The silence stretched as thin as gossamer, so delicate that Waverly was sure each moment would be its last.

Finally, Nicole broke it, a shadow lurking behind her eyes. "I can teach you. It's just..." She shook her head and smiled. "I'm being silly. Let's do it."

The shadow lingered in Nicole's smile. Something hid behind it, something Waverly desperately wanted to see. Waverly felt an urge, like a weight of a wave crashing over her, to stagger toward the shore of Nicole's arms. She would pull Nicole toward her, hold her—just for a moment!—and find the truth of that smile in the language of Nicole's beating heart.

She anchored herself to her chair.

Nicole, oblivious, nodded. "Come by my house tomorrow morning and we'll get started." Her smile blossomed, bright and eager.

Pulling her knees up and opening her book across them again, Waverly let her smile grow alongside Nicole’s. "All right," she said. "I'm looking forward to it."


She stood on Nicole's porch in leggings and a tank top. Despite the winter coat draped over everything, she shivered, folding in on herself to trap as much heat as possible. She counted the seconds since she'd knocked, then ripped one hand free from her pocket, balled it into a fist and whaled on the door again.

There was a clattering inside, a muttered curse, and the door opened to reveal Nicole in shorts and a sports bra, one sock halfway on, clinging to the door frame and breathing heavily. Waverly took a step back.

"Hey," said Nicole. She glanced down at herself and winced. "Sorry. I wasn't ready. Normally I'd be ready on time."

"It's fine," said Waverly, reeling in her eyes every time they tried to flicker down. It was going to give her a headache. "Um, it's really cold out here."

"Oh, right, of course, come in," said Nicole, rapid-fire. She stood aside and Waverly brushed past her. Nicole shut the door and they stood in the hall, staring at each other.

Waverly failed to stop her eyes drifting down to Nicole's stomach. Her gaze rested there quite pleasantly until she remembered herself. She yanked her attention up and away as hard as she could, only to find Nicole watching her. Nicole's teeth grazed her bottom lip, her eyebrows pulled tight, and her eyes searched Waverly's. It wasn't until Nicole let out a breath like a sudden squall that Waverly realized her own breath had been trapped, too.

"So I'm going to go put a shirt on." Nicole gestured with her thumb behind her. "If you head down the hall, my exercise room's on the right."

Then she turned on her heel and sprinted up the stairs.

Waverly wandered into the room Nicole had indicated. She found workout equipment pushed up against the wall, a few mats laid on the ground. She stepped onto the mat and started warming up. Her body moved like clockwork. It left her mind free to wander, turning over a memory like hard candy on her tongue: the memory of Nicole framed within the door, shirtless, breathless, captivating.

Nicole entered, now in a tank top of her own, and joined Waverly. Her brows knit in concentration. Her muscles flexed. every curve of her body drawn in sharp outline. She was fluidity; she was focus; she was strength. Familiar, unwanted yearning tickled the edges of Waverly’s awareness, calling to her like a siren’s song. She didn’t realize she was staring until Nicole paused and started explaining her motions, as if she thought Waverly was trying to figure out how to stretch for the first time.

Waverly didn’t protest.

She kept staring.

When they finished what was likely the most efficient warm-up of Waverly's life, judging by the breakneck patter of her heart, they faced each other in the center of the mat and Nicole began to teach.

Waverly had underestimated just how much touching there would be. Nicole ran through an explanation of the body’s weak spots and natural weapons, calling Waverly's attention to each with a brush of her fingers on Waverly’s skin or by offering herself up to Waverly's touch. Waverly tried to follow along, forcing herself to ask questions despite the haze clouding her mind, and Nicole rewarded her with dimpled smiles and breathy laughs.

Once, when Nicole drew Waverly's hand close and laid it just beneath her own ribs, her explanation of elbows and strikes and solar plexuses stuttered to a halt. Her breath caught. Her hand tightened over Waverly's, binding them together, and Waverly's heart hammered in answer to a question that never came.

Nicole exhaled. The lesson resumed. Waverly thought she must have imagined it.

They moved on to demonstrations of different techniques. Nicole's hand wrapped around Waverly’s wrist. Her grip was as strong as Waverly had imagined that first night in the bar. Waverly’s pulse beat against Nicole's fingertips, choked and fast. She fought free of Nicole, again and again, until Nicole was satisfied with her progress and Waverly was anything but satisfied.

Another exercise. Nicole snatched a handful of Waverly's shirt in her fist, hauling her in. Waverly looked up, so close she could just catch the light skipping and shimmering in the striations of Nicole's eyes. Her breath went stale in her lungs, and she hid her gasp as she twisted free of Nicole's grip.

They talked as they went. Waverly listened, storing everything. Each new bit of information, she tagged with an accompanying memory: a flutter of eyelashes, a bead of sweat on a collarbone, a grunt as Waverly shoved Nicole away.

Then Nicole grabbed Waverly from behind, arms lassoed around her waist. Blood pounded in Waverly’s ears. Electricity coursed over her skin. She nearly went limp as her mind raced to hide her reaction and cut all power to her body in desperation. She braced herself against Nicole’s arms and cursed her clammy palms.

"You okay?" asked Nicole, her voice loud, her lips stirring eddies in the air just beyond Waverly's ear.

"Fine!" Waverly’s voice eked through her constricting throat. Nicole’s laugh rumbled through their joined bodies. She shifted, just a little, and Waverly thanked every ancient god she could think of that Nicole couldn’t see her eyes fluttering closed or her lips parting for a barely-caught gasp.

Nicole continued, blissfully unaware. "I know it's awkward, but you won't learn it as well without hands-on practice. So... what could you do to get out of this?"

Waverly stammered through the possibilities: stomp on her attacker's foot. Deliver an elbow to the stomach. Skull bash the nose. Nicole held on, nodding as Waverly rattled off her list. Her chest expanded and contracted, the strength of her grip on Waverly undulating with each breath. Something flashed through Waverly's mind, the first threads of half-realized fantasy: lips on her neck, fingers spreading, sliding, descending, Waverly's hand reaching up, up to tangle in red hair—

With a yelp, Waverly drove her elbow back and stumbled forward when Nicole dropped her. She turned to find Nicole doubled over, wheezing, hands clutching her torso.

"Good," said Nicole. "That... was..." She stood straight, sucking down a deep breath. "That was good. But no more body strikes like that without protective gear. I like my kidneys un-pulverized."

"I'm so sorry," said Waverly, but Nicole waved her off.

"I'm fine, really." Nicole rested her hands on her hips. Waverly wiped sweat from her forehead, and Nicole gave her a gentle smile. "You look pretty beat... we've been working on this for a while. How about we call it for today? I'll get my hands on some padding and then you can practice more, really put some force into it."

"Sure," said Waverly, whose shortness of breath had not come from the lesson.

As she left Nicole's, grimacing against the cold, she wondered: could it really be called a self-defense class if it was going to kill her?


With Ramaker still on the loose and with Wynonna and Nicole still worrying themselves into a frenzy even with the self-defense lessons—renamed in Waverly's mind to "self-restraint lessons"—Waverly decided a friends' night was in order.

Nicole, the de facto security for the event, insisted it should take place in her house. The invitees were Chrissy Nedley, a propped-up tablet providing a window to Jeremy's apartment in Vancouver, and several bottles of wine.

"Are you sure you don't want to join?" Waverly asked Nicole, standing at the bottom of the stairs as Chrissy's headlights pierced the curtains. She peered up at Nicole, resisting the urge to tuck an unruly strand of Nicole's hair back into place. "I wouldn't mind."

"It's not my thing," said Nicole. "But thanks for the invite."

Waverly peeked through the window at the fire pit in Nicole's front yard: the reason Nicole had insisted they have the gathering there. She didn't want Nicole out there in the elements. She wanted her inside, beside Waverly on the couch, smiling and talking and drinking just enough that Waverly could lay her hand on Nicole's arm and blame it on the wine.

Nicole hadn't taken any of Waverly's bait. She shrugged. "I've survived worse."

Chrissy knocked on the door. Nicole tugged her toque down over her ears and smiled. "Seriously, I'm going to be fine." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a squishy bag. "Look, I got myself marshmallows!"

Waverly's mind seemed to stop functioning at the sight of Nicole holding up a bag of marshmallows and grinning like an excited grade-schooler. She was saved from Nicole noticing her stupor by Chrissy Nedley stepping inside the house.

"Okay, that's adorable," said Chrissy. "Waves, I kind of want to roast marshmallows outside with Nicole now."

"I bet you won't say that when you see the fancy wine I stole from Willa."

"Ooh, you sneak!" Chrissy laughed. "Sorry, Nicole, you're on your own. Try not to freeze!"

"I'll do my best. You guys have fun." Nicole paused on the porch. "Waverly, if you need anything, I'll be right outside."

"Same goes for you," said Waverly around the half-closed door. "Come inside if it gets too cold, okay?"

"Don't worry about me." Nicole started to turn and walk away.

"Nicole." Waverly reached out, catching the sleeve of Nicole's jacket. They both stared at her hand, at her fingers nestled in the fabric, and Waverly marveled that Nicole could spend an afternoon touching Waverly's bare skin in the name of teaching her self-defense but this was the moment that left her speechless.

"Take care of yourself," she said at last, fighting through her own paralysis. "I mean it."

"I will," said Nicole, and then she was gone.

Waverly turned to Chrissy and found that she was being watched. She wrinkled her nose. "What? What's that look?"

"I'll tell you once you've had a glass or two," said Chrissy. "Okay, now you have to introduce me to this Jeremy of yours!"

They settled in and poured themselves wine, and Waverly made introductions between her two friends. They got along immediately. Chrissy pressed Jeremy for stories of Waverly's high school days and Jeremy was happy to tell them. Waverly let them have their fun at her expense. She sipped her purloined wine and listened to them banter, joining in when necessary.

She and Chrissy had just started on their second bottle and Jeremy was a little over halfway through his when Chrissy turned her attention to Waverly.

"So," she asked, swirling her wine, "what's up with you and Nicole?"

"There's something up with Nicole?" Jeremy leaned closer to the screen, grinning.

"There isn't... she's right outside!" Waverly cast a nervous glance at the window.

Chrissy rolled her eyes. "She can't hear us. And I don't know, you guys just had a moment when I got here."

"A moment?" Waverly scoffed.

"Yeah." Chrissy gestured to the entryway with her wine glass. "She went outside and you were all... concerned for each other. She gave you a look."

"She didn't give me a look," said Waverly, as steam billowed up in her, flooding her cheeks.

Chrissy turned to Jeremy. "It was like this." She smiled, and Waverly remembered Nicole smiling at her from her front porch. She took a gulp of wine.

"Sorry, Waverly," said Jeremy. "That's a look."

Waverly's fingers tightened on the stem of her glass. Something in her recoiled, Chrissy and Jeremy's tittering like a thousand needles piercing the tenderest parts of her heart. She couldn't look at the wound, couldn't face what she might see, honest and exposed, but she would protect herself. Like an animal cornered, she readied herself to bite.

Chrissy turned to Waverly, another comment on the tip of her tongue, and Waverly snapped.

"She's my friend." The words sliced through her on their way out. "And I'm not having this discussion with you. Please."

"Waves," said Chrissy, but Waverly shook her head.

"She's my friend," she said again, calmer, smoothing down her hackles. "And I have to spend a lot of time with her right now, so if you make this any weirder for me I'm going to be so mad at you. Okay?"

Chrissy and Jeremy glanced at each other, then nodded. "Okay," said Jeremy.

"Sorry we pushed it," said Chrissy.

They moved on to lighter subjects: squabbles over a movie to watch, Jeremy's frustration with his boyfriend's potato obsession, Chrissy's five-year plan to get out of Purgatory and take the world by storm.

At the end of the night, Waverly got Chrissy settled in Nicole's guest room and tidied up a bit. As she carried plates and glasses to the kitchen to rinse, her thoughts drifted to their conversation.

She'd have to apologize to Chrissy and Jeremy. The cornered-animal feeling still cluttered the corners of her mind, sharp and ugly, and she tried to tame it. She shouldn't have let it loose, no matter how threatened she felt, how wounded.

She probed the edges of the wound with her mind, still unwilling to look, and found... Nicole. Nicole Haught had taken up residence in her heart, and though Waverly still couldn't figure out what Nicole was doing there, she wasn't sure she minded.

Her thoughts turned to the fire beyond the walls of Nicole's home, to red hair, to a bag of marshmallows. She crept outside and found Nicole warming her hands over the embers.

Waverly tapped Nicole on the shoulder. When Nicole smiled up at her, she smiled back. Then Chrissy and Jeremy's voices whispered in her memory. A look.

Another memory followed: Nicole, sitting in front of Shorty's, her face contorted with frustration and pain. I owe her, she'd said of Willa. That hadn't changed.


Self-defense lessons with Nicole didn't get any easier. In her role as instructor, Nicole shifted between serious and smiling, giving Waverly whiplash.

She works for my sister, Waverly thought, stomping on the top of Nicole's well-cushioned foot. She's still in Willa's pocket.

But every time Nicole's smile dimpled her cheeks, Waverly's stomach twisted in knots, and she forgot everything else.

To distract herself, and to feel useful, she sought refuge in the library. The Revenants had been operating in Purgatory since she was a child, and from talking to her mama and Gus, she suspected their history stretched back even further. Her initial research supported that theory and she found herself in front of the library's ancient microfilm reader, poring over century-old newspapers in search of references to the group. When she needed a break from that, she wandered the stacks, evaluating what the library had to offer.

All the while, Nicole hovered nearby, sometimes reading but more often just watching. Waverly tried to coax out her casual side, but with Ramaker still at large, Nicole was incapable of relaxing in public.

Waverly decided that if Nicole was going to hover, then at the very least, she could be useful, so she quizzed her on her knowledge of the modern Revenants.

"Nedley told me the Revenants used to be sloppy small-timers," said Nicole. They stood on opposite sides of a stack in the languages section of the library. Waverly ran her fingers over the spines of the books, their titles floating through her mind like white noise as she processed Nicole's answer. "But a few years ago they started acting more professional. I don't think it's a coincidence that it happened when Bobo took over. I don't know if Nedley has more information, but I've looked into him and I suspect he's working with other groups. Big, organized ones."

Waverly's fingers tripped over the ridged cover of a thick, leather-bound tome. "You think he turned the Revenants into a... a criminal vassalage?"

"Careful, your history major is showing. But, yeah, something like that." Nicole's voice floated through the metal shelving to Waverly. "A guy like him... Purgatory and the Revenants are too small for him. So he found a way to make them bigger. I think maybe his new friends use the Revenants to advance their interests in the area. Drugs, guns, anything. Bobo's the top dog here, but he's also the fall guy if the big organizations are unhappy."

"So where does Ramaker come in?" Waverly peered over the tops of the books at Nicole, catching glimpses of her as she matched Waverly's progression down the aisle. "Bobo didn't seem happy with him."

"Before Ramaker threatened you, the Revenants were pretty quiet. But breaking into Shorty's and trashing your room? That's making a hell of a lot of noise. Especially when it's you, the 'Earp Baby' back home at long last. Everyone in town knew about it by the next morning."

Waverly nodded slowly, considering. "They've got something else going on. Something big. Something Ramaker's putting at risk."

"That's my best guess." Nicole sighed. "Ramaker probably either skipped town or he's lying low until Bobo's done being pissed at him."

"That's a good thing, isn't it?" Waverly asked. "If he's out of the picture, I should be safe."

"I wish that were true. But it just means we don't know where he is... and he could pop up again without warning." Nicole's dry chuckle was just barely audible from the other side of the stack. "You're stuck with me a while longer."

As Waverly drew closer to the end of the aisle, Nicole kept pace with her. Waverly gave a little shrug, even though Nicole couldn't see. "I like spending time with you."

Nicole stopped dead in her tracks. Waverly paused, rising on her tiptoes to see Nicole's face between the books. She could just glimpse Nicole's lips as they spread in a smile.

"Really?" asked Nicole. Her smile reminded Waverly of the Nicole she'd met in the coffee shop all those days ago. The way her own chest constricted was familiar, too. "So I guess this 'being friends' experiment is working."

"I guess it is." Waverly sank down to the balls of her feet and continued down the aisle. She reached the end, rounding the stack, and found Nicole waiting. She matched Nicole's smile with one of her own. "You have to promise we'll keep hanging out, even when you don't have to be my bodyguard."

"You just tell me the time and the place." Nicole' smile crinkled her eyes and dimples creased her cheeks. A look, Chrissy had said, and Jeremy had agreed. Suddenly Waverly felt burning hot from toe to tip.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" she asked, the words tumbling from her lips before she could stop them. She reeled back, drawing in a breath as though she could vacuum them up and trap them behind her teeth.

Nicole's smile vanished. Embarrassment replaced it, her skin going tight over her temples. "I'm sorry."

"No, I'm... sorry, did it get hot in here?" Waverly pulled at her collar, trying to fan away the heat. She took a step back. "I'm going to step outside for a minute."

"Waverly," said Nicole, but Waverly was already gone, shooting out of the stacks and into the lobby, firing into the street like a bullet.

It was too much: the Revenants, the churning in her gut, the way Nicole was looking at her. She sucked down a lungful of cold night air.

She'd left her jacket inside, and the wind sliced through her clothes. She shoved her hands under her armpits, teeth chattering, and started down the sidewalk. Just a little walk. Just to clear her head. Then she'd go back to Nicole and pretend nothing had ever happened, taking a sledgehammer to any awkwardness that arose between them.

Waverly stopped at the mouth of the alley between the library and its neighbor, pulled her hands free and rubbed them together. Everything was complicated. She wanted to rewind her life to simpler times, when it was just her and her dad making do.

But then she'd never have met her mother or Wynonna or... Nicole.

It was cold. Too cold. Her fingers were like ice, hard and brittle, and the tips of her ears had begun to prickle. Waverly turned, feet carrying her back toward the library, trying to expel Nicole's lingering presence in her mind with each clouding breath. Then something clamped over her mouth, heavy and hard, and panic erased everything else.

Chapter Text

Someone dragged her. A hand clamped over her mouth. An arm roped around her waist. She kicked her feet, heels bouncing on the sidewalk. There was nothing to dig into, nothing to slow her down. The hand on her face was clammy, the breath in her ear was ragged.

Waverly clawed at the hand, but her attacker pressed down harder. He took another step, back toward... what? The alley? She thought of Nicole, still in the library. If Nicole had followed her, she would see what was happening, could rush to Waverly's rescue. But what if she hadn't?

Waverly wouldn't wait to find out.

She drove her elbow into her attacker's ribs. He grunted and tipped forward, the air gone from his lungs. She twisted out of his grip. Pain lanced through her scalp as his hand tangled in her hair. Spinning around, she struck, the heel of her palm crashing into the bridge of his nose.

When he roared and grabbed at his face, blood pouring between his fingers, she turned on her heel and sprinted for the mouth of the alley. She'd almost reached it when her ankle jerked and she hurtled to the ground. She caught herself on her palms, wincing as the asphalt tore through her skin.

Her attacker released her ankle and clambered over her, jerking her onto her back, pressing his forearm into her throat. His knife glinted in the light pouring from the streetlights.

She went still.

He swore, blood spraying from his lips and spattering her face. She winced. When she opened her eyes again, she recognized him: Malcolm Ramaker.

"There," he said. "Now you're quiet. Fuck. You're lucky I'm not going to kill you, you little bitch."

She glared at him, but pressed her lips together, biting back a retort.

"Now that you're listening..." He snorted, sucking blood down the back of his throat. "Your daddy owes me money."

"He doesn't have it," she said. "And neither do I."

"Bullshit." Ramaker pressed the tip of the knife to the underside of her jaw. She could barely hear his next words over the drumbeat of her pulse, the insect whine of fear in her ears. "You're an Earp now. You got money the rest of us can only dream about."

"I don't, I swear—"

He growled and pressed his arm harder against her windpipe. She gasped, her fingers scrabbling at the leather of his jacket.

"Don't lie to me. Your daddy owes me and you're up in that big house, wiping your ass with hundreds. You find a way to get that money to me or there'll be hell to pay."

The pressure on her throat relented. She gasped, lights speckling her vision. "Okay," she said, wheezing. "Okay, I'll get your money."

"You better." He lowered his face to hers. His breath reeked of cigarettes and stale alcohol. "You got a week."

Something clattered behind her, at the mouth of the alley. Ramaker looked up, eyes wide. The knife pressed harder against her skin as he shifted. She yelped.

"Get off her!"

Ramaker scrambled to his feet and scuttled back, his shoes scraping as he turned and careened down the alley. The patter of rubber soles grew louder as her rescuer ran past her, after Ramaker.

Waverly turned onto her side, hands grasping her throat. The pressure of his arm remained on her windpipe like a ghost. The spot where the knife had kissed her skin burned. She squeezed her eyes together.

She pushed herself to her hands and knees, then upright. Another shout echoed from down the alley.

"Waverly!" It was Nicole. "Call the cops!"

Staggering toward the voice, phone already in her hand, Waverly rounded the corner to find Nicole: gun drawn and aimed at Malcolm Ramaker, pinned against a dumpster in a dead end.

She made the call, stammering through the dispatcher's questions. Stumbling toward the wall with her arm flung wide, she let the friction between her clothes and the brick facade hold her upright. Her knees shook.

Nicole kept her eyes on Ramaker. "Waves," she said, a tremor in her voice. "You're okay. He's not going anywhere."

"Fuck you, bitch," said Ramaker, his hands in the air, the knife on the ground between him and Nicole as if he'd kicked it away.

Nicole scowled. "Maybe don't mouth off to the bitch with the gun."

Waverly didn't know how long they waited, but sirens wailed in the distance, their caterwauls growing shorter as the squad cars raced to the scene. Red and blue pulsing light filled the alley, and Nedley appeared with his deputies, pushing past Nicole with their own weapons drawn. They handcuffed Ramaker and dragged him away.

Waverly's legs gave out. She dropped like a stone toward the ground, but someone caught her, easing her down.

"Hey," said Nicole. She settled Waverly against the wall, hands on her shoulders. "You're safe. I've got you."

"Nicole?" Waverly stared, eyes wide and wet and cold, and tried to make sense of what she saw. The world swam with every whipsaw of the police lights from red to blue, blue to red. Waverly reached out. Her fingers curled around the base of Nicole's neck, catching the collar of her shirt, a few strands of her hair.

It steadied her. It steadied them both. The world kept spinning, but with the wall at her back and Nicole steadfast in front of her, Waverly felt safe.

She crumbled.

Her forehead struck Nicole's collarbone. She kept falling. She puddled in Nicole's lap, one hand at her own throat, the memory of Ramaker, his knife, his voice crashing over her. Over and over, she heard him taunt her. Over and over, his blade pricked her skin, one accidental twitch from ending her life in a grimy alley in Purgatory.

She wanted to tear him out of her mind, throw him on the ground and crush him beneath her heel. Rage and regret and fear tore through her, an alien howl.

Nicole stroked her hair, her other hand rubbing circles between Waverly's shoulder blades. Waverly took a deep, shuddering breath, filled her lungs with Nicole's warmth, with the scent of her detergent and the faint aroma of vanilla dipped donuts.

Slowly, she chased away the specter of Malcolm Ramaker. Slowly, she came back to herself.

She found the strength to push herself upright. "I'm okay," she said, dragging her hand over her wet cheeks. It wasn't the truth. It wasn't a lie. It was the only thing she could say.

"Okay." Nicole shifted with her, hands hovering just beyond Waverly's outline to catch her if she swayed. They rose to their feet. "We should talk to the cops."

"Sure." Waverly brushed dirt from her clothes. For the first time, she noticed her stinging palms, the tiny particles burrowing into her abraded skin. She picked one free with a fingernail and didn't move. Nicole waited, patient and silent.

Always so patient.

"Thank you," said Waverly, when she found herself able to speak again.

Nicole wouldn't meet her eyes. "It's my fault he attacked you in the first place. I shouldn't have let you run off without me."

"Like you could have stopped me?" Waverly took a step closer to Nicole. "About what happened in the library—"

"We should go talk to the sheriff." Nicole took a long step back. "I should call Wynonna, too. She should know what happened."

"Okay, but—" started Waverly, but Nicole walked away, Wynonna already loud in her ear.


Wynonna arrived in a cacophony of engine roars and squealing tires, flying off of her bike and gathering Waverly in her arms.

"Baby girl." Wynonna squeezed her close, crushing her against her chest.

Waverly tried to protest, but her voice died in the vice-grip of Wynonna's embrace. Eventually she gave in, sinking into her sister and looping her arms around Wynonna's waist. She tuned out Wynonna's useless threats toward Ramaker and borderline illegal ones toward the police, nuzzling toward her sister's warmth. Even when Wynonna's grip loosened, she stayed glued to Waverly's side.

Wynonna glared at Nicole. Nicole withered under her stare.

When the sheriff was done with them, Wynonna and Nicole bundled Waverly into the passenger seat of the car they'd taken to the library. Nicole took the wheel and Wynonna assigned herself escort duty, leading them back toward the homestead on her bike. Neither of them spoke. Waverly stared into the utter darkness of the prairie, willing her mind to imitate it, to go blank for a few blissful minutes.

It refused. Ramaker leered at her from every shadow.

At the homestead, they found Michelle waiting for them, crouched on the bottom stair with her head in her hands. She rushed to Waverly, hands fluttering, searching for any marks on her. At the sight of the scrapes on Waverly's hands, she hissed.

Waverly remembered Ramaker's nose crunching beneath the heel of her palm, his blood spattering hot and slick on her skin. She remembered running, the freedom of the main road ahead of her, glowing with streetlight. She remembered his hand looping around her ankle like a snare, the realization that she was caught like a blow to her stomach, the shock in her elbows as she hit the ground and the sting in her hands as her skin tore.

She tried to jerk her hands away, but Michelle held her wrists. "Mama." Waverly pulled harder. "I'm fine."

"He hurt you," said Michelle. Waverly forced herself to relax, slipped out of Michelle's loosening grip, and let her mother hold her close instead.

"Nicole," said Michelle after a long moment, when she found the ability to speak again. "Thank you for saving my baby."

Nicole shoved her hands in her pockets. "I should never have let it get to that point."

"We're gonna talk about that later," said Wynonna. "For now... Mama, don't you think we should get her to bed?"

"I don't need—" said Waverly, but Michelle nodded, took her hand, and led her to the stairs.

Wynonna followed, pausing on the bottom step to turn to Nicole and point a stiff finger in her direction. "I'm not done with you."

"I'll be in my office," said Nicole, and she stalked off.

The Earps ushered Waverly into her bedroom. Wynonna rifled through Waverly's drawers and found pajamas for her. Michelle vanished and reappeared again with first aid supplies. She pushed Waverly into the rocking chair and set to work cleaning the wounds on Waverly's hands.

She felt like a child with a scraped knee, bawling on the bathroom counter where Charlie had plopped her as he hunted down hydrogen peroxide and cotton balls.

She hated it.

"I'll be fine," said Waverly again, but Michelle clucked her tongue.

"You hush," she said. "Someone threatened my baby. I can't kill him, so I'm going to make sure you're taken care of."

Waverly bit her tongue and let Michelle work. Wynonna stood in the doorway, arms crossed, fingers tapping. She stepped aside when Willa appeared, out of breath and face as hard as stone.

"Who did this?" asked Willa, hands balled into white-knuckled fists at her sides. "Who did this to you?"

"Why do you care?" asked Waverly.

Willa scoffed. "Do you really think I'm that heartless? Someone assaulted you. Some bastard who's going to wish he'd never been born."

"It was Malcolm Ramaker," said Wynonna. "One of those fucking Revenants."

Willa's nostrils flared. "I see. And how did this happen?"

Wynonna's eyes glinted. "You'll have to ask Nicole."

"Oh, I will. Where is she?"

"Her office."

Willa turned on her heel and strode out of the room. Wynonna hurried after her.

"Wait." Waverly pushed out of the rocking chair. "Don't—"

Michelle laid a hand on her shoulder. "I'll look out for her," she said. "You get into bed."

"But—"

"Bed," said Michelle. Then she left, shutting the door behind her.

Waverly stood in the center of her room. She glanced at her pajamas and huffed, changing into them and flinging her old clothes on the floor. She sank onto the bed, feet dangling over the floor. She thought she could just hear the murmur of voices downstairs, voices talking about her.

Without her.

She was the one with the scraped palms. She was the one lying on her back in that alley, staring up at a glinting knife and an ugly grin. She was the one wailing her guts out in Nicole's lap while the world spun from red to blue around her.

She sprang out of the bed, bolted out of the room and headed down the stairs.

She crept down the hall toward Nicole's office. Raised voices echoed off the wood panels toward her: Wynonna, with undertones of Willa. She waited just beyond the door where no one could see her.

"—have let her get out of my sight. I'm sorry," said Nicole, her voice strained.

"You're sorry?" Wynonna shouted, and there was the crash of a fist slamming into something wooden. "She gets a knife to her throat, and you're sorry?"

"I should fire you," said Willa, her voice even and as sharp as Ramaker's knife.

"Do it! Fire me!" said Nicole, high and tight. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going to stop trying to keep her safe."

"No one's firing anyone," said Michelle, injecting a soothing note to the conversation. "Nicole, honey, you saved her. And it's hardly your fault she ran off."

Wynonna barreled over her mother's reassurances. "Why the hell did you just let her go, anyway? What were you thinking?"

"I... we..."

"Is this about what's going on between you two?" asked Willa, sending a chill up Waverly's spine.

"There's nothing... we're not—"

"What do you mean?" asked Wynonna.

Willa scoffed. "Please. You haven't noticed? They're infatuated with each other."

"Dude," said Wynonna, her voice heavy with annoyance, "when I told you to be her bodyguard I wasn't trying to set you up with her."

"There's nothing going on between us!" There was a scrape, wood on wood. Waverly imagined Nicole rocketing out of her seat, her chair screeching backward as she rose.

"Nicole, we're not blind," said Willa. "At least, I'm not."

There was a pause. Waverly worried her pounding heart would give her away until Nicole's voice broke the silence.

"Okay, fine, I have... I'm..." Nicole faltered. "It's my fault. I try to hide it. She's made it clear to me how she feels and I still... I scared her off. But I'll do better. And I'll never let anything like this happen to her again."

"Nicole..." said Wynonna, her voice suddenly soft.

There was a sniff, a muttered "god dammit," and Waverly realized that Nicole was on the verge of crying.

She sucked in a breath through her teeth, then backed away from the office door. She shouldn't have heard that. Shouldn't have listened. Her skin crawled, and she scurried down the hall and toward the stairs, but when she laid her hand on the banister and looked up into the darkness, they seemed suddenly insurmountable.

Instead, she wandered into the study. Moonlight poured through the cracks in the curtains, casting the room in ghostly silhouettes. Crossing the room, she parted the curtains and slipped behind them, crawling into the window seat.

Her head fell back against the bookshelf forming one wall of the little cubby. She peered up at the moon and pulled her knees up to her chest.

She tried to make sense of it all. The attack, Nicole's rescue, her family's extreme reactions. Nicole's... feelings.

She knew. Of course she knew. She'd always known.

And she'd let it—the thing between them—grow out of control anyway.

With an exasperated sigh, she let her head drop onto her knees.

Time ticked by. The grandfather clock in the hall announced the passing of midnight. Waverly watched the clouds drift over the face of the moon, their edges glowing with its light.

Someone shouted. Upstairs, maybe. Feet thudded down the stairs. More shouting, a little more distinct: her name. She drew her knees even tighter, hiding her mouth behind them, and watched the study through the sliver between the curtains.

The door creaked open.

"Waverly?" whispered Nicole into the dark room. Waverly held her breath, eyes wide. Nicole sighed and started to retreat. The door hinges squealed as she drew it closed. Waverly felt the growing distance like a snagged thread, her seams unraveling as Nicole pulled away.

"Wait!" She scrambled forward onto her knees, pushing the curtains aside. "Nicole?"

Nicole stepped back into the room and eased the door shut. "Waverly? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Waverly was pretty sure she meant it, at least the way Nicole was asking. "I just... wanted to be alone."

"Okay." Nicole pulled out her phone and tapped out a message. "I let everyone know you're safe. Wynonna got worried when you weren't in your room."

"She's not going to come in here, is she?"

"No, definitely not. I told her you needed your space." Nicole's phone buzzed. She read the message and chuckled. "She understands."

"Why do I think that's not what that message said?" Waverly turned, feet dangling over the floor.

Nicole watched her a moment, then shook her head. "Sorry, you said you wanted to be alone. I'll get going."

"No." Waverly leaned toward Nicole, her hands gripping the edge of the seat to anchor her. "Stay."

Frozen with her hand on the doorknob, Nicole asked, "you sure?"

"Yeah." Waverly patted the seat beside her. "Come here."

Waverly settled back into her knees-up position and Nicole took the other end of the seat, one knee raised and the other draped down toward the floor. The curtains tumbled back around them, hiding them away from the rest of the world.

Nicole ran one hand through her hair. In the moonlight, it seemed more silver than red.

"I'm sorry I ran off on you before," said Waverly. She picked at the hem of her pajama pants.

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that, too."

"What? Why?"

Nicole leaned her head back until it bounced against the bookshelf. Moonlight painted the column of her neck in gleaming white. "It was my fault you ran off."

"No, I was—"

"I have feelings for you," said Nicole, the words exploding out of her. She winced. When she spoke again, her voice came out in a whisper. "That's why I was looking at you like that."

"Yeah, I..." Waverly curled over her knees, looking up at Nicole from beneath her eyelashes. "I sort of guessed that."

Nicole groaned. "I'm sorry."

"You don't have to apologize for your feelings." Waverly uncurled, scooting down the window seat to sit closer. Her back pressed against the night-chilled window panes. "I shouldn't have freaked out. I'm the one who made it weird."

Nicole shifted, too, her side pressed against Waverly's. Waverly let herself lean into the contact, eyes falling closed as she waited for Nicole to speak.

"I don't want to ruin this friendship before it starts," said Nicole.

There it was. Nicole opened the door and held it wide, and Waverly knew that Nicole wanted her to stay, even if she was ready to let her go.

She thought about it. The phrase more than friends flitted through her mind, but like a mote of dust dancing in a ray of sun, she couldn't catch it.

"I still want to be your friend." Waverly fiddled with her hands in her lap. "I just don't want to make things hard or confusing for you. If you need space, I understand."

Shaking her head, Nicole laid her hand on top of her thigh, palm up. When Waverly took it, Nicole squeezed. "Thanks for worrying about me. But I'll be okay. And I'll let you know if I need space."

"You better." Then, because she was only human, Waverly leaned her head on Nicole's shoulder. "Is this okay?"

Nicole squeezed the tangle of their hands again. "Yeah," she said. "This is okay."

Chapter Text

Waverly crept into the study late in the morning, easing the door shut behind her. Someone had been there before her and had drawn the curtains back. Gray light flooded the room. She padded toward the window seat.

She could just picture the scene from the night before: two people, side-by-side and hand-in-hand, soaking in the silence of the night and the glow of the cloud-swept moon.

A chill spread over her palm at the memory, as if only moments before another hand had rested snug in hers. She shook her fingers, then rubbed her hands together. The sensation had clung to her since she'd woken up, warm and cozy in bed, with no idea how she'd gotten there.

The thought that she'd fallen asleep on Nicole's shoulder—that Nicole had lifted her, carried her upstairs, maybe even tucked her in—flustered her. She imagined the scene from Nicole's point of view and felt even worse.

Someone knocked, and the door creaked open, and the object of Waverly's thoughts entered the room.

"There you are," said Nicole. Waverly thought she saw Nicole's eyes slip past her to the window seat for a moment. "I've been looking for you. I heard a rumor that Ramaker's getting released today."

Waverly watched her for any signs of awkwardness, for any hint that the new truth between them had nipped their friendship in the bud, but Nicole seemed... normal. Waverly followed her lead. "They're letting him out already?"

"They got him in front of a judge ASAP. He posted bail almost as soon as they got him back to the station." Nicole scowled. It was her usual scowl, Waverly noted, frustrated and angry with the barest suggestion of a pout. Waverly liked it.

When Nicole announced the amount of Ramaker's bail, Waverly's eyes went wide. "If he's got that kind of money, what's he harassing me for?" She sucked on her teeth, mulling over the situation. "I want to go see."

"See him released from the station?" Nicole blinked. "Why?"

Waverly shrugged. "Ramaker doesn't seem like the kind of guy who has that kind of money, does he? There's something else going on... probably with Bobo. I want to know what." She made a beeline for the door.

"Hey, slow down." Nicole stepped sideways into Waverly's path. She caught Waverly by the arms, steadying them both, and Waverly wasn't sure if she yelped from the collision or the shock of electricity when she looked up to see Nicole's face just inches from hers.

Nicole dropped her and took a long step back. "Sorry. But Waves... this guy could have killed you."

"I remember."

"Then why do you want to go anywhere near him? This is deep in 'leave-it-the-hell-alone' territory."

"I'm not waiting around for something else to happen before the police start taking this seriously."

Waverly saw the disagreement clear on Nicole's face, heard the argument on the tip of her tongue. She took a step closer. "Nicole. Please." As Waverly's voice softened, something flickered in Nicole's eyes. An answering spark flared low in Waverly's stomach. She tamped it down. "It's just going to be more spying. I'm not going to talk to him. He doesn't have to know we're there."

Nicole let loose a sigh. "This is one of those moments where you're going to do what you want and I have no choice but to follow you, isn't it?" A smile chipped through her frustration.

There it was. Gentle and admiring, there was something in the way Nicole looked at Waverly that made the world feel right. She'd been looking for it since the moment Nicole walked into the room, and seeing it set her at ease.

But the smile teetered, as if it could fall away at any moment. Waverly wanted to reach out, the tips of her fingers lighting on Nicole's lips to steady it. And then...

Then nothing. How could Waverly steady Nicole when the ground shifted beneath her daily, when danger dogged her every step and enemies waited around every corner? When Nicole's feelings came branded with an asterix: Waverly wasn't the one who owned her loyalty.

No.

Whatever Waverly felt for Nicole—she didn't know, and wouldn't dig for the answer—Nicole would have to find her own way forward.


They huddled in Nicole's minivan across the street from the Sheriff's office, both of them bundled up against the first light snowfall of the year. Everything was normal between them. Completely, aggressively normal.

Waverly was in the middle of waxing rhapsodic about Latin grammar and Nicole was gamely nodding along when the front door of the station opened and a blond woman emerged, followed closely by Malcolm Ramaker. Waverly and Nicole sat up straighter, both leaning toward the tinted window and squinting at the people in the distance.

"Who the hell is that?" asked Waverly.

"His lawyer, I'm guessing."

Waverly caught the glint of gemstones on the woman's wrists and throat and ears. She crossed her arms and scowled. "How did he afford a lawyer like her?"

"Maybe Bobo footed the bill. If Ramaker knows any sensitive information about Bobo and the Revenants, they don't want him sitting in prison, ratting them all out." Nicole frowned, thinking. "Honestly, if I was him... I'd run. Get as far away from Bobo and the law as I could. He's a liability."

"I don't think Malcolm Ramaker's as smart as you." Ramaker seemed in good spirits, grinning at his lawyer, who wore an expression like something had died a week ago and its corpse was just beneath her nose. "She looks familiar."

"It's Constance Clootie." Nicole's face had gone stone-hard, her eyes narrowed, deep in thought. "Willa's lawyer. You met her the day you showed up here."

Waverly looked from Nicole to Clootie, from Clootie to Nicole. "Working for Malcolm Ramaker? For the Revenants? Isn't she too... I don't know... fancy for that?"

"They're either paying her in solid gold or Bobo's connections are even loftier than anyone thought." Nicole's jaw flexed. "I don't like this. At all."

The thought that Willa could be involved swam to the surface of Waverly's mind, and she was only prevented from speaking it aloud by their targets going on the move. Clootie led Ramaker to an expensive-looking car and they both slipped into the backseat. Nicole pulled a small notebook from her pocket and jotted down the license plate.

Waverly hid a giggle behind her hand. "Do you have that on you at all times, or did you bring it just for this?"

"'Be prepared', right?" Nicole closed the notebook and slipped it back in her pocket, then climbed into the front seat, started up the engine and pulled away from the curb to follow Clootie's car. "I always wanted to be a scout."

"Oh my god. I can just picture you in the little hat. And the bandana? You would have been the cutest little scout!" Waverly doubled over with laughter, hand resting against Nicole's upper arm to steady herself.

Nicole tensed under Waverly's fingers. Waverly snatched her hand away. She tapped on the arm rest, trying to burn through the onrush of guilt. Her mind snagged on her memory of the night before and her guesses about what had happened after. She tried to stop herself from asking her next question and failed miserably.

"I've been meaning to ask... did we fall asleep on the window seat last night?"

"You did." Nicole chuckled. "Passed out right on my shoulder. I tried to shake you awake but you were out like a light."

"I did have a rough day." Another risky question bubbled out of her. "Did you carry me upstairs?" She glanced at Nicole and bit back a smile, rewarded with a dusting of pink on Nicole's cheeks.

"I couldn't leave you there! You would've woken up so sore."

"Well, I appreciate it." Waverly let her smile blossom. "Thanks for tucking me in."

"Any time." Nicole winked, and Waverly regretted feeling smug moments earlier.

They followed Clootie's car through town, out to the more industrial side. Eventually, the car pulled over in front of an old warehouse. A man waited outside, straight-backed and scowling, the thick scar on his face visible even from a distance. Nicole snapped a photo, then hopped into the backseat with Waverly, safe behind the van's tinted windows.

"I don't recognize him," said Nicole, zooming in on her photo and frowning.

"He doesn't look like the other Revs."

"He's probably not. My guess is he's from whatever organization is holding Bobo's leash... which means someone's about to be in a world of hurt."

The man ushered Ramaker and Clootie into the building. Waverly leaned back and sighed. "And now we wait."

"Aren't you so glad you came up with this plan?"

"Of course! We've already learned that Willa and Ramaker have the same lawyer." Waverly's foot bounced on the floor of the van. "Do you remember when I first met Clootie? You brought us tea, and when Clootie came in you did this..." She drew her finger over her throat. "Did you know Clootie had ties to the Revenants?"

"No. But I knew Willa didn't have your best interests at heart. And Clootie's like a human sucker punch. You never see her coming."

Waverly huffed. "It bothers me that Willa's lawyer is working for the Revenants, too. You've worked for Willa for a while... has she ever done anything illegal?"

"No," said Nicole, quickly. "Why would you think that?"

The clipped edge of Nicole's voice set the hairs on Waverly's arms standing on end. Waverly tiptoed back into the conversation. "Well... you know her. I don't think she'd let something silly like the law get in the way if she wanted something bad enough."

"She's never asked me to do anything illegal." Nicole's voice rose. "And if she did, I wouldn't do it."

"I didn't say you would." Waverly leaned back in her seat, away from Nicole, away from the bonfire flaring up in her eyes. She sped through her immediate memory, searching for the wire she'd tripped to trigger Nicole's response.

Nicole crossed her arms over her chest. "But you think I'd work for a criminal?"

"No, I—"

"Wait." Nicole raised her hand, head spinning toward the rear window. Someone slunk down the sidewalk toward them. Nicole tensed, a prey animal going still to evade a hunter, and Waverly held her breath.

The man didn't stop. Bobo Del Rey walked up to the van, pressed his face against the tinted window, and grinned. Fog clouded the window beyond his parted lips. He raised an eyebrow, then tapped on the glass, his eyes slipping toward the sliding door. Open it.

"No!" said Waverly, fighting back a shudder. "Go away!"

"I just want to talk, little Gibson," he said, his voice muffled through the glass.

She ground her teeth and grabbed the door latch.

"Waverly, don't!" said Nicole, but Waverly ignored her. She rolled the door open and slammed it into place.

"I don't want to talk to you!" She leaned out the side of the van and shouted back at Bobo. "Your friend put a knife to my throat!"

"Malcolm Ramaker's no friend of mine," he said, stepping around the vehicle, his fingers dancing over the windows.

Waverly recoiled. "He works for you, doesn't he?"

"Not for long." Bobo clacked his teeth together. "I told him... very specifically... to leave you alone. He didn't. He won't be part of the Revenants much longer."

She narrowed her eyes, as though closer study could solve the mystery of him. "Why do you care if he harasses me?"

"Why do you care if I care?" Bobo stood in front of Waverly, framed in the open door. "Maybe I've taken a shine to you. Maybe I want to do you a... favor. All I ask in return is that you go back to your regular life. No more poking your nose in my business with Officer Haught."

"Fine," said Nicole, and Waverly spun to face her, brows furrowed. Nicole shook her head and turned her attention back to Bobo. "We'll leave you alone. But if the cops ask us about you, we won't lie."

"So honorable," he said. He took a step back from the van, the wind tousling his fur coat. "Still making up for Shae?"

Nicole's jaw dropped. "You—how—?"

Bobo chuckled. "Have a wonderful day." Then he turned on his heel and strode across the street, plunging through the doorway to the warehouse and slamming the door behind him.

"Nicole?" asked Waverly. Nicole had frozen, jaw tight, teeth grinding. "Nicole, are you okay?"

"Fine," said Nicole. She jumped out of the van, threw open the driver's side door, and climbed in. "Let's go back to the house."

Waverly scrambled into the front passenger's seat before Nicole could start driving. Her head was spinning. She'd thought they were on more solid ground, but now she felt like she was sinking into quicksand. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No."

Waverly blinked. "Okay. That's fine, I just wanted to offer."

Nicole's shoulders slumped. She sighed. "Sorry. But I'd rather not."

Waverly played with the fringe of her scarf. Nicole seemed frayed at the edges, unraveling with each word between them.

"You can trust me," said Waverly. She played with the fringe of her scarf. "I wouldn't judge. And I'd never tell."

Nicole chewed her lip. She fixed her eyes on the road. Snowflakes peppered the windshield, sticking on the still-cold glass. Waverly could barely hear her own thoughts over the hiss of the tires on new snow, the squeal of the windshield wipers, the rattle of hot air through the old vents.

"Nicole," she said, and Nicole snapped.

"You say you wouldn't judge, but you think I'd work for your sister if she was breaking the law."

"That's not what I said."

"If you didn't think it was a possibility, you wouldn't have asked." Nicole turned the steering wheel too sharply, the tires slipping on the asphalt. She cursed. "I used to think, if there's one thing about myself that I'm proud of, it's that I'm a good person. I can be stubborn and I'm never the smartest person in the room, but I've always been okay with that because when it comes down to it, I do the right thing."

Waverly reached out, her fingers brushing Nicole's elbow. Nicole flinched; the van swerved. Waverly reeled her hand back. "I know."

"You don't. I'm not that person. I fooled myself for a while, but I never was that person." Nicole's teeth ground. Her nostrils flared. She glanced at Waverly, and Waverly wished that Nicole wasn't driving, that she could look right into Nicole's eyes.

Nicole deflated. "I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you."

"I know," said Waverly again. Her hands fidgeted in her lap, itching to smooth away the waves of distress pouring from Nicole. "And from where I'm sitting, you are a good person. Whatever happened in the past—"

Nicole took a shaky breath.

"—you're a good person now."

Even with Nicole's attention fixed on the road, Waverly could see redness creeping into the whites of her eyes. She stilled her tongue and her hands and waited for Nicole to come back to her.

Nicole exhaled. She shook her head. "Do you want to listen to some music?"

She reached for the console before Waverly could reply, turning on the radio and filling the van with crackling country music, the volume loud enough to deafen them.

"Sure." Waverly sighed, the sound drowned out by the crooning singer. She laid her forehead against the window, letting her disappointment seep away through the ice-cold glass. "That sounds perfect."


Back at the homestead, Nicole dropped Waverly in front of the house and left, taking the spy van back to the old house. Waverly watched her go through rising tendrils of her own breath, only turning inside when the cold worked its way through her jacket and set her bones to rattling.

She checked her phone: she had some texts from Wynonna, mostly her whining about Waverly not being home to hang out, and one from Willa.

That stopped her cold. Of all the people she wanted to hear from after her fight with Nicole, Willa was at the bottom of her list.

The text was as curt and businesslike as Waverly had come to expect from her sister. Drop by my office when you have a spare moment. I have something to discuss with you. Willa linked Waverly to her calendar, where she'd blocked off possible times for a meeting.

"Does she ever take the stick out of her butt?" whispered Waverly, but she was in the middle of one of Willa's approved meeting times, so she headed for her sister's office anyway.

The walk was short, but not short enough. Nicole wormed her way in and prowled around her thoughts like she owned the place. Lately, maybe that wasn't too far from the truth. The Nicole in Waverly's mind scowled, hurt and suspicious and angry.

Waverly's own anger flared. Of course she didn't think Nicole would work for a criminal, but this was Willa. They couldn't trust her as far as they could throw her. Even Nicole had to see that.

Didn't she?

The office door stood heavy and dark and closed against her, and Waverly wanted to throw it open, storm in and demand to know what Constance Clootie was doing with Malcolm Ramaker and the Revenants. She wanted to plant her palms on Willa's desk and tower over Willa, make herself seem tall and terrifying, drag the truth from her sister with the force of her will.

She took a deep breath and knocked once, twice, three times.

"Come in," said Willa, and Waverly slipped inside.

Willa closed her laptop when she saw Waverly approach. "Thank you for coming so promptly. Wynonna always ignores me when I ask her to meet."

A drop of Waverly's frustration leaked through. "Well, I'm not Wynonna."

"And thank god for that. Have a seat."

Waverly settled in one of the seats across from Willa's desk. Willa steepled her hands in front of her. "I have an offer for you."

"Again?" Waverly squeezed her eyes shut, taking a deep breath as her anger reared up and threatened to break free of its chains. She started from her seat. "The answer is no."

"Waverly, please." Willa lifted a hand as if to catch Waverly and hold her in place. "Hear me out."

Already on her feet, Waverly crossed her arms. "Why should I?"

"Because this is an offer in good faith. I underestimated you before. I tried to bully you and I tried to take advantage of you. I won't make that mistake again." When Waverly remained as tight-coiled as a compressed spring, Willa sighed. "Please. Just hear me out."

Waverly screwed up her lips. She studied her sister: Willa's expression wasn't open, exactly, but it wasn't hard either. It was thoughtful. A little hopeful. Serious.

"What do you want?" asked Waverly, taking her seat again.

Willa's shoulders relaxed, just a bit, like the first creaking motion of a rust-eaten hinge. She reached for the chain around her neck and pulled out her key. Waverly remembered the first offer Willa had made her, remembered the key. She got a better look at it this time. It was blackened with age, a relic of a generation long gone by. It didn't fit the delicate chain on which it hung, nor the charm that clinked against it, a silver swan.

"That's pretty," said Waverly.

Willa crouched behind the desk and unlocked whatever compartment the key protected. "My necklace? Yes, I've had it for a while. I like swans."

She rose again, not meeting Waverly's eyes. She seemed embarrassed by the confession.

Waverly smiled. "Yeah?"

"They're beautiful, but dangerous if you get too close. I appreciate that about them." Willa straightened and took her seat again, sliding a folder across the desk.

Waverly made no move to take it. "I don't trust you."

"Good. You shouldn't. Take it with you. Have your lawyer review it. Do your due diligence." Willa fixed Waverly with an even stare.

"When do you need an answer?"

"That's the second thing I wanted to talk to you about." Willa opened a different drawer and pulled out an envelope: small, square, cream-colored. She laid it on top of the folder.

The bait lured Waverly in, and she took both items, turning the envelope over in her hands.

The envelope was made of high-quality paper. The front bore Waverly's name in curling script and the back had been embossed with a logo she just barely recognized as belonging to Earp-Holliday Capital Group. It hadn't been sealed. Waverly pulled out the card within: an invitation to a gala being hosted by EHCG in Vancouver.

Waverly looked up, one eyebrow raised. "What does this have to do with your offer?"

"This is your deadline," said Willa. "The other major shareholders will be at this event. John Henry Holliday II and his ex-wife, Kate. It's well past time you met them. I'd like it if you made your decision before then, so we're all on the same page about the future of the company."

"Okay. I'll consider it, but this is the last one." Waverly held up the folder. "This is the last time you get to come to me looking to buy my shares. After this... if I say no, you back off."

"This is the last offer I'll ever make you." Willa leaned back in her seat. "You don't have to worry about that. And I want to be clear: this is an offer between businesswomen. Family has nothing to do with this."

"Did it ever?" Waverly pushed to her feet, the folder clutched against her chest. She bit her lip. "I'm really asking. Did we ever have a chance? At... you know. Being family."

Willa's lips pressed into a thin line. "No. No, I... I'm not like my sister. I don't have that kind of love to give, not to a stranger. Maybe if we'd grown up together... but we didn't. You're just... too late." She shook her head and a smile crept onto her lips. "It's really too bad. Sometimes I almost like you."

"Sometimes I almost like you, too," said Waverly. She started toward the door. Just as her fingers brushed the handle, Willa spoke again.

"Oh, Waverly? One more thing."

Waverly turned. "Yes?" she said, with as much impatience as she could muster.

Willa steamrolled past it. "I've arranged for Nicole to escort you to Vancouver, and your outfit for the gala will be waiting for you in the hotel room she's reserved for you. And... if you want it, as an... apology, I guess, for the way I've treated you... if you see your father and want to treat him to lunch or anything like that, it's on me. There's an expense card in the folder. Please use it."

Waverly gripped the folder tighter. She opened and closed her mouth, searching for a response. She was spared the trial of answering by Willa.

"Thank you, that's all," said Willa.

Waverly left. She knew when she'd been dismissed.

Chapter Text

Waverly sat at Gus's dinner table, lost in thought.

She thought of Willa regarding her coolly across her desk, one final offer on the table and the possibility of her involvement with the Revenants looming over everything. She thought of Ramaker and his knife pressed to her throat. She thought of Bobo, sneering as he ripped the stitches from Nicole's old, still-tender wound.

Waverly had replayed that memory every day since. Nicole's eyes wide, her face pale, her voice sharp. Shae, Bobo had said. Who was Shae? Why had her name rattled Nicole so much? What exactly lurked in Nicole's past, haunting her even now?

The thought of Nicole sent Waverly into an even deeper spiral. The last time they'd seen each other, Waverly had hopped down from the spy van and turned to see Nicole white-knuckling the steering wheel, eyes locked ahead. She'd driven off without a word.

It had been almost a week since. Without Nicole, Waverly felt like the pages of an ancient book, as if the slightest touch would see her crumbling and scattered like dust on the wind.

"Waverly?"

She snapped to the present: surrounded by her family, a slice of Gus's homemade pie untouched in front of her. "Huh?"

"You okay there, girl?" asked Gus. "You've been drifting off like that all night. What's bothering you?"

"Sorry." Waverly's skin crawled with each and every possible answer to Gus's question. She gave voice to the easiest one. "I guess I just keep thinking about Malcolm Ramaker. I'd feel a lot safer if he was still in prison."

"Wouldn't we all," said Gus. She rose from her seat and rounded the table, bending down to kiss the crown of Waverly's head. She picked up the plate with Waverly's pie. "How about I wrap this up for you to take home?"

"I don't think you need to worry about Ramaker anymore, sis," said Wynonna, scraping the last smeared bits of pie filling off her plate and licking her fork clean. "Bobo basically told you he's gonna run the guy out of town."

Michelle scoffed. "Bobo. Why he calls himself that, I'll never know."

"That's not his real name?" asked Waverly.

"Hell no. What mother names her son Bobo?" Michelle took a sip of her wine. "His Christian name's Robert Svane."

Robert Svane. Something about the name needled Waverly. It almost distracted her from the rest of her thoughts.

"How is Bobo any scarier than that?" Wynonna wrinkled her nose. "God, the bad guys in this town are so lame. Point still stands, though. Bobo might be named like a clown, but he's the furthest thing from one. If he says not to worry about Ramaker, you can believe him."

"You're probably right." Thinking of Bobo led to thinking about Nicole again. Nicole, saving her from Ramaker; Nicole, blowing up in defense of Willa; Nicole, ice cold and so, so distant as she drove away and left Waverly behind.

Waverly buried her face in her hands and groaned.

"Whoah, baby girl." Wynonna was at Waverly's side in an instant, dropping into a squat beside her. "This isn't just about those assholes, is it?"

"No. It's everything. God." Waverly pressed her fingers to her temples. "It's Ramaker and Bobo and Nicole and Willa..."

"Whoa, slow down." Wynonna grabbed the nearest chair and dragged it over, easing herself into it. "One at a time."

"Where do I start? Willa made me another offer," said Waverly. "She wants an answer by tomorrow and I have no idea what I want to do."

Wynonna growled. "She's such a fucking shark. I oughta bash her—"

"Wynonna, mind yourself," said Michelle, her voice like striking flints. She joined Wynonna in flanking Waverly. "Are you considering her offer?"

Waverly shrugged. "Well... yeah. My lawyer says it's fair. And she's got a point, doesn't she? I really don't have any interest in the company."

"So take the offer," said Michelle.

The ease of Michelle's statement shocked the breath from Waverly. "What, just like that?"

Wynonna nodded. "Seriously. If it's not actually bullshit this time, why not? Unless you want to say no just to spite Willa. If that's it, I totally understand. Ow!" She flinched away from her mother reaching across Waverly to slap her on the wrist.

"It's not that," said Waverly. She thought of Constance Clootie, neat and prim beside Malcolm Ramaker, haughty and cold beside Willa.

"Then what is it?" asked Gus, returning to the dining room. She slid Waverly's pie plate, now mummified in plastic wrap, onto the table and pressed down on Waverly's shoulder with a squeeze. "Come on. You can trust us."

"Well... I guess..." Waverly's suspicions about Willa simmered, ready to boil over. She tamped them down and dredged up an excuse. "Because I talked a really big game about keeping my shares and learning to run a company and everything. But I... I don't think I ever really wanted that."

Michelle took Waverly's hands in hers. "So what do you want, my little one?"

Michelle's touch was gentle, her smile soft, and Waverly felt the old longing in her soul, the great, yawning chasm of stolen years that she worried she would never be able to fill.

"I just want to keep spending time with you," she said. Tears pricked her eyes as she looked from face to face. "All of you. I want to see my dad again. And I want—I want—"

She choked back the last name on her list. "I just want things to be normal again."

"They will be." Gus rubbed Waverly's back. "Sell your shares, let the cops sort out Malcolm Ramaker, and everything will settle down."

It was like she was trapped behind glass, as if their words and their touch glanced off and couldn't reach her. She wanted to believe them. To give in. To let Willa win.

But if she was working with the Revenants...

"Waverly?"

Waverly tipped her head back and met Gus's eyes. "Yeah?"

"It'll be okay. Whatever you decide. It won't change the way any of us feel about you."

With a sigh, Waverly slipped on a smile. "You're the best, Aunt Gus."

They slipped back into the ebb and flow of a regular night, of a regular family. Waverly let herself be pulled along, happy to drift in their wake.

Before they left Gus's, as Michelle and Wynonna crunched through the snow toward the waiting car, Gus held Waverly back on the porch.

"They might not have noticed," she said with an arched eyebrow, "but when I was wrapping up that pie I know for a fact you mentioned Nicole Haught in your list of problems. She still giving you trouble?"

"Oh, that," said Waverly. She popped her earmuffs over her ears. "No, she's... it's... complicated."

Gus cracked a smile. "I see."

"It's not like that! Well, it's not all like that. She likes... but I... we're..." Waverly winced. "It's complicated. But that isn't why she's on my list of problems."

"Why is she, then?"

"We got in... not a fight, exactly, but something happened and it really shook her. I think she's more upset with herself than anything. I've been letting her have her space, but... I miss her."

Gus shook her head. "I hate to break it to you," she said, "but you ain't exactly changin' my mind, here. You miss her 'cause you like her. It's as plain as the nose on your face."

Waverly leaned on the porch railing. She stuck her hand over the edge, palm up; snowflakes drifted onto her skin and melted, leaving tiny puddles in their wake. "Maybe if she didn't work for Willa..." She curled her fingers into her palm and drew her fist close again. "But she does. And it's... it's just so complicated."

"Well, if she knows what's good for her, she'll figure out how to un-complicate it." Gus pulled Waverly close. "And if she's special enough to wring this much concern outta you... I think she will."

"Hey!" shouted Wynonna, hanging out the driver's window of the car. "Are you just going to stand there yapping all night? 'Cause that's fine and all but you should let me know now so I can leave you here. I've got a onesie and a bottle of whiskey at home with my name on 'em."

"Calm down, girl!" yelled Gus. She chuckled and sighed exasperatedly, then stepped away from Waverly. "It'll all turn out right. You're a smart, tough, amazing kid. I know you'll get through it."

"Thanks," said Waverly. "I really hope you're right."


Morning dawned, clear and crisp and cold. Waverly submitted herself to winter's bite and waited in front of the homestead for Nicole to pick her up.

Her family dozed inside. Michelle would be up soon, wandering out to the greenhouse. Wynonna might sleep for another few hours, or a hangover might drag her from her bed and leave her grumpy and snarling. Waverly wondered if the conversation from the night before stuck in any of their thoughts the way it had in hers.

She doubted it.

Just as she began to spiral through it again—Willa, Clootie, Ramaker, Bobo—one of the big Earp family cars pulled through the front gate.

Waverly's heart rate spiked. Her mood rose like the thin tendril of steam issuing from her coffee thermos.

The car rolled to a stop and Waverly scurried toward it, popping open the front door with a smile. Nicole huddled in the driver's seat, roasting her fingers over the vents. When Waverly slipped into the passenger seat, Nicole offered up a quick glance and a pale imitation of a smile. "Morning." Her attention drifted to her view through the windshield.

Waverly frowned. She'd hoped distance and time would have soothed Nicole's distress. Instead, here was the Nicole of their early days, stiff and brusque. Waverly yanked the car door shut and they both winced when it slammed.

"So I'm the keeper of your itinerary today," said Nicole, fighting through the silence. They pulled away from the house, turning onto the rough local road. "We're going to the airport first, where we'll catch a flight to Vancouver. Once we're there, I'll take you to get checked into your hotel. Then you'll have a few hours to yourself before you have to get ready for the event."

"I'm going to see my dad," said Waverly. "I'm going to our... to his apartment for lunch."

Even with the chill between them, she expected some reaction. Some acknowledgement that this would be her first time seeing Charlie in ages, some unspoken recognition of the tension in her shoulders or the nervous energy in her hands. She'd grown used to being noticed.

Nicole just nodded. "I'll bring you wherever you need to go."

"You don't have to do that." Waverly's fingers tightened around her thermos. "I'm perfectly capable of getting myself around the city I grew up in, thanks."

She glanced at Nicole and felt a thrill when she saw her strike had landed true: Nicole's jaw clenched and her fingers tightened on the steering wheel. But as the thrill subsided, shame rushed to take its place, turning her stomach. She sighed. "Crap, I'm sorry. That was mean. I just mean you don't have to spend all that time with me if you don't want to."

"I don't—" started Nicole, but Waverly fixed her with a look she hoped screamed don't you dare try to deny it. Nicole grimaced. "Okay. Yeah. I've been... keeping my distance."

"Which is fine. Everyone needs space sometimes." Waverly flicked open the lid of her thermos, then snapped it shut. "I just wish... I just... I missed you."

Nicole drew a breath like a sudden gale. She let it out shudderingly slow. "I'm sorry." When she tore her eyes from the road, Waverly held her gaze for the entirety of the scant second that passed. "I missed you, too."

A seedling of a smile sprouted on Waverly's lips. "So why haven't we been talking all this time?"

"Because I'm an idiot," said Nicole. "I'm really sorry, Waves. I shouldn't have jumped down your throat like that. It was a question worth asking."

"I really wasn't trying to imply you'd work for Willa if she was working with the Revenants. I know you wouldn't do that."

"I know." Nicole's hand lifted from the steering wheel, drifting toward Waverly, as if it were going to alight in Waverly's lap and tangle with Waverly's own. But Nicole caught herself halfway, fidgeting with the temperature controls instead.

Waverly slowly, discreetly, let out the breath she'd been holding.

"I did look into her," said Nicole. "Willa, I mean. I couldn't find anything. She's... not exactly moral, but she's no worse than any other ruthless corporate raider. And as much as I don't like the coincidence, I keep asking myself what could drive her to throw in with the Revenants and I keep coming up with nothing. She's got no reason to get tangled up with a small fry like Bobo... or even the bigger fish he answers to."

"Does she have to have a reason?"

Nicole laughed. "Willa Earp has a reason for everything, right down to the pajamas she wears to sleep."

"You're right." Waverly sank back into her seat with a sigh. "Then we're back where we started. A thousand questions and no answers."

Drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, Nicole gave a little hum of agreement. They let the quiet linger for a moment, comfortable this time, like lying in bed after a good night's sleep and enjoying the warmth.

"How do you feel about going to see Julian?" asked Nicole.

"Charlie." Waverly's throat went tight. "He's Charlie now. That's what he told me. Before I left."

"Charlie it is." Nicole nodded. "Do you... do you definitely not want me to drive you to his place? Because I meant it before, I'm happy to take you wherever you need to go. But if you want to go alone, I understand."

"No, I was... well, I was being snippy before." Waverly remembered her coffee and took a sip. It bloomed citrusy and bright on her tongue; Nicole kept the kitchen well-stocked with expensive coffee—on Willa's orders, of course. "You should come."

"To lunch? With your dad?"

"No, to the kegger he's probably throwing since I'm not home to watch him." Waverly rolled her eyes and laughed. "Yes, to lunch."

"I can drop you off." Nicole's ears had gone faintly pink. "Really, I don't want to intrude—"

"Nicole." Waverly laid a steadying hand on Nicole's thigh, just long enough for her knee to stop its nervous bouncing. She dragged herself away. "I want you to come. I... I don't think I want to see him alone. I don't think I'm ready for that conversation. And I think he should meet you."

"And why is that?"

"Because I... because you're really important to me." It was Waverly's turn to blush, but she powered through it, willing the tremor in her voice down to almost nothing. "I know we haven't known each other that long, but it's like... it's almost like I've known you all my life. Does that make any sense?"

Nicole's smile bloomed, as delicate as cherry blossoms. "Perfect sense."

"So you'll come?"

There was something about the two of them, Waverly thought, something in the air between them, that couldn't help but catalyze into the kind of magic that stopped time entirely. She waited for Nicole's answer and savored every moment of Nicole's smile and wondered: if she gave in to Willa, signed over her shares, and let her sister be... what could she and Nicole become?

Before she could chase that idea down, Nicole's voice broke the spell, as it always did.

"I will." Nicole grinned. "Wherever you need me, Waves... that's where I'll be."


Waverly stood on the sidewalk in front of Charlie's apartment building, staring up at a window three floors up and two windows over. The curtains were open but the space was dark beyond it. It was a bright midday, perfect for flooding the cozy space with natural light.

She wondered if it looked any different, then she chided herself for wondering. It hadn't been that long. She hadn't died.

The apartment would look the same. Its occupant...

Nicole hovered beside her, curled over her just a bit, in a vain attempt to shield them both from the wind. She'd escorted Waverly to every new location: the private jet, the posh hotel, the liquor store two blocks over where Waverly found a bottle of Charlie's favorite wine. A new kind of energy bubbled between them, something like the overt flirtation from the night they'd met, and Waverly felt drunk without having even tasted the wine in her hands.

The wine for Charlie, she reminded herself., She was bringing a bottle of gift wine to her own father's house. Like a guest. Like it wasn't her home any more. Like she hadn't grown up there, like there weren't pencil marks on the wall in the living room charting every single inch of her modest height.

"Last chance to leave me out here," said Nicole, at exactly the moment panic threatened to wrap its spindly fingers around Waverly's throat and squeeze.

Waverly took a deep breath and shook her head. "We're not going through that again."

"I know." Nicole smiled. "Just wanted to snap you out of it."

After trying—and failing—to give Nicole a stern look, Waverly climbed the steps, pulling her keys out of her pocket. Then she stopped. Her head turned to the callbox. Could she still just let herself in?

"He knows you're coming," said Nicole. "He knows you have a key."

Waverly unlocked the front door and made her way inside. Key or not, when she reached the apartment itself, she raised her hand and knocked.

"Be right there!" shouted Charlie from within. As his footsteps grew louder, her heart leapt into her throat. Only Nicole's steady hand on her shoulder kept her from passing out where she stood.

The last time she'd seen him...

She didn't want to think about the last time she'd seen him.

The door opened, and Charlie stepped through. A wide smile plastered his face, a mask over the same fear that Waverly felt deep in her bones.

"You're really here," he said, with the voice she remembered and the eyes she remembered and all the love she remembered, as deep and unceasing as the ocean itself. She threw herself into his arms and broke.

"Hey, kiddo," he mumbled into her hair. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too!" she said between gasping sobs. His hold grew surer, and she was six with a scraped knee, fifteen with her first broken heart, twenty with her whole life plan dashed by one lost scholarship. He held her until the heaving of her chest slowed, until most of her tears had dried on his shirt. She felt his head lift.

"You must be Nicole." Charlie peeled one arm free of his daughter to extend his hand.

Nicole gave him a textbook handshake. A bubble of pride burst on Waverly's tongue, sweet and bright. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Gibson."

"Please, call me Charlie."

Waverly stepped back from Charlie, throwing a glance at Nicole. Nicole smiled, half pleased, half embarrassed.

Charlie cleared his throat, and Waverly snapped back to attention. "Oh!" She lifted the bottle of wine and offered it to him. "I got this for you!"

He accepted the bottle with a laugh. "Hey, it's old reliable! You're too good to me. All right, don't stand out there all day. Come on in. Waves, why don't you give Nicole the tour while I finish up lunch?"

Charlie vanished into the kitchen. Spices wafted past him, and Waverly's mouth watered. Nicole stood just beyond the front door, slipping her shoes onto the shoe rack, looking around with wide eyes.

"Come on," said Waverly, waving Nicole after her. She led Nicole from room to room. In each one, Nicole drifted to the photographs hanging on the walls and sitting in frames. Every single one showed Waverly, showed frozen moments from her infancy through to her adulthood.

Nicole's opinion on each was the same: Waverly had been a very cute kid. Waverly couldn't bring herself to disagree. They chattered about the memories in the photos, the fashion of the time—terrible, said Nicole; classic!, said Waverly—but the apartment was small, and Charlie was near, so they skimmed the surface of the thing still filling the space between them.

Eventually, the tour led to Waverly's bedroom. They found it almost as Waverly had left it, disturbed only by Jeremy and Robin stuffing most of her clothes into suitcases and shipping them to her.

As soon the room had swallowed Nicole in her entirety, Waverly eased the door shut.

"Your dad seems really nice," said Nicole, studying the bedroom the way she'd studied the others.

"He is." Waverly leaned back against the door, hands braced behind her. "Sometimes he's almost too nice. He was actually pretty subdued out there."

"Well, he's nervous." Nicole abandoned her scrutiny of the books on Waverly's shelf and turned her attention back to Waverly.

"Yeah, me too." Waverly let out a laugh like a fraying thread. "I feel like I'm going to faint."

Concern flashed in Nicole's eyes. "Do you need to sit?"

"Yeah, maybe." Waverly pushed off from the door and sank onto her bed. "This is all just so surreal. You know, I wish he'd been meaner? When he let us in? If he turned out to be an awful person all along, this would almost be easier to deal with. But he's not. He's still... he's still Dad. And he was a great dad."

"It seems like you were happy, growing up. From the pictures. I know pictures don't tell the whole story, but..."

"No, I was. I really was."

Something had shifted in Nicole's face as they spoke. Something else had crept in. Envy.

Waverly recalled every scrap of information Nicole or Wynonna had ever let slip about Nicole's past, and her heart ached.

"Nicole?" Waverly scooted forward on the bed. "Will you... will you tell me what happened? Why you're not a cop anymore?"

Nicole blinked. She ran one hand through her hair, the other planted on her hips, and held Waverly's gaze through all of it. Then her eyes lifted to the ceiling and she dragged a heavy sigh from the bottom of her lungs. "Do you really want to know?"

Chapter Text

“Yes.” Waverly’s hands balled in the sheets, tethering her to her seat. “I want to know everything about you.”

It was as if the air had gone out of the room, swallowed by the fire roaring in the space between them.

“Well… okay then.” Nicole crossed to the bed. It dipped beneath her weight as she settled beside Waverly, propping her clasped hands on her knees. "I had a friend when I was a kid. Shae. She was… honestly, she was pretty much the only person who ever gave a shit about me until Wynonna showed up."

Nicole’s knee bounced. "I was in love with her. Just sick in love. Have you ever… have you ever loved someone like that? The kind of love that chews through you like a starved animal?”

“I haven’t.” Waverly’s heart gave a ponderous thump, so painful she reached up and laid her hand over her chest. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been in love.”

“No?” Nicole raised her eyebrows.

“No. I’ve dated people. I’ve liked people, a lot. But never…”

“But you’ve never loved someone.” Nicole smiled, soft as new-fallen snow.

Every time she smiled like that, it stirred a vortex within Waverly, a rushing, swirling whirlpool in her gut. This moment, this smile, was no exception. “Not yet.”

Nicole shook her head. “Well, take it from someone who knows. When you do fall in love… it shouldn’t feel the way my love did. Even if the other person doesn’t feel the same.”

Waverly kicked her feet out on the rug and studied her shoes. “What should it feel like?”

With a hum, Nicole let her head tip back, let her eyes fall closed. Her breaths, Waverly’s breaths, Charlie’s clattering in the kitchen all rushed to fill the silence. “It should feel like coming home,” she said at last. “When you’ve been at work all day and you kick off your shoes and flop onto your couch. Or when you’ve been on a trip and you get to finally go to sleep in your own bed.”

Nicole rubbed the back of her neck. “At least, that’s what I think it should feel like. I haven’t really… since Shae…”

Waverly raised an eyebrow. “Really? Wynonna told me you can be very charming when you want to be, so she must have seen something…”

“I’m not saying I haven’t been with anybody!” Nicole flushed as red as her hair. “It’s just been awhile since I felt anything… more. You took me by surprise.”

She said it simply, easily, but it landed like a sucker punch to the jaw. Waverly took a breath that cut through her like a scalpel. “So,” she said—squeaked—and cleared her throat. “What happened to Shae?”

“Ah.” Nicole deflated. “Nothing good. She’s in prison. She will be for a long, long time. No thanks to me.”

In a clamor of bedsprings and footsteps and heavy breaths, Nicole sprang from the bed and crossed to Waverly’s window. She leaned one hand against the frame and stared out at the street. “She killed someone. She killed someone and I… I helped her get away with it.”

Waverly waited. And waited. Nicole’s skin had gone tight over her temples, her knuckles white and her eyes red, and Waverly waited for her to speak.

She didn’t. Waverly broke the silence for her. “You… what?”

“I helped her get away with murder.”

“Okay. Okay, I…” Waverly laid her fingers against her brow and pressed, trying to massage away her building headache. “I think you need to start at the beginning.”

Nicole’s shoulders slumped. “Shae was… Shae was a problem kid. I was too, so we got along, you know? She got it. And when we started hanging out... our poor teachers. I actually sent letters to them a few years ago, apologizing, if you can believe it.”

“I’m not surprised.” Waverly’s eyes ran over Nicole again: her stiff, angular posture, the seriousness in her eyes. “So you obviously changed at some point… but Shae didn’t?”

“Yeah. I got lucky. I met Wynonna.”

“Wynonna put you on the straight and narrow? Wynonna? My sister?”

“In a roundabout way, yeah.” Nicole laughed. “I mean, she was a total fuck-up. Rich kid sneaking out of her private school dorm to come hang with the townies cutting class and smoking behind the gym. But she was… well, you know her.”

“I think I’m beginning to,” said Waverly, but Nicole shook her head.

“No, you do. She’s honest with you. She’s not even that honest with me. It’s all jokes and teasing and it works for us, but…” She shrugged. “Even back then, she had that big heart. She was good, even if she tried to act tough. She saw right through Shae’s bullshit. And Shae knew it, too. It was hate at first sight. They couldn’t even be in a room together or the place would go up in flames.”

Nicole chuckled and turned away from the window, leaning back against it, hands in her pockets. “Split our friend group right down the middle. And I was the middle. I never cut Shae out of my life. Wynonna used to tease me about her, but I just… couldn’t let her go. So when she started coming around, needing a place to crash or a few bucks… I never said no. I was so stupid.”

“You weren’t stupid.” Waverly sat forward, folded hands balanced on her knees, and hoped Nicole would turn and meet her eyes. “You and Wynonna have the same big heart. You’re thoughtful and kind. And you… you’re so, so patient. I know you don’t think so, but you’re a good person, Nicole.”

“It wasn’t kind to enable her.” Nicole pushed away from the window. She eased herself onto the bed beside Waverly again, rubbing her palms over her knees. “You’re telling me I’m good, and I thought I was… I thought I was being a… a friend, that I was doing the best thing for her, but all I was doing was enabling her bullshit. And I didn’t realize it until she turned up at my house and told me she'd killed someone."

Nicole's head fell into her hands. Waverly inched closer, her fingers just brushing Nicole’s shoulder, and when Nicole didn’t flinch, she let her hand slide over Nicole’s back. Beneath her touch, Nicole sat stiff as steel, and no matter how much soothing Waverly poured into the soft little sounds she made, no matter how gentle the sweep of her hand, Nicole would not yield.

"I didn't know what to do." Nicole’s voice stretched almost to breaking, trembling with every word. "I was so scared and... and angry . She told me it was an accident, and maybe she didn't go into it meaning to hurt somebody, but what did she think was going to happen? You break into someone's house with a gun, you're accepting the risk that people might get hurt."

Nicole's entire body shook. Her hands balled into fists, knuckles burning white. "I told her to fuck off. I took her gun, gave her all the cash in my wallet and told her to buy herself a one-way ticket out of my fucking life. And she did. I’ll give her that, she did. Until they picked her up years later for some other petty crime and she thought she could use my name like a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

The tension dissipated from Nicole, her frame going still the way the world eases back into quiet after a rainstorm. She leaned into Waverly’s touch, and Waverly, bold in the wake of her own heart shattering in sympathy, rested her head against Nicole’s shoulder.

"I was staring down the barrel of an accessory charge and a decade in prison until Wynonna convinced Willa to help me.” Nicole uncoiled her fists, her open palms lying flat over her knees. “I still don't know why she did. She hates Wynonna. She didn't know me at all. Maybe she thought I'd be useful, but she never asked for anything in return. Just showed up at the prison one day with a team of lawyers who probably cost more in an hour than I made in a month and told me she'd do everything in her power to keep me out of jail. And it worked. It fucking worked."

Nicole laughed, disbelief and gratitude and joy plain in her voice. Waverly’s heart ached for her. "So when you say you owe her..."

"I owe her everything. I wouldn't be here without Willa."

Waverly flopped onto her back and stared at the ceiling, at the glow-in-the-dark stars cemented to the plaster, picking out the constellations that had watched over her every night. She felt Nicole shift, felt her turn to try to catch her eye, but kept her gaze fixed above her. The weight of Nicole's debt to Willa settled on her chest, so heavy she struggled to breathe.

Nicole's attention drifted away from Waverly, taking in the room around them. "This is very you," she said, and the silence around them crumbled.

Still prone on the bed, Waverly looked around. The room had changed with her over the years, but she'd never quite managed to sweep away all the detritus of growing up: faded stickers clustered in one corner of the mirror; the torn corner of a Jonas Brothers poster that had gotten so stuck to the wall she'd given up trying to take it down; a flyer for her senior class play tacked above her bed.

"It still feels like home," she said. "I was worried it wouldn't. Is that ridiculous?"

"Of course not. A lot has happened since you left." Nicole leaned back, propped up on one arm, staring down at Waverly.

"Last time you were here, I flipped out on you."

"I deserved it."

"Only a little." Waverly let a timid smile escape. "It's just... look at us now."

Nicole summoned a grin of her own. "Friends?"

"Right. Friends." Waverly's eyes followed the curve of Nicole's lips, the dimples pressed into her cheeks, the birthmark just beneath her eyes. Her eyes, already wide and moving closer. Waverly's breath caught in her throat.

Nicole's phone rang.

"Dammit!" Nicole sat up, pawing at her pocket and pulling her phone free. Her expression soured at the sight of the name on the screen. "It's Willa."

"Of course it is." Waverly sat up, as out of breath as if she'd run a marathon. She dragged her fingers through her hair, straightening it. Nicole had already answered the call. Waverly waited as Nicole powered through the conversation, yeses and okays and of courses spilling from her lips.

Those damn lips.

By the time Nicole hung up, Waverly already knew what was coming.

"Change of plans," said Nicole. "Willa's got another job for me."

"You can't stay for lunch?" asked Waverly.

"Unfortunately, no. Willa’s going to send someone else to pick you up when you’re done here."

Waverly lifted herself off the bed and smoothed out her clothes. "Will I see you later?"

"Probably not. I'm definitely going to miss the gala and I probably won’t be back until late."

"That's a shame." Waverly offered both hands down to Nicole. "Well, I'll probably be up for a while. I hope I get to wish you a good night."

Nicole took Waverly's hands in her own and let Waverly pull her to her feet. They stood facing each other, neither letting go. "I hope so, too.”

Charlie's voice floated toward them. "Hey, lunch is ready!"

Waverly pulled her hands away. "Coming, dad!" She backed toward the door. "Fair warning, when he hears you're not staying, he's going to make you take some food back with you."

"The horror," said Nicole, laughing.

They followed the smell of cooking back to the kitchen, where Charlie was plating his masterpiece: a fully vegan lunch, bright vegetables hiding in tangled piles of sauce-coated noodles. True to Waverly's prediction, Charlie sent Nicole on her way with a container stuffed to the brim with noodles.

Silence roared in her wake. Charlie stood at his seat, hands braced on the back of it, and watched Waverly. She cast one longing glance at the door, begging Nicole to come back in, to say Willa had changed her mind, that they could spend the rest of the day together.

The door stayed shut.

Waverly took her seat at the table. Charlie took his. They filled their plates, and with the elephant in the room seated in the chair between them, they dug in.

"I can't believe you made this," said Waverly, stabbing a piece of broccoli. "I don’t think you’ve ever cooked anything vegan before."

He grinned. "I wanted to make something special for you. You don't know how much I've missed having you here, begging me to stop eating eggs."

She pushed her noodles around on her plate. His smile was too bright, the meal too perfect. “Are you bribing me?”

When he didn’t answer, she glanced up to find him with a look like she’d shot him in the gut.

“Of course not,” he said.

“Then stop pretending everything’s fine. I’m not back from a long vacation. I’m back from getting to know the family you took from me.”

“I’m sorry.” His fork clattered to his plate. “Kiddo, I’m so sorry. I should have told you. As soon as Ward died, I should have brought you back.”

Anger spread across her neck like prickling heat. “You never should have taken me in the first place.”

She watched a retort build in him, then watched it ebb away. His palms fell flat on the table. “You’re right.” He lifted one finger and rubbed at a dark spot that had marred the tabletop for years. “I shouldn’t have. I’m… I’m sorry for that, too.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” His eyes met hers. “From the bottom of my heart, Waverly. I’m sorry.”

She thought of all the things she could say to him. Angry words like Wynonna’s. Cold words like Willa’s. Wounded words like her mother’s.

She said, “okay.”

He made no move to return to their meal. “Do you forgive me?”

“No. I can’t.”

He swallowed. He nodded. He lowered his head to hide his crumbling face.

In the depths of her, in the dark of her, Waverly saw a tiny glimmer of light. She reached out and plucked it, holding it just a moment, until she felt its warmth. “Not yet.”


Waverly left Charlie, light on her feet despite the weight of the overstuffed leftovers container he’d foisted on her. Something like hope bubbled in her: hope for her relationships with her dad, with Nicole, maybe even with Willa.

Willa, Nicole’s knight in shining armor. Willa, who had helped Nicole, in an apparent act of human kindness.

As soon as she stepped into her hotel room, Waverly was swarmed by a small team of people hired by Willa to make her look "appropriate”. Willa had selected a dress for her; they helped her into it, did her makeup and hair, and pinched and prodded her until she was perfect.

Waverly had to give it to her sister: the woman had good taste. She took a photo of herself in the mirror, sending it to Chrissy and Jeremy. Then she sent it to Nicole, too, and wished instantly that she could take it back.

Jeremy informed her that he was hardly an expert on dresses, but he sent her a thumbs up and added that Robin liked it, too. Chrissy told her she looked like a goddess and sent her a screen-sized text detailing each and every thing she loved about it.

Nicole typed something, then deleted it. Again. Again. Waverly watched the little bubbles appear and disappear. Eventually, they were gone so long that Waverly worried she'd broken Nicole.

Then a message came through.

Nicole: You look beautiful.

Waverly hid her smile behind her hand, as though Nicole were there and watching. She felt a pang of longing, wondering what Nicole would have worn, how their night might have gone. An image sifted through her mind, of her hand on Nicole’s arm, a compliment tumbling from her lips, Nicole’s head dipping for a moment before rising again, a dimpled smile on her face.

“Miss Gibson?”

The image vanished like smoke on the wind.

One of the stylists—or maybe some other assistant, Waverly wasn’t sure—waited by the door. She ushered Waverly out of the room, escorted her to the lobby, and bundled her into the waiting car. After a few pleasantries with the driver, they were off. The woman ran Waverly through “the procedure” as they drove, but Waverly tuned her out before long, her mind tripping over itself to get back to the picture of Nicole, bright-eyed and smiling.

When they reached the event space, Waverly let herself be led inside. People eyed her as she went, heads turning to look, lips flashing with inaudible whispers. She hoped the fashionably dim lighting hid her blush.

The gala was being held in an ornate building, marble walls and high ceilings and chandeliers. Waverly recognized it as one of the museums she’d been to on a school trip many, many years before. Voices echoed off the walls as the assistant led her through the halls and through the crowd until they reached a roped-off area.

"VIP access," said the assistant to the security guard watching over the area. He nodded, unhooked the velvet rope, and let Waverly pass alone.

A voice floated toward her. "And this must be the famous Waverly Earp."

She plastered on a polite smile as a man strolled toward her, his own easy smile just visible beneath his woolly upper lip.

"Waverly Gibson." She offered her hand to shake. "I don't believe we've been introduced."

"We have not." Instead of shaking her hand, he bent to kiss her knuckles, his mustache tickling. "My name is John Henry Holliday. Most people call me Doc."

"Like... Doc Holliday?"

"My esteemed great-great-grandfather." His blue eyes twinkled. "I was named after him. When I was a boy, people started callin' me Doc in jest. But the joke's on them; as it turns out, the costume fits me well."

She smiled. "And when you own half the family company, no one would dare tell you no cowboy cosplay allowed."

"Of course not. Only my dear ex-wife Kate ever dared."

Another voice joined them. "John Henry, what are you telling her about me?"

"Only the good things, I assure you. Miss Gibson, this is the lady herself, Ms. Kate Holliday."

He lifted his hand, introducing Kate like an MC on stage. She stepped closer, rolling her eyes. "I don't use your last name anymore, or don't you remember?" She took Waverly's hand. "Lovely to meet you, Waverly. Willa's told me so much about you."

"Really?" asked Waverly, squinting.

"Not really, no," said Kate. "Our former CFO isn't known for being forthcoming."

"Definitely doesn't sound like her." Waverly looked around the VIP area. Willa was nowhere to be seen. "Is she here?"

"I'm sure she's slithering around somewhere. Walk with me? We'll hunt her together."

Kate offered Waverly her arm. Waverly looped her hand through it, and they drifted along together.

"I didn't realize she wasn't the CFO anymore," said Waverly. She eyed the crowd and they eyed her back, though arm-in-arm with Kate she found she didn’t mind. Kate—her grace, her money, her influence—shielded her.

"Well, technically she is still the CFO, for the time being. As soon as your grandfather's will makes it through probate, John Henry and I have agreed we’ll be hiring someone new."

"Willa seems like she'd be really good at it, though."

"She's fantastic at it. Her skills have never been the problem.” Kate frowned. “It's her attitude. With Edwin controlling the board, she never had to answer to anyone. She's not in control anymore, but we're going to have to pry her hands off the steering wheel before she realizes it."

"How do you know I'm not going to vote with her?" asked Waverly. "I don't know anything about being a shareholder. Maybe I'll just do whatever she tells me."

Kate stopped and turned to Waverly, Waverly's arm still tucked beneath hers. She raised an eyebrow. "I don't believe you're that gutless. If you don't sell your shares, you'll discover you have priorities of your own."

Waverly just caught the glint in Kate’s eye, the slight uptick at the corners of her mouth. She let loose a sharp smile. "And you and Doc would be happy to help me figure those out, right?"

Kate started walking again, a gentle tug all it took to bring Waverly along with her. "If you want. Of course, it won't matter if you decide to sell your shares to Willa."

"Are you offering to buy them?"

"Yes. If you're open to it, of course. But you're welcome to discuss that with me later... for now, I think I've found your sister."

Kate steered Waverly toward one of the tables in the center of the room, where Willa stood, smiling and laughing with a pair of men in suits. Waverly caught her eye, and Willa dismissed her companions with a wave. When Waverly and Kate reached her, her face had gone hard.

"Waverly. You look lovely. And Kate, always a pleasure." Willa’s mouth puckered as though Kate’s name was a lemon.

"Likewise." Kate, her smile cool. "Well, I'll leave you two be. Waverly, remember what I said."

Willa outright glared as Kate walked away. She didn't bother putting on a smile for Waverly. "She asked to buy your shares?"

Waverly repressed a laugh at the irritation splashed across Willa’s features. “Yep.”

“What did you tell her?”

“Nothing.”

When Willa’s frown deepened, Waverly rolled her eyes. “She’s waiting for me to answer you.”

"So? Did you decide whether or not you'll accept my offer?" Willa’s fingernails clattered on the table like the beat of a snare drum.

Waverly’s eyes darted from Willa’s waterfalling fingers to the tension in her neck to her teeth nibbling at her lip. "I think so, but are you sure you want to do this here?”

Willa looked away, around the room, and back to Waverly in an instant, as if snapping out of a trance. Her eyes narrowed. A muscle in her jaw ticked. "No, let’s go somewhere more private. Follow me."

Waverly followed her out of the hall, down a quiet, darkened hallway. Their heels clacked on the floor and echoed all around them. Moonlight poured through the windows, the stars outside blurred by the age-warped glass. They reached a room, guarded by one woman in a dark suit with an earpiece. The woman let them inside.

Willa flicked on a light, illuminating the small office. Bookshelves lined one wall. A desk was just visible beneath stacked papers and notebooks. It looked as though the mess had been roughly pushed aside to make room for the sleek laptop on its surface.

"The museum director let me use this office," said Willa, by way of explanation. "This isn't the best place to work, but the global economy never sleeps. I'm expecting a call from a CEO in Japan after this."

"I'd hate to keep him waiting.”

Instead of taking a seat behind the desk, Willa stood in front of it, leaning back with her arms crossed. One finger tapped her upper arm. "So?" she asked. "What did you decide?"

Waverly fiddled with the bracelet on her wrist, a sparkling, glitzy thing fastened there by one of her stylists. It sent her mind spinning back to her hotel room, to standing in front of the mirror and peering in at a stranger. “I want to say something first.”

“About the terms?”

“No, it’s—”

Willa let out a harsh sigh. “Waverly—”

“Hey!” Waverly’s eyes snapped to Willa’s, her glare as sharp as shattered glass. “If you don’t let me talk, I’m not signing anything.”

Propping her hands on her hips, letting her sigh dissolve, Willa nodded. “Fine. Ask away.” She crossed her arms again. Her finger tapped again.

“So… Nicole told me about how you helped her.”

Willa froze.

“And I… well, that was a really generous thing to do. So I just wanted you to know, I… I think I misjudged you. And I'm sorry."

"You—" Willa stopped short, her whole body jerking like a dog sprinting to the end of its leash. "Oh."

"Yeah." Waverly waited. Willa searched her face, her own expression tumbling from disbelief to suspicion to realization.

"Well, that's… I… she…" Her muscles loosened, her eyes going wide and clear, and Waverly tensed in anticipation of a sudden embrace.

Instead, Willa uncoiled her arms and hooked her hands around the edge of the desk, chaining herself down. "It was nothing. Now… are you going to take the deal or not?"

Waverly had seen the cracks spiderwebbing across her sister's shell, had glimpsed something of the woman within. Ever since Nicole revealed how Willa had saved her, Waverly had felt hope billowing like steam within her. Willa's retreat left her expelling all that steam with a heavy sigh.

It was all right, she told herself. There was something there, and she'd tease it free. She had time.

So instead of pushing, she squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and smiled. "I'm going to sell."

Willa's eyes glinted with victory. "I'm glad to hear that." She reached behind her and grabbed a folder, folding it backward to reveal the paperwork inside. Waverly stepped toward her, accepting the folder and the pen Willa offered. She flattened the paperwork on the desk and flipped through to the page Willa had tabbed, to the first line asking for her signature.

Bent over the desk, she looked up through the curtain of her hair to find Willa standing over her. Gems glittered at Willa's ears, but her throat was almost bare save for a simple necklace: a swan on a chain. There was no key in sight, and this swan was gold, not silver.

Waverly frowned.

"Is that a different swan necklace?" she asked.

"I have a few," said Willa. Impatience crept into her voice, sharp with an edge of desperation that scratched at the back of Waverly's thoughts. "Please, just sign and let's get this over with."

Waverly pressed the tip of the pen to the paper. Her mind screamed at her. Swan! it said. She grimaced. Yeah, brain, I know! Swan! But—

Willa leaned closer. "Is there a problem?" Waverly looked up again and almost recoiled. Willa seemed to flicker, flashing from blood-scenting predator to wild-eyed prey. Instinct screamed at Waverly: run, run, RUN.

She stood up straight, dropping the pen like a hot coal. "Svane."

Willa blinked. "What?"

"Robert Svane. Svane. It's Nordic. Danish or Norwegian. Clootie works for you and the Revenants. You like swans and Bobo's last name means swan and Bobo knows things about Nicole that only you and Wynonna are supposed to know!" Waverly's chest contracted, clamping down on her lungs, choking off her frantic realization. Her conscious mind urged her to listen to her body’s signals and stop but one last sentence exploded from her:

"You're working with Bobo Del Rey!"

As Waverly rambled, Willa had laid one hand on the desk, steadying herself. By the time Waverly finished, she'd pulled herself back to her full height, all traces of humor gone from her expression, her jaw rigid and her eyes colder than ice.

Waverly clapped her hands over her mouth: in horror? in shock? She stared at Willa.

Willa stared back. "Sign the papers, Waverly."

"What?" Waverly gaped at Willa. "Are you serious? No, I can’t just… no! I’m not signing anything!"

"Fine." Willa strode around the desk. "Fine. I guess we're going to have to do this the hard way after all."

She lifted the receiver of an old plastic phone off its cradle and tucked it between her ear and shoulder. Her finger hovered over the keys. A sigh escaped her, but she bit it back, shook her head, and stabbed out the number.

"This is Haught," said Nicole to the room, her voice tight and businesslike.

"Nicole, do you have eyes on Julian Charles?" asked Willa.

"I do."

"Good." Finally, Willa lifted her eyes to Waverly’s. "In ten minutes, unless I tell you otherwise… turn him in."

Chapter Text

"What?" Waverly's eyes darted from Willa to the phone and back again. Her mind raced to put together the jigsaw puzzle of the conversation she'd just heard.

There was a delay on Nicole's end. "Was that Waverly? Am I on speakerphone?"

Willa ground her teeth. "Never mind her. Did you hear me before?"

"Sorry. Yeah, I heard you."

"Good. Keep an eye on the clock." Muting Nicole, Willa leaned over the desk on both hands. A smile rent her face, like lightning tearing across the sky. "Well?"

Some of the pieces started to slot together in Waverly's thoughts. She stared at Willa and shook her head. "You're... blackmailing me?"

"I'm extorting you, but yes, obviously." Willa scooped up the folder and extended it to Waverly. "Sign the papers and I'll call her off."

"You can't just extort people!"

Willa laughed, turning and gesturing at the room. "I don't see anyone stopping me, do you?"

Waverly's skin crawled. Her stomach clenched. Fingers pressed to her temples, she paced, trying to burn off the emotions clashing within her.

With a sigh, Willa flicked her wrist and peered at her watch. "Seven minutes until Nicole calls the police."

Nicole.

Waverly stopped. Took a deep breath. "Nicole won't do it."

"No? You don't think so?" Plucking the pen from the desk, Willa strutted toward Waverly. Her smile lingered like the scent of sulfur. "You just told me you know what I did for her. You know what that meant to her."

"Nicole wouldn't." In her mind, Waverly's old bed dipped beneath her. Nicole sat by her side, wild joy fluttering around her like butterflies, all because of Willa Earp. "She... she wouldn't."

"I'm disappointed in you. Really, I thought you were smarter than this." Willa shook her head, finally replacing her foul smile with a pout. "Nicole works for me. Nicole is loyal to me. She owes everything to me. Nicole has always been as loyal as a dog, and that won't change because you walked in and batted your eyelashes at her."

"That's why you helped her, isn't it?" Fury poured from Waverly like heavy smoke. "You let me stand here and tell you how benevolent and kind you are when really you just wanted her at your beck and call. I'm such an idiot!"

Willa scowled. "Believe what you want to believe, but if you don't sign, your precious, homewrecking daddy will go to jail. Is that what you want?"

"You know what I want! All I want, all I ever wanted, was my family. Which includes you!" A sob erupted from Waverly, threatening to stretch into a scream. "Why can't you see that?"

The tiny hands on Willa's watch clicked. Willa glanced at it. "Last chance."

Waverly scraped away her tears. More boiled up to take their place. "You know what, Willa?" She let her tears flow freely, let them stream past the grimace twisting on her lips. "Go fuck yourself."

"Have it your way. Hetty!" The woman guarding the door stepped into the room. "Keep her quiet a moment."

Before Waverly could blink, Hetty grabbed her. Waverly struggled against her, but Hetty twisted her arm behind her back until pain bloomed in Waverly's shoulder with every twitch.

Willa hopped up on the desk, crossed her legs at the ankle and tapped the button to unmute the call. "Nicole?"

"Here."

At the sound of Nicole's voice, Waverly gave an involuntary jerk. Her shoulder screamed. Hetty hissed in her ear to stay quiet.

Willa didn't seem to notice. "Has the target moved?"

"Nope. Have my orders changed?"

Nicole's voice stayed almost level, but Waverly caught the quaver at the tail end, the tremor of hope.

"No change." Willa eyed Waverly. Waverly dredged up every ounce of sorrow and regret and fear she had, let it burn her eyes and weight her lips with the most pitiful grimace she could manage.

Her sister shook her head. She looked away. "Make the call."

Time slowed. Waverly felt every expansion and contraction of Hetty's lungs behind her, heard the faint whispers of the gala in a distant part of the building, caught the scent of old books and ink as each breath, each blink, stirred the air around them.

"Right away," said Nicole. "I'll update you when they have him."

She hung up.

The passage of time caught up to Waverly like a train barreling down the tracks. A cry ripped free of her throat and she sagged against Hetty, the pain in her shoulder nothing compared to the gut wound of betrayal. Willa had readied the knife. Nicole had plunged it in, deep and true.

And now, Waverly thought, Willa wouldn't even look at her.

All of her fear and despair poured out of her, leaving her with nothing but a white hot core of rage.

Hetty's grip had loosened as Waverly sobbed. Before anyone noticed the change in her, Waverly drove the dagger of her heel into the top of Hetty's foot. Hetty swore and dropped her, and Waverly made a break for the door.

"Stop her!" yelled Willa, but Waverly had already kicked off her heels and taken off down the hall, bare feet slapping on the tile.

She rounded a corner, then another, the murmurs of the gala growing fainter. Footsteps sounded somewhere behind her, the thudding of flat shoes likely belonging to Hetty or more of her kind. Waverly spied a glowing EXIT sign and flung herself through the door. A stairwell yawned before her. She veered toward the wall and flew down the steps, gripping the railing to keep herself from tripping and breaking her neck.

At the bottom, she burst into another hallway. She paused. Darkness loomed in every direction. No voices or footsteps sounded behind her, but every bit of her buzzed with the need to keep moving. She chose a direction and started walking.

She passed wide, open doorways. In the gloom, she could just make out the different exhibits, glass display cases and pedestals. Beneath the anxiety crackling over her skin, part of her itched to creep over and take a peek.

Beneath that...

Waverly ached. Her chest hurt. Her throat burned. Nicole, at Willa's order, had turned Charlie over to the police. Despite the frantic part of her mind heckling her, urging her to move, she stopped. Her hands flew to her face, muffling her gasping breaths.

Ahead of her, she heard voices.

Choking back a yelp, she darted into one of the exhibit halls, crouching behind one of the pedestals. The voices grew louder, and as her eyes adjusted to the dark she could make out the shadows of two men stretching past the doorway.

"...can't believe Hetty let her get away," said one.

"Hetty's always been a pushover."

They stepped into the doorway. Waverly peeked around the pedestal, hoping the darkness would hide her.

"You hear Haught turned Baby Earp's daddy in?"

"No shit? That's cold. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised coming from the ice queen's lapdog."

"Dude, she scares me. I'm just glad the boss lady got her on our side. Now she's got the old man's apartment on lockdown if Baby Earp tries to run and hide there."

Their footsteps came closer, and Waverly ducked behind the pedestal again, searching the room for any avenues of escape. Her earrings, loaned to her like the dress she wore, bounced with every twitch. She unclasped one.

Leaning around the pedestal again, she waited. They scanned the room, walking closer. When they both looked in another direction, she hurled her earring as far as she could through the doorway.

It clattered in the distance, in some distant exhibit hall, and both men froze.

"You hear that?"

"Shit!"

They sprinted toward the noise, and she crept away in the opposite direction as silently as she could. She weaved her way through exhibits until she found another hall. A red-orange island of light glowed in the distance: another exit sign. It led her down a narrow service hallway.

The door beneath the sign was heavy and metal, its paint chipping. She didn't see any indication of an alarm, so she pushed through it and found herself in what looked like a loading dock. She clattered across the concrete and down a ramp, hissing when the cold shocked her feet, and found her way outside.

As she stood in the night air, Waverly became keenly aware of how strange she looked: a dress worth more than one of her dad's paychecks, no shoes, one earring missing. She started down the sidewalk and pulled her phone from her purse.

She dialed Charlie's number.

It was out of service.

Waverly stared at the phone. Part of her screamed to call Nicole, that it had to be a mistake, that Nicole couldn't have done it. The rest of her let that little voice scream. Nicole had handed Charlie to the police. There was no point in arguing.

As she tried to figure out the safest place for her to go—to Jeremy's? to catch a bus to Calgary and then home to Purgatory?—a message from an unknown number arrived. It provided an address and nothing else.

Her gut churned. Two sides of her mind battled: to go or not to go? It could be a trap, but if Charlie had gotten away somehow...

She put the phone away and walked the distance to the location in the message, stopping once in a boutique clothing store along the way to buy a pair of slippers and a jacket. She didn't look at the prices, just handed the clerk the EHCG expense card Willa had given her. When she left the store, she snapped the card in half, then half again, and scattered its pieces down different alleys as she passed them.

The address led her to a coffee shop on one corner of a side street. A sign declared, "Sorry, we're closed!" in looping letters, and the only light visible inside was the intermittent blink of the security system on the wall. Waverly sighed, turned away from the building, and looked up and down the street.

Her phone chimed.

Unknown: go to the side street

She peered down the street. It was just barely wide enough for two cars, and a few vehicles were parked snug against the building. It was dark, and quiet, and the thought of going down there sent chills up Waverly's spine.

She went anyway. One of these days, she thought, I'm going to get myself murdered.

One car looked familiar and as she approached it, an odd mixture of hope and dread pooled in her. It was Charlie's car.

A noise came from the car parked just in front of it. The door opened, and Nicole Haught stepped out.

Nicole braced herself, one hand on the door and the other on the roof of the car. "Waverly..." she said, breathless. "I—"

Waverly read Nicole in an instant: her face, her body language, the sound of her voice. No language had ever come so easily to her as the language of Nicole Haught.

"You didn't do it," whispered Waverly, before Nicole could finish speaking. She took a halting step forward, her hand lifting toward Nicole. "You didn't do it."

"I couldn't." Nicole's fingers stretched toward Waverly's. As they brushed, Waverly seized Nicole's hand, palm to palm, squeezing so hard Nicole winced.

But Nicole didn't let go. They pulled each other close. Waverly curled against Nicole, arms folding up between them, and listened to the thunder of Nicole's heart.

Nicole's lips brushed Waverly's hair. "How did you know I didn't do it?"

Waverly pulled away, just enough to tip her head back and look up at Nicole. Nicole gazed back, curious and relieved and a little bit awed. Waverly reached for a smile but came up empty. She shrugged and pressed close again instead. "I don't know. As soon as I saw you, I just knew."

With Nicole's sigh of relief, they sank deeper into their embrace. Waverly's fingers plucked at the collar of Nicole's shirt. "How did you know?"

"Know what?"

"About Willa working with Bobo?"

Nicole stiffened. Waverly's hands stilled.

"That's..." Nicole swallowed. "I'll explain later. For now, as nice as this hug is, I've got your dad in the car and we need to get going. You okay riding in the back?"

"Oh my god, Dad!" Waverly ripped herself away and yanked open the door to the backseat. As she bent down and peered into the car, she saw Charlie squished in the backseat, his arms crossed.

"Yeah, don't forget Dad!" he said, laughing, but when Waverly slid into the seat next to him and threw her arms around his neck, he held her tight.

"You're okay." She'd fought down her tears in the museum, had kept them stoppered up as she fled, and now they poured free. "I was so scared, Daddy, I just kept thinking what if they hurt you, what if something happened, but you're okay! You're okay!"

"I'm all right," he said. His arms cinched around her for a moment as Nicole eased the car onto the main road. "Nicole took great care of me."

"It's all my fault." Waverly refused to let him soothe her. "If I'd just signed Willa's agreement the first time none of this would have happened."

"Don't say that!"

Waverly lifted her head, just enough to catch Nicole's wide eyes in the mirror. "What?"

"It's not your fault." Nicole dragged her eyes back to the road. "This is nobody's fault but Willa's."

There was venom in the way she spoke Willa's name, strong enough to paralyze. Waverly sniffed, sitting only upright enough to rest her head on Charlie's shoulder.

Charlie cleared his throat. "Speaking of Willa... is this really worth it?"

"All of what?" Nicole raised an eyebrow.

"Me, running. Again." He gestured at the car, at the city around them. "Not that I want to go to prison but... Waverly's grown. Ward's dead. If I finally have to pay the price for what I did... I'm okay with that."

"It's not about you getting arrested anymore." Nicole adjusted the rear view mirror. "This has always been about getting control of Earp-Holliday. Threatening your freedom was a means to an end. If you turn yourself in, you take that leverage away from her. From them, I mean."

"Isn't that good?" asked Charlie.

"Not when you're dealing with people like this."

"The Revenants are small-time criminals—" started Charlie, but Nicole cut him off.

"Maybe they used to be, but not anymore. Sir, the police found Malcolm Ramaker today. Face down in front of Shorty's with a bullet in the back of his head. If Bobo's willing to do that to one of his own..."

"What are you saying?" asked Waverly.

Nicole met her eyes in the mirror. "I'm saying Charlie won't be safe in prison. The leverage won't be his freedom anymore. It'll be his life."

Waverly shot forward, hands on the back of Nicole's seat. "That means... my family! They—"

"They'll be okay." Nicole pressed her hand over Waverly's without taking her eyes from the road. "Wynonna's got it under control. Nedley's in the loop, too."

Nicole's touch did nothing to calm Waverly. Fear still coursed through her like electricity. "What does 'under control' mean?"

"You said it yourself a while ago, the Earp manor is a fortress, and their security team isn't paid by Willa or Earp-Holliday. They'll be all right, I promise."

Convinced by the earnesty in Nicole's voice, Waverly leaned back, taking her place with her head on Charlie's shoulder once again. "So... what now?"

"Now, we go somewhere safe... and we wait."

"For how long?" asked Charlie.

Nicole grimaced. "As long as it takes."


They left the city and headed north. Waverly slipped into her own seat eventually, pulling her brand-new jacket up to use as a cushion between herself and the window. The time shone from the console: late, but not late enough to explain the fatigue like iron in her bones.

Her thoughts drifted in a haze. Every time they seemed to settle—on Willa, on her family, on Nicole—she recoiled. All she could do was wander, colors and light and amorphous shapes filling her head until she dozed off.

Every so often the car jolted and her eyes fluttered open, streetlights and headlights blazing in her vision like meteors. Charlie and Nicole's low voices mixed with the purr of the engine, as soothing as rain pattering against a window. They eased her back into the sea of sleep.

Then there was a hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake. "Hey," said a voice, soft and low. "We're here."

"Mmngh?" said Waverly, rubbing her eyes. She blinked and could just make out Nicole in the dark, leaning into the cabin of the car, her hand brushing across Waverly's shoulders. "Where are we?"

"My safehouse," said Nicole. "Your Dad and I are going to bring stuff inside. If you want to go in and just go to bed, you can, I just need to unlock the door."

"No, I want to help." Waverly slipped out of the car and stood, cracking her shoulders. She took a deep breath. The air, sharp and fresh and cold, seeped into her lungs, as much of a wake-me-up as a strong cup of coffee. Silence surrounded them. Aside from Nicole's feet crunching in the thin crust of snow, the only sound was the wind through the trees.

A dark shape huddled some ways away from the car: a cabin. Nicole made her way toward it, clattering up the wooden steps to the porch. She unlocked the door and reached inside, flicking on a porch light.

When Nicole popped the trunk, Waverly shuffled toward it and met her father. "How are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm fine," said Waverly. Two duffel bags and a cluster of grocery bags huddled in the trunk. They divided the load and shuffled toward the cabin and up the steps after Nicole.

Waverly staggered toward what looked like the kitchen, deposited all the bags on the floor, and started sorting them. Food went into the freezer, into the refrigerator, into the cabinets. Nicole had bought enough food to feed an army, most of it non-perishable cans and microwavable dinners.

The floor creaked behind her, announcing the return of Charlie from wherever he'd stored the duffel bags.

"This is... cozy," he said.

"It'll be cramped," said Nicole, stepping inside, pulling the front door closed and locking it. She kicked off her boots. "But it's safe."

Done with the food, Waverly wandered through the cabin, through a little living room with a sagging, plaid couch and a sooty fireplace, a shoebox of a bathroom, a small bedroom. She headed back into the front. "Is this everything?"

"Yeah, but—" started Nicole, but Waverly cut over her.

"There's only one bed."

Nicole and Charlie both stood straighter. "I'll take the couch," they said in unison.

Two wide pairs of eyes met.

"I'll take the floor," they both said.

Waverly rolled her eyes. "I'll share the bed with Nicole."

Nicole went as red as her hair. "But—"

"Can we please just go to sleep without arguing about this?" As she spoke, Waverly winced at the edge in her voice, the screech of nails on a chalkboard. She tried again, softer. "Please?"

Charlie and Nicole exchanged a look. Nicole sighed. "Of course."

They all got ready for bed, playing musical chairs with the bedroom and bathroom, until Waverly eased the bedroom door closed to her father's sleepy call of "g'night, kiddo."

Nicole puttered around on her side of the room, clearly not doing anything other than putting off the inevitable. Waverly climbed under the covers and sighed as the mattress and quilt cocooned her. She cracked one eye open to watch Nicole. "Are you going to sleep standing up?"

"No, I'm..." Nicole faced Waverly and ran her hands through her hair. "Maybe. Are you sure this is okay?"

"Why wouldn't it be?"

"Because I... you know."

Waverly rolled toward Nicole, face half buried in her pillow. "I trust you."

Nicole looked away, her eyes falling to the floor. When she pulled them up again, something shone behind them, something that called to Waverly even through the fatigue and fear weighing her down.

"Thank you," said Nicole. She slipped beneath the covers, letting out a gasp of delight as her body sank into the mattress.

Some part of Waverly thrilled at the sound, but it was like a shout underwater, muffled and distorted. "I should be thanking you."

Nicole switched off the light. "Hmm? What for?"

"For saving my dad. Even though Willa... even though she..."

Nicole rolled on her side, near invisible in the dark. "Don't have to thank me." Her voice was loose and slurred, tinged with sleep.

"Of course I do." Waverly inched closer. "I know what your loyalty meant to you. And I know Willa crossed a line, working with Bobo, but still... I'll never be able to thank you enough."

Burrowing into her pillow, Nicole said, "s'wrong."

"What's wrong?" Waverly lifted herself on her elbow, peering down at Nicole. Starlight slipped through the curtains, caressing the line of Nicole's jaw, the curve of her lips. "Nicole?"

The only answer Waverly got was a heavy exhalation, the telltale sign that Nicole had fallen asleep.

Waverly sighed. She brushed a lock of hair out of Nicole's face, her fingers just grazing Nicole's skin. Nicole stirred, then wriggled deeper under the covers, her face gone slack. Waverly hoped her dreams would be full of light and laughter and love.

Sleep beckoned. Just before she laid down to meet it, Waverly leaned close and brushed a kiss over Nicole's cheek. She fell asleep with her fingers pressed to her lips, trapping the kiss still lingering, ghost-like, on her skin.

Chapter Text

Waverly woke to whistling wind and a biting chill.

She stirred, wincing at the crick in her neck. The springs of the mattress beneath her dug into her hips and shoulders and she idly thought she'd need to talk to Wynonna about getting a new one. Yawning, she rolled onto her back and stretched.

Instead of the yellowed stars clinging to her ceiling in Vancouver or the crown molding of her room at the homestead, she saw aged wood and a dangling light bulb and cobwebs draped like garlands above her.

She bolted upright, heart pounding until her memories caught up with her. Her heart settled as she sifted through them: a long, hazy car ride. Stumbling into the cabin. Slipping into dreams beside Nicole.

Nicole, who was nowhere to be seen.

Waverly sat a moment in the silence of the room. She tried to parse what she could remember, sorting fact from dreamlike fiction. Cold truths piled around her.

Whatever her reasons, whatever she was doing, Willa was working with Bobo Del Rey.

Willa had tried to turn her father in to the police.

Nicole had saved him.

As she arrived at the last thought, Waverly realized she'd laid her hand on the bed beside her, on the spot where Nicole had slept. She jerked her hand away.

A shiver rolled up Waverly's spine and rattled her teeth. She dragged herself out of the bed, hunted down clean clothes, and headed out in search of Charlie and Nicole.

In the living room, the couch had been folded back into itself. From the kitchen, she heard the clink of silverware on dishes. She found Charlie at the rickety little table, a full bowl of cereal in front of him. He wore jeans and a crew-neck sweatshirt she was sure she'd never seen before. A rainbow knit hat nestled over his ears.

He dragged his spoon through the bowl, over and over, but never took a bite.

"So it wasn't a dream," she said.

Charlie looked up, bags dark under his eyes. "Hey, you're awake." He attempted a weak smile. "How are you?"

"Tired. Physically, emotionally... I'm tired." She sighed, crossed the room, and dropped into the seat across from him. "What about you?"

"Me?" He raised an eyebrow.

She laid her head on her crossed arms and peered up at him. "Did you sleep at all?"

With a low chuckle, Charlie leaned back in his seat and pushed his bowl away from him. "In fits and starts. Hard to sleep thinking of all the ways things could have gone wrong."

"They did go wrong."

"I know. But they could have been worse." He pushed the bowl toward her. "Here. I've got no appetite."

Waverly wrinkled her nose. "The milk..."

"It's almond. Most of the stuff we brought in last night is vegan."

Drawing the bowl close, Waverly stared at it, at the little beige cereal shapes going soft at the edges, at the tiny particles breaking off and floating in the milk. She took a bite, and her stomach twisted with relief.

As she swallowed, she noticed he'd gone quiet. "Dad?"

He'd been looking straight at her, his attention far away. "Hm?"

"I'm really sorry this happened to you. I keep thinking of everything I could have done differently. If I'd taken Willa's deal... or maybe if I'd just never left home and gone to Purgatory."

His eyes refocused. He stretched his hand across the table, palm up, and when she laid hers in it, he squeezed. "This isn't your fault," he said. "Nicole told you last night and I'll tell you again. Your sister hurt all of us."

"I know. She... she really did, Daddy." Waverly dropped her spoon with a clang, squeezed Charlie's hand harder. She remembered Willa, in all her forms. She wore so many faces. Which was real? Were any of them?

Another memory found its way to the surface: Willa, giving her final order to Nicole, unable to look Waverly in the eye. It seemed like guilt.

But then Waverly remembered the way Willa had dangled Nicole's loyalty in front of her like a playground bully.

If it was guilt, Waverly thought, I hope she chokes on it.

Her skin prickled, and she yanked her hand out of Charlie's. She forced down another spoonful of cereal. "Where's Nicole?"

Charlie rubbed his temple and let out an aggravated sigh. "Outside, somewhere. She's got a to-do list a mile long. Won't let me help at all. You picked a stubborn one, kiddo."

"I didn't pick—"

The front door opened and Nicole appeared, ruddy-cheeked and breathless. "Oh, Waverly," she said, her eyes going wide. "You're up."

Something fluttered in her voice, something that sent Waverly tumbling back to the last moments before dawn. Another memory, faint as candle smoke, danced in her thoughts. An alarm in the still-dark morning. The bed springing up beneath her. A dull thud and a muttered curse. Lips, light and warm on her temple and a voice whispering, "fair's fair."

A frisson of longing rolled over her, brushing all her fears and anxieties aside.

"You didn't think I'd sleep all day, did you?" She smiled. "It's almost noon."

Nicole watched Waverly with a calm, searching gaze, the one that always made Waverly feel as though Nicole could see all the hidden parts of her without even trying. "I'd understand if you did. You had a rough night."

"And you didn't?"

"We're not talking about me." Nicole shoved her hands in her jacket pockets. "How are you, really?"

Waverly almost countered with a teasing riposte, but stopped. Something in the set of Nicole's jaw, the tautness of her muscles, sounded a warning klaxon in Waverly's thoughts. She recognized this Nicole: a wild animal, guarding her wound by any means necessary.

She tried a different tack: honesty. "I... don't know. I don't feel great, but after what Willa did..." Waverly looked down and swirled her spoon in drifting, looping patterns. "I'll be okay... eventually."

The floor creaked beneath Nicole's boots. Waverly turned to catch her rocking back down onto her heels. "You don't have to be okay," said Nicole.

"I know. I will be, though. I'm halfway there already. I mean, look! I'm up, I'm eating... this." Waverly lifted her spoon and let her cereal, which had given up its solid form, splash back down into the milk. "Okay, maybe I'm not eating this anymore. But the point is, I'm tough."

Nicole smiled. "That's Earp steel."

"Not Earp steel," said Charlie. They both turned toward him, and the pride glittering in his eyes almost melted Waverly on the spot. "This, she gets from her mother."

"Speaking of your mom..." Some of the tension seeped out of Nicole's shoulders as her mind seemed to snap back into working mode. "I just dug out the satellite phone if you want to call home after you finish... that."

"Really?" Waverly abandoned her bowl. "I'm done, just let me just get my boots and jacket on!"

When Waverly was ready, Nicole led her outside and handed her the bulky old phone. Waverly dialed her sister's number and bounced as it rang. Nicole waited beside her, hands in her pockets.

Someone picked up. "Who the fuck is this?" asked Wynonna.

"Wy!" Waverly let out a sigh. "I've never been so glad to hear your cranky voice."

"Baby girl?" Wynonna's voice rose, her words tripping over themselves on their way out. "Are you all right? Are you safe? Haught said she was getting you somewhere safe."

"I'm fine." Waverly glanced at Nicole, who gave her a thumbs up and mouthed you all set? Waverly nodded. "Nicole brought us to a cabin somewhere north of Vancouver. But..."

At Waverly's nod, Nicole headed back toward the cabin, squeezing Waverly's shoulder as she went. Waverly watched her go, watched how her body sagged with each heavy footstep. Waverly yearned to run after her, to ease that weight from her shoulders.

"Uh, Waves?" Wynonna asked. "But what?"

"Oh!" Waverly spun back to face the lake through the trees, putting Nicole and all those churning thoughts behind her. "Um, but what about you? Who's there with you?"

"Mama. Gus. A buttload of security guards."

"Security guards paid for by Willa?" Waverly crossed her arms as best she could while she held the phone to her ear. "I don't how much Nicole told you..."

"All we know is Willa apparently lost her goddamn mind about your shares. And no, fun fact, Willa guilted me into footing the bill for our security years ago." Wynonna cleared her throat. "Look, I know she's awful but... she wouldn't threaten Mama and Gus. Me, I could see. You, I could definitely see. But..."

Waverly kicked at the snow and the mud, mixing them with her toe. "It's not just her, though. She's working with Bobo."

"Oh. Oh, shit." Wynonna let out a low whistle. "Fuck. Suddenly a whole lot of shit makes a whole lot more sense."

"Does it, though? I mean, okay, maybe the way Willa's been acting makes a little more sense, but... why? Bobo, Willa, Earp-Holliday... what's the connection? I keep digging and digging, trying to understand, but I'm more confused every day."

"Hey, don't look at me." Wynonna hummed. "I'm as in the dark as you are. But, hey, Mama wants to talk to you."

A few moments later, Michelle's voice replaced Wynonna's, soft even through the distortion of the old phone. "Waverly, honey, I'm so sorry. I never thought she could do something like this."

"It's not your fault."

"I'm her mother," said Michelle, her voice sharp. "I raised her. And clearly I did a piss-poor job of it."

"She's an adult. She made her own choices." Waverly pressed her hand to her temple. "For what it's worth, I didn't think she'd do something like this either. God, I feel like an idiot. I thought... I honestly thought I'd be able to win her over eventually."

"Maybe you still can..."

Waverly stiffened, pulled the phone away from her ear, and stared at it. She shook her head and returned to the conversation. "Mama, she tried to have my dad arrested."

"I know." The speaker crackled with the force of Michelle's sigh. "I just... this isn't what I wanted for you. For any of you."

Silence loomed between them. Waverly chewed the inside of her lip. "I think the worst thing is not even knowing why she did it. She betrayed us, but... for what?"

"I wish I could tell you." Michelle chuckled humorlessly. "Wynonna trashed through Willa's office. Picked the lock to that safe she keeps in there. But we couldn't find anything."

"It'd be a dumb idea to keep incriminating documents anywhere nearby when your sister is me," said Wynonna, in the background.

"Wynonna, hush." Michelle paused, presumably giving Wynonna a stern look in rebuke, then returned to her conversation with Waverly. "Nicole's been in contact with Nedley. He'll do what he can."

Waverly tipped her face toward the grey sky. The air whispered a warning of snow. "So... what do we do now?"

"I guess we wait," said Michelle. "We wait, and we take care of each other."

Something clattered behind Waverly. She turned to see Nicole bounding down the porch steps, a toolbox in one hand. Nicole looked up, noticed Waverly's eyes on her, and offered her a wave and a tired smile.

Waverly gave a little wave in return. "Okay," she said. "I think I can manage that."


Wind and cold chased Waverly back into the cabin after the call.

"How is everyone?" asked Charlie as Waverly kicked off her boots and hung up her jacket. He'd found a deck of cards and set himself up with a game of solitaire.

"They're safe," she said. "They're worried, but I think that's just our new normal. Can we play gin?"

"Of course we can. Grab a seat." He swept the cards into his hand and shuffled the deck, then dealt. "Do they have any news about your sister?"

She set about rearranging her cards by suit and value. "No. Nothing. It's still just a big, stupid mystery."

He peered at her over his cards. "One the police are going to handle from now on."

"But I don't like not knowing."

"Neither do I. But the best thing we can do is stay here with Nicole until we know it's safe." He flicked his eyes toward the deck and back to hers. "You go first."

She lifted her hand. Just as she laid her fingers on the top card, there was a clang from outside. She turned toward the sound, as though she could see through the walls and spy Nicole, outside, hunched over to ward against the cold as she worked hard at... something.

There seemed to be no end to her chores.

"She's been working since she got up?" asked Waverly. She drew her card.

He laid his hand in his chin, fingers drumming on his cheek as he studied his hand. "She was already busy when I woke up." His eyes lifted to hers. "She's really something."

"There's no one else like her in the world," Waverly said. Blood rushed to her cheeks as soon as she said it. She ripped a card out of her hand and flung it at the discard pile.

Charlie straightened the mess, grinning. "So are you—"

"Dad! It's your turn!" She hid behind her fanned hand.

Their conversation drifted into shallower waters. Old memories. Inside jokes. As the cabin filled with their chatter, Waverly started to settle, the sounds of the creaking ceiling and rustling trees outside shifting from alien to soothing.

Every so often, they heard a thump or a muttered curse outside. Every time, Waverly's thoughts snagged on Nicole. On what she'd done for them. On what had been done to her.

After a few games, Waverly's attention flagged, and she excused herself while Charlie dealt a new game of solitaire. Waverly put a kettle on to boil and set out a mug and a teabag, then gazed out the window as she waited.

Nicole had moved on to her next task. She'd carted a pile of seasoned logs to an old stump in the front yard and had taken to splitting them, one by one. Her winter jacket draped over the porch railing, leaving Nicole with only a flannel shirt to ward against the chill.

The fabric puckered in the back when Nicole straightened. It strained over her spine when Nicole brought the ax down and curled over the stump to pick up the newly-twain cords of wood. Waverly pressed her hand to her chest to restrain her pounding heart.

The kettle shrieked behind her. She yelped and ran over to tend to it. An ember of guilt flared in her as she poured the water. Here she was, safe from the wind and the chill, ogling Nicole while she worked to take care of them. To take care of her.

She should be the one taking care of Nicole this time, Waverly thought. The pain in Waverly's soul, the knife-wound of Willa's betrayal, throbbed in sympathy for Nicole. To work for Willa, loyally, for years, only for Willa to throw that all aside to work with Bobo Del Rey? Waverly squeezed her mug, her knuckles white, her mouth dry.

She would give anything to turn back time, to spare Nicole the hurt of learning that awful truth.

Waverly took a deep breath and a sip of her tea.

She paused.

How had Nicole learned the truth?

Had Nicole guessed, when Willa ordered her to turn Charlie in? Waverly ran through the timeline. In the time between Willa's threat and Waverly stumbling down the alley toward Charlie's car, Nicole had ushered Charlie out of his apartment, driven him to a safe location, and had called Wynonna and Nedley.

And had gotten together two duffel bags full of clothes.

Not to mention enough groceries to feed an army.

Waverly frowned. "Hey, Dad?"

Charlie looked up from his game of solitaire. Between his wide eyes and the bouncing pom-pom of his hat, he looked like a little boy. Waverly fought back a laugh. "Sorry, I was just wondering... when did you and Nicole go get all those groceries?"

His brows furrowed. He held the half-dealt deck of cards in his hand and thumbed one edge, rifling through them. "What do you mean?"

She blinked. "What do you mean, what do I mean? When did you go get the groceries?"

"We didn't," he said. "She must have had those before."

"But..." Waverly lifted her tea halfway to her lips, stopped, and lowered it again. "When did she call Wynonna?"

"She... didn't."

"So what did she do? Between when she got you and when I showed up?"

He pushed his hat back on his forehead and scratched at his hairline. "Well... I was in the apartment, minding my own business, when she started whaling on the door. She got me out the back way into my car. We stopped at a convenience store but I'm pretty sure all she bought was a phone. Then we got to that alley and she texted you and we just... waited."

"Did she mention Bobo Del Rey?"

"No, she didn't. Kiddo, are you okay?"

The mug of tea in Waverly's hands suddenly seemed too heavy. She searched for somewhere to put it, increasingly frantic; Charlie rushed over, laid one hand over hers, and eased the mug out of her grip.

"Hey, hey," he said, soothing. "Is something wrong?"

She raised trembling fingers to her mouth. "No, no, nothing's wrong. It's just..."

She couldn't speak. Her mind raced.

Nicole had betrayed Willa. She'd known that. But Waverly had assumed she'd done it when she found out about Bobo. When she learned that Willa had crossed Nicole's one and only boundary.

And maybe she had. Maybe, between leaving Charlie's apartment and Willa's order to turn him in, Nicole had learned something new about Willa, something that had clued her in to the truth.

But Waverly remembered the look on Nicole's face the night before, when Waverly had asked her about Willa and Bobo working together.

Waverly turned to the window again. The ax head rested on the ground and Nicole steadied its handle against her leg. She wiped sweat from her brow with her sleeve. Steam wafted from every exposed bit of skin, and she tipped her head back, eyes closed, and let the wind lap at her.

Waverly saw all of that and none of it. The picture appeared in her mind, stripped of all context, all meaning: Nicole, red hair, crisscrossing plaid, a whorl in the grain of the ax handle just beneath her fingers.

"I need to talk to her," said Waverly. She marched to the door and flung it open. "Nicole?"

Nicole turned around and looked up, smiling when she saw Waverly. "Hey! What's up?"

"Um," said Waverly, who suddenly felt very silly. "Nothing. Nothing's up."

"Okay," said Nicole. She chewed her lip. "Are you okay?"

"I'm..." Waverly buried her fingers in her hair and dragged it back from her face. Nicole had probably figured it out on her own. She'd known. She'd known Willa had betrayed them first.

But what if she hadn't?

Waverly's fingers tightened on the edge of the door. "Stay there," she said, and rushed into the cabin.

Before Nicole could respond, Waverly threw on a coat and gloves and boots again and flew down to where Nicole was standing. "Do you want to go for a walk?" she asked. She pointed toward the lake and the trail just visible beneath the thin crust of snow.

"Now?" asked Nicole. "The sun's going to set soon."

"Now." Waverly gripped Nicole's forearm. "Please?"

Nicole looked down at Waverly. Her shirt pulled open at the throat to reveal the dip between her collarbones. She searched Waverly's face, lips pursed with concern. Then she sighed, pulled her toque back down over her hair and reached for her discarded jacket. "Lead the way."

They took to the path and let it lead them. Nicole seemed to be waiting for Waverly to speak, but Waverly's jaw was rusted shut, her mind too full and busy to form any kind of sentence.

The cabin disappeared in the distance. The woods stretched away on one side of the trail, and the frozen lake shone with sunset gold just beyond a thin belt of trees on the other. At a break in the trees, Waverly dipped off the path, picking down the rocks toward the shore.

Nicole followed wordlessly after her, the crunch of her boots on the snow loud in the silence of the woods. She drew alongside Waverly. Waverly looked out at the lake, shading her eyes against the patches of mirror-bright ice peeking through wind-blown snow.

"How did you know?" she asked.

Nicole blinked. "What do you mean?"

"That Willa was working with Bobo? Dad... he said you already had the groceries. The clothes. So it wasn't... you had to know before she called you from the party. Before I told you. Didn't you? You... you already knew."

Nicole drew a breath, held it, and let it go. "I wouldn't have worked for her if I'd known, you know that."

"That's not what I'm saying," said Waverly, quickly, sensing the tender edge of a wound not yet healed and backing away from it. "I'm just trying to understand. When did you find out?"

"When you asked me. In that alley. You asked me how I knew and... " She shrugged. "That's when I learned how much of a fool she made out of me."

"But..." Waverly laid one gloved hand against her forehead. "The clothes. The groceries. You..."

"You remember when Willa called me, when we were at your dad's?" Nicole turned to face Waverly, lips pursed. "She wanted me to watch him, and I... I knew what she was going to do. What she was going to ask. And I... I couldn't. I couldn't do that to you or to him."

"So you..." Waverly covered both of her cheeks with her gloved hands. Her breath streamed toward the sky. "You chose me."

Nicole said something. Waverly couldn't hear her. All her memories of Nicole seemed to race through her mind, all at once. Nicole defending her in the middle of a bar fight. Arms around her in a self-defense lesson. Grinning at her with a bag full of marshmallows. Nicole: good, and honest, and true.

Nicole, standing in front of her, hands braced on Waverly's arms and face creased with worry. Her face aglow in the last light of a dying sun.

"What's wrong?" asked Nicole, her voice piercing the haze of Waverly's mind. "Should I get Charlie?"

"You chose me," said Waverly again, and before Nicole could say anything else, Waverly gripped the collar of Nicole's jacket, pushed herself up on her toes and kissed her.

Every smile that had ever twisted her stomach in knots, every touch that had plucked her nerves like taut violin strings: none of those moments compared to this, to her lips on Nicole's, to Nicole's gasp of surprise, to the absolute certainty that she could kiss Nicole like this forever and it would never be enough.

Nicole's hands fell to Waverly's waist, her touch feather-light, as if Waverly was an apparition of smoke and any force would send her dancing away on the wind. So Waverly pressed closer, fingers threading through Nicole's hair, teeth nipping at Nicole's lip.

Then Nicole pushed her away, eyes still closed, chest heaving. Waverly sank back onto her heels. Her fingers twisted in the fabric of Nicole's jacket. When Nicole opened her eyes, Waverly wanted to lean in again and kiss away the fear she read there.

Nicole held her back. "What happened to friends?"

"That's not an option for me any more." Waverly cupped Nicole's cheek.

"Because I helped your dad?" Nicole made no move to pull away from Waverly's touch.

"Because I want you. I've always wanted you."

"You hated me." Nicole's lips brushed against Waverly's palm. Her breath tangled in the wool of Waverly's glove.

Waverly shook her head. "I hated who you were pretending to be. Willa's red-headed hound-dog, my aunt called you. I hated that Nicole."

"I'm done being that person." Nicole laid her hand over Waverly's. "That isn't who I want to be anymore."

"I know. That's why I..." Waverly brushed her thumb over Nicole's lips. "I kept pushing it away. Wanting you. Knowing I couldn't have you. And at first you were so annoying, so it was okay, but then you turned out to be so good and kind and loyal and you started smiling and god, your smile. And then you went and chose me! Over everything else! And now it's all I can think about, and it's a lot, and I really, really need to kiss you again before I—"

Nicole cut her off, drawing her in for the kiss they both needed. Waverly whimpered, clutching at every bit of Nicole within reach. Her fingers combed through Nicole's hair, pushing Nicole's toque up until it slipped off and fell, forgotten, to the ground.

One of them laughed, breathy and deep. Waverly, overflowing with giddy energy, wasn't sure who, until Nicole pulled away with a grin as bright as a thousand stars.

"I know I already told you how I feel about you," she said, and she kissed Waverly again, quick and sweet, "but even with everything else going on... I don't remember the last time I was this happy."

Only Nicole's arms around her waist kept Waverly on her feet.

Their lips met again, and again, kisses multiplying faster than Waverly could track. She started thinking ahead, to the creaky bed in their little bedroom, to schemes to get Charlie out of the house, to gripping that flannel and pulling it free of—

In the distance, something chimed.

"What was that?" asked Nicole, her words riding sharp and quick on the back of her exhalation. "Is it coming from the cabin?"

Waverly strained to hear. The noise repeated. Her stomach flipped. "It's the sat phone," she said. "You don't think..."

"Come on," said Nicole, and she laced her fingers with Waverly's and led her back toward the cabin.

As they'd talked and as they'd kissed, night had settled around them. Darkness draped from the branches above them. They stumbled through it, piercing it with the harsh little flashlight of Nicole's phone. Shadows stretched and shifted in the swaying light, and an irrational fear of ghosts or wolves or ax murderers rose in Waverly only to be quenched by the squeeze of Nicole's hand in hers.

The cabin's porch light filtered through the trees. They followed it to its source, and found Charlie standing outside, the phone in his hand.

"I didn't know if I should answer it," he said, holding it away from himself as if it would burn him. "Should we be worried?"

Nicole took the phone from him and put the call on speakerphone. "Hello?"

"Hey, Haught Shot! Is Waverly there?"

"Wynonna?" Waverly pressed close to Nicole, leaning over the phone. "Are you okay? Is everyone all right?"

"What? Oh, no, we're good, don't worry."

Waverly peered up at Nicole and saw her relief and confusion mirrored on Nicole's face. "Okay... then why are you calling?"

"You're not going to believe this. They got her, baby girl. They got Willa. She's under arrest."

Chapter Text

Waverly blinked. "That was... fast." She looked from Charlie to Nicole, saw raised eyebrows and pursed lips, knew their minds were working like hers to slot this new information in with everything else they knew about Willa. "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure. Nedley arrested her." Wynonna cackled. "Get this: they got her for money laundering."

Beside Waverly, Nicole hummed. "Makes sense."

"It does?"

Nicole nodded, looping her arm around Waverly's shoulder. "I talked to the Hollidays this morning. It was the first thing Kate thought of when I told her about Bobo. I'm just surprised they found something so fast."

"Well, whatever you said to them, it lit a fire under their asses." Wynonna snorted, and they heard the clink of a glass. "Kate had her people tear the books apart. Willa's been using the company to move money around for years. She's got more shell companies than I've got tickets for public intoxication. And she wasn't just working for the Revs. There was some other group... the Cult of Bulshar?"

Nicole drew a breath like a gunshot. Waverly peered up, a question on her lips, and stopped. Nicole's eyes were wide, her mouth hung open, and her skin shone paler than the snow around them.

"What?" She cinched her arm around Nicole's waist. "Who's that?"

"The Cult is... they're nasty. They do everything: weapons, drugs... human trafficking. Worldwide. The ‘cult' thing is only half a joke. God, if this exposed the Cult to the cops..." Nicole released her breath bit by bit, her body almost trembling with the effort. "Willa and Bobo are fucked."

"Now who's the family fuck-up? Cheers to my precious, perfect sister getting exactly what she deserves." Wynonna laughed, then there was a muffled noise and another clink of a shot glass being dropped to a counter. "So, the bad news is they didn't get Bobo. That fucker's still on the loose. You guys still in Nicole's secret base or whatever?"

"It's a safehouse." Despite the irritation dripping from Nicole's words, Waverly caught the sliver of a smile on her lips. "But yes. If the Cult's involved, we're not leaving any time soon."

Wynonna shifted, the leather of her jacket squeaking. "About that... Willa wants to make a deal. She'll share everything she knows about Bobo and the Cult... for a face-to-face talk with Waverly."

"No." Nicole pulled away from Waverly, one fist planted on her hip. "Absolutely not."

The wind needled Waverly, nipping hard at the spot where Nicole had been. Waverly wrapped her arms tight around herself. "That's all she wants? To talk to me?"

"Well, that and a plea deal," said Wynonna. "But talking to you is non-negotiable."

Nicole scowled at the phone. "Why Waverly? Why only Waverly?"

"Hey, don't ask me, I don't understand her any more than you do."

No one spoke. The specters of Willa and Bobo lurked in the stark black shadows cast by the porch light. Waverly tipped her head back and let her breath stream toward the sky.

Her thoughts seemed to settle in its wake. "I'll do it."

"What?" Nicole's jaw dropped. "It's too dangerous."

"I know it's dangerous." Waverly took one last look at the sky, at the moon illuminating the drifting clouds, and filled her lungs with its cold surety. "But I'm going to do it. Wynonna?"

"I heard. You sure?"

"I'm sure. We'll be home as soon as we can."

They exchanged I miss yous, I love yous, goodbyes, and then Wynonna was gone, and Waverly faced her audience.

Nicole stared at her, lips pressed together, bloodless. Charlie, who had listened to the call without a peep, watched her with an inscrutable expression.

As Nicole opened her mouth to speak, Waverly shook her head. "Can you wait to yell at me until we get inside? I'm freezing?"

"After you," said Nicole, gesturing toward the door as stiff and straight as a scarecrow.

They traipsed inside, and as Waverly peeled off her hat and gloves and jacket, Nicole stood just inside the open doorway and fired off her opening salvo. "This is a really bad idea."

Waverly kicked off her boots. "I know. But I'm going anyway."

"But why?"

Charlie eased past Nicole and made a beeline for the fireplace, crouching down to tend the flame. Nicole's eyes locked on Waverly, following her every move.

Waverly perched on the couch, clasping her hands in front of her. She chewed her lip, weighing her words. "If Willa knows something that can help put away Bobo and this Cult, and I can get her to talk... I want to get her to talk."

"But you're safe here."

"I'll be safe enough at the homestead." Waverly shrugged.

"It's safer here." Nicole jabbed a finger toward the ground and the puddle of snowmelt growing beneath her boots. "Bobo's still out there! And now we know he's working for the Cult? We came here for a reason, and nothing has changed."

"Except it did." Waverly pressed her hands to her forehead. She felt the rightness of her decision in the core of her being, as solid as the permafrost beneath them. "Nicole, please. There's something I can do now. I can help. I can't just sit here knowing that."

Their eyes met, and Waverly felt the tug of the cord that had snared them both the day they'd met, drawing them closer the more they tried to pull away. She was done pulling away.

Nicole's smile shone in her eyes before it stole onto her lips, and Waverly's burst out in answer before Nicole could let out a resigned sigh and a begrudging, "fine, you win."

As they'd talked, Charlie had prodded the fire with a poker. The light sparked and flickered across his stone-still features. When Nicole sighed, he turned toward them, pushed himself up off his knees, and dusted off his hands. "I'm coming with you."

"Not you too," said Nicole.

"The only other option is me staying here by myself, isn't it?" He raised an eyebrow. "You weren't going to let my daughter go back to Purgatory by herself, were you?"

"Of course not."

"Well, there you go."

Nicole rubbed the back of her neck. "You know she'll be safe with me. And you'd be safe here. Lonely, maybe, but you have food and I'd make sure everything was in working order before we left—"

"I'm going," he said, and Nicole shut up.

They stared at each other in uneasy silence. Waverly found her attention drawn to Charlie, to shadows still clinging to him. "Nicole?" she said. "Can you start packing? I'll be there in a bit."

A question seemed to build in Nicole, but one look from Waverly quashed it. As she headed out of the room, shutting the bedroom door behind her, Waverly turned to her father. "Mama's going to be there."

He cracked like ice in the first spring thaw. "I know."

"She's going to lose it."

"I know."

Charlie stood by the fire, hat pushed back on his skull so that his hair stuck up wildly under its cuff. For the first time in her life, he seemed small. Waverly wrapped her arms around herself. "She has every right to be mad at you, Daddy. Mad doesn't even cover it, really."

"I know. And I don't want you to get in the middle, all right?" He sighed, then shook a smile onto his face. " Leave the worrying to me."

"You know I can't help it," she said, but she rose and let herself be pulled in anyway.

Eventually she let him go, his attention already drifting to the rest of the cabin and getting ready to leave. Waverly headed to the bedroom in search of Nicole.

She found Nicole sitting on the edge of the bed, the suitcase butterflied open beside her. In her lap, she held a button-up shirt. Her fingers traced one of the buttons. Her hair tumbled over her face. 

Waverly leaned back against the door, shutting it with a faint click, and Nicole looked up.

Her eyes gleamed, puffy and red, and the rest of the world collapsed around Waverly like a house of cards. She sank onto the bed beside Nicole and laid one of her hands over Nicole's.

"Hey," she said. "What's going on?"

Nicole's fingers dug into the shirt in her lap like grasping talons. "I can't believe I let her do that to me."

"Willa?" asked Waverly, and Nicole nodded, squeezing her eyes shut.

"I had one rule for myself. One. And all this time..." Nicole shuddered, and her hands clenched so hard Waverly worried her bones might shatter. Waverly wrapped her arms around Nicole, pulled her in, poured all her concern and care into the looping patterns her hands painted on Nicole's back.

"It's okay," she whispered. "You didn't know."

"I thought I knew her." Nicole's words crashed against Waverly's neck, hot and frantic. "I worked with her for years. Not just for her, with her. I knew her schedule down to the minute, I knew who she liked and who she only pretended to like, I knew exactly how she wanted her coffee. But I didn't know she was laundering money for the fucking Cult."

"Hey." Waverly pulled away. Nicole stuttered to a halt, and Waverly brushed Nicole's hair out of her eyes and held Nicole's face gently in her hands. "She fooled everyone. It's not your fault. None of this is your fault."

Nicole took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Waverly curled her fingers around Nicole's neck, let them tangle in the hair at the nape of her neck. She drew Nicole back down to earth, to the dim bedroom, to the lumpy mattress beneath them. 

Their eyes met. "Can I—?" asked Nicole, and Waverly answered with a soft, trembling kiss. 

"This is real, right?" asked Nicole as they parted. She reached out, hesitated, and let her hand settle on Waverly's thigh. "I'm not dreaming?"

"This is definitely real. I'm..." Something welled up in the hollow of Waverly's ribs, a geyser of affection and desire she couldn't yet name. "I'm serious about this. About you. So... I'm here for you. Whatever you need. Anything you need."

"I've got you, now," said Nicole. She kissed Waverly again, slow and deep, a confirmation: this is real, and this is good, and this is ours. "That's all I need."


They pulled up to the homestead in the middle of the night, yawns stretching their cheeks and eyelids fighting gravity. Nicole extended a key card toward the scanner. It flashed red. She rubbed her eyes, glared at the box, and tried again.

Red again.

"Oh, real nice," she muttered through chattering teeth. Freezing air poured through the open window.

Waverly, in the passenger seat, leaned forward to peer past Nicole at the scanner. She'd gotten more sleep than Nicole, passed out for a good part of the drive, but even her brain clunked like a stuck gear. "It's... not working?"

"Your sister locked me out. God, she's petty."

Nicole leaned toward the scanner and pressed the call button. No one answered. She pressed it again.

"Nicole?" said a male voice, thickly, as if its owner had just been woken from sleep. "Something wrong with your card?"

"Hey, Kyle," said Nicole. "Willa revoked my credentials. I assume you guys know the situation?"

"Wynonna briefed the drivers and the security team," he said. "We booted Willa out of the system, just not soon enough, I guess. I'll buzz you in and we'll get you back up and running ASAP."

A buzzer sounded, and the gate opened. Nicole took the car through and pulled up to the front of the house. 

They slunk out of the car, their footsteps in the snow and the car doors thudding closed the only sounds in the dead stillness of night. Waverly hurried to the front door, fumbling with her keys, and stopped. She turned back to see Charlie, head tipped back, staring up at the house as if it was a leviathan about to swallow him whole.

"Daddy?" she called, a whisper and a shout.

"Right, yeah, I'm coming." He trudged toward them. "Sorry."

"It's fine." Waverly slipped the key in the lock but didn't turn it. "Are you ready?"

"I'm ready," he said, and smiled, and ruffled her hair.

Waverly let them inside.

Darkness and moonlight dappled the foyer. Waverly stepped into a puddle of light splashing through the second floor window, the criss-cross pattern rippling over her skin.

"I'll go wake up Mama," she whispered, and crept toward the stairs. The runner dampened her footsteps until she put her weight on one step halfway up.

It squealed beneath her, falling silent as she came to a stop. She winced and surveyed the landing: no movement. no commotion. With a shaky breath, she resumed the climb, pulling her foot away from the step.

It barked.

A light flashed to life down one of the halls. Raised voices clattered down to them, and Waverly careened back down the steps, flying into Nicole's waiting arms. "You called them, right? You let them know we were coming?"

"Before we got on the plane," said Nicole, then Michelle Gibson Earp appeared at the top of the steps, a robe swirling around her, a shotgun clutched in her hands.

"Get the hell out of my house!" she hollered, her matted hair shaking with every word, and then Gus appeared at her side, scowling and yawning.

"It's Waverly, you darn fool," said Gus, just as Michelle thrust the shotgun into her sister's hands and flew down the steps toward her daughter.

"You're okay." Michelle reeled Waverly into her arms. "God almighty, you're here in one piece."

"Of course we are," Waverly mumbled into her mother's shoulder. "Nicole was with us."

Michelle lifted her head to look at Nicole and went suddenly still. Waverly pushed away just enough to see her mother's face: eyes sparking like flints, anger prickling red beneath her cheeks.

"Julian," said Michelle. "What do you think you're doing here?"

"I'm here for Waverly," he said, and Michelle ripped herself free of Waverly's grip, wound up, and socked her ex clean in the jaw. He crumpled to the floor.

"You took my baby." Michelle stood over him, fist raised for another blow. "You took my little one and you think you can come back into my house? Just waltz in here with her name in your mouth like you've got any right to it?"

Charlie pushed himself to a sitting position and scooted away from her, cradling his jaw. "I'm sorry."

"Fuck your sorry." She lumbered toward him, on the hunt. "You should be rotting in a jail cell."

He raised his hands. "Yeah. I should."

"So get the hell out of my house and go turn yourself in."

"Michelle—"

"Don't you say my name like that. Don't you dare!" She charged like a bull. Charlie flinched, ducking beneath his arms. Waverly threw herself in the bull's path, grabbing her mother by the horns and digging in her heels. Michelle crashed against her, hands clawing into Waverly's shoulder, momentum hurling her toward Charlie, but Waverly held firm.

"Mama, please," she said, and Michelle broke, falling into her daughter's arms.

Gus glided down the stairs. She draped her arms over her sister and her niece, rubbing soothing circles on Michelle's back and stroking Waverly's hair. "It's all right," she said, her voice thick and rough with sleep. "She's home now, ain't she, 'Chelle? And for all he's a bastard, he did do a mighty fine job raising her."

"You're not getting me to forgive him, Augusta." Waverly's sweater muffled Michelle's voice, dulling the edge of her resentment.

"Ain't trying to. I just think your little one would rather you didn't murder her father in front of her."

Michelle sighed. "You're right. Damn you, why do you always have to be right?" She stood straighter, cupped Waverly's face in her hands. "I'm sorry, baby girl. I saw him and I damn near lost my mind."

"It's okay," said Waverly. "If you want to yell at him, I understand."

"You're a good kid." Michelle shifted her attention to Charlie, who had picked himself off the floor and dusted himself off, prodding his tender jaw. Her rage flashed again like the blade of a knife. "I'm serious about him. I don't want him in this house."

"Mama, they'll arrest him if anyone sees him in town."

"That's his problem," said Michelle. "I'm sorry, but I'm not negotiating. I know it's technically your house, not mine, but if he stays here, I'm going to Gus's."

"I'll go," said Charlie. "I'll find somewhere to stay."

"But Dad—"

Nicole cleared her throat. "He can stay with me."

"As long as he's not under this roof, I don't care where he goes." Michelle pulled her bathrobe about herself, pressed a kiss to Waverly's temple, and started back up the stairs. "We'll talk more tomorrow, all right?"

"Sure, Mama."

Then Michelle vanished upstairs, Gus following on her heels with a deep, exhausted sigh.

Charlie watched her go. Every one of his years hung like millstones from his neck, each one heavier than the last.

"Dad?" said Waverly, and Charlie snapped out of his trance.

"Well, that went about as well as I expected." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Thanks for offering up your place, Nicole."

"Of course," she said. "I'm just down the road. The little house?"

"I remember," he said, and the haze of memory clung to him for a moment. "I'll let you two say goodnight."

The front door clicked shut behind him.

Like magnets, Waverly and Nicole reached for each other, meeting with tangled fingers. "Thank you," said Waverly. "I'm glad you're giving him a place to stay. He'll be safe with you."

"I'll do my best." Nicole watched Waverly for a moment. Something flickered in her eyes. 

"What?" asked Waverly.

"Are you okay? That was... intense."

"Yeah." Waverly chewed her lip. The image of her father sprawled on the ground, her mother towering over him with wild hair and billowing robe like a witch readying a terrible curse, had been seared into her mind. "I don't know. I wish you could stay. I'd feel a lot better with you here."

"Yeah, me too." Nicole opened her arms and Waverly stepped into them, folding herself against Nicole until there was no space between them. "But I'll see you tomorrow, first thing."

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow, she would see Willa. Tomorrow, maybe, she could put an end to all of this.

Chapter Text

Waverly stared at herself in the mirror.

She’d been staring for a while. There was nothing wrong. Her outfit was fine. Her hair, always good at a minimum, looked its best in weeks.

But she was going to see Willa. Nobody could weaponize even the tiniest flaws like the oldest Earp.

Waverly would be safe. She knew that. Willa was under arrest, held under the watchful eye of Sheriff Nedley. Still, she couldn’t chase away the suspicion that she was about to hoist herself into a casket, snuggle down into the plush interior, and lie in repose for her own wake.

A knock sounded at the door, and she absently invited the visitor inside. Then she wheezed, because Wynonna had cannonballed across the room and drawn her into a crushing hug.

“I can’t believe Haught let you come back here. I’m going to kill her.”

She smelled like fresh laundry and stale alcohol. Waverly tried to wriggle free. “Please don’t,” she said, when Wynonna relented enough to let her breathe. “She’s… we’re… kind of…”

“Kind of what?” Wynonna pulled back. Realization dawned like the sun through the clouds and a sly grin spread on her face. “Baby girl! Did you and Nicole bump uglies with your dad in the next room?”

Waverly regretted everything. “No, we absolutely did not! You’re the worst.”

“Not so loud, Waves, geez.” Wynonna covered her ears, then brushed a lock of hair from her face, and all her jokes and teasing faded. She watched Waverly with round, open eyes, and Waverly marveled at her sister: sharp and vulnerable, tough as scar tissue with a heart bigger than she’d ever seen.

She stepped into another hug. “I missed you. And don’t be mad at Nicole. I would have stolen her car if she didn’t come back with me.”

“Yeah, I know, she’s whipped. Just so we’re clear, though, dude, coming back here was really stupid. But I’m not going to pretend I’m not happy to see you. Now…” Wynonna raised an eyebrow. “What do you say to breakfast and a little hair of the dog?”

“Are you hungover?” asked Waverly, and her pealing laughter chased Wynonna, wincing, from the room.

They found Gus in the kitchen, humming to herself as she poured herself a cup of coffee. As Wynonna and Waverly entered the room, she offered them a cheerful “mornin’, girls,” and fixed two more mugs for them. She deposited Wynonna’s in front of her, intercepting her before she could reach the liquor and the sticky shot glass on the counter. “Wynonna Earp, stop taking shots. Your sister is in jail.”

“That’s kind of the point, Gus!” Wynonna pawed at the liquor bottle, but Gus whisked it away.

Waverly tuned out Wynonna’s whine, taking in the rest of the room with a frown. "Where’s everyone else?"

"Nicole had to go talk to the security team." Gus took a slow sip of coffee, her eyes fluttering closed. "She brought your daddy here and told him to stay put, but he wandered off, the damn fool. Your mama’s in the greenhouse."

Fear gnawed at Waverly like frost creeping over her skin. “You don’t think he went there, too?”

As soon as she said it, she knew: he had. Of course he had.

“Lord, I hope not.” Gus grimaced, and Waverly recognized her own realization in the flicker of Gus’s eyes. “I don’t want another repeat of last night."

Wynonna squinted at Gus, at Waverly, and took a sip of her coffee. “Last night? What the hell happened last night?”

Waverly left Gus to explain, excusing herself and slipping out of the room. She suited up against the cold, then trudged through the slush outside, picking her way toward her parents’ old refuge.

Her parents. Bringing them together had been a disaster. The memory of Michelle looming over Charlie’s prone body lingered in the corners of Waverly’s memory like a barely-escaped nightmare. Dread pinched the muscles in her neck and shoulders, growing heavier with every step.

As soon as Waverly stepped inside the greenhouse, she let out a sigh. Warmth enveloped her, thick and sweet. Still, her stomach churned. She forced herself to follow the same path Michelle had shown her the day they'd been reunited.

She found her mother in one of the rooms, leaning back against a tiled countertop laden with all different types of greenery, her arms crossed tight over her chest. Michelle's reflection shimmered in the pond running the length of the room as the koi beneath the surface darted to and fro.

Across the pond stood Charlie, a bruise splashed across his jaw.

"I'll never forgive you." Michelle’s eyes flashed. "You'll go to your grave without ever getting that from me."

Charlie’s eyes flicked to Waverly over Michelle's shoulder. "I'm not asking you to forgive me." He slumped like a branch bowing beneath a heavy snowfall. "But I still owe you an apology."

"That’s the bare minimum you owe me!" Michelle sprang upright, fists swinging at her sides, coiled and ready. Charlie flinched. It pricked the surface of her ballooning anger, and she sank back against the shelf.

"You owe one to my sister, too. And my girls. All three of them.” Her fingernails picked at the mortar of the tiled surface, bleeding off her violent energy in little scraping clicks. “You tore them apart, Jules. Our whole family. You tore us all apart."

Michelle’s voice broke, and Waverly broke with it. She tiptoed toward her mother. "Mama?"

"Waverly!" Michelle tensed like a startled animal, pressing one hand over her heart and wiping at her tears with her other sleeve. "You scared me half to death."

"I’m sorry." Waverly inched closer. "I didn't mean to interrupt, but I thought you might both be in here and I… I was worried."

"No, I'm sorry." Michelle offered her hand, and Waverly took it. She let her mother reel her in, let her tuck Waverly beneath her arm. "Every time you see me lately, I'm yelling."

"It's okay," said Waverly, but Michelle shook her head.

"It's not. You deserve better than seeing your parents like this."

"And you deserve a chance to heal." Waverly glanced across the pond at Charlie, who stood silently, waiting. "So if that means howling at the person who hurt you... maybe you should howl. Just… please don’t hurt him anymore."

"Oh, little one. I did my howling. So many nights, after I realized you were gone... I came out here and I just..." Michelle filled her lungs like a woman drowned, and Waverly held her breath with her. "So many people loved you, Waverly. And he ripped you away from us."

"I know." Waverly turned to fully embrace her mother. "I know."

"It kills me to see how much you love him." Michelle held her so tight, Waverly thought her bones might break. "I know he's your daddy, I know he raised you. But he ruined us. You don't know what it's like. He ruined us."

"He didn't. You're all so strong. I know he hurt you, I know he did, but you're not ruined. And I’m here now, aren’t I? We still have so much more time together."

"But I missed it all," said Michelle, her voice wild and fraying. "All those little moments... we'll never get them back."

Waverly buried her face in the curve of her mother's neck. Her tears smudged between them. "I know. I know. And I don't know if I'll ever forgive him for that. Okay? I haven't forgiven him, either."

"Kiddo," said Charlie. Waverly pulled back from Michelle, sniffling, wiping her tears. She cut him off.

"I love you," she said. "So much. But right now, you need to leave."

"I'm so sorry. Waverly. I’m so, so sorry."

"Then go, Daddy."

He swelled, drawing in the breath to fuel an argument. Then his eyes met Michelle’s, and Waverly’s, and he settled again. Without another word, he did as his daughter asked, and left.


As Waverly brought her car to a sliding stop in front of the old Earp homestead, Nicole stepped onto the front porch, almost as if she’d been watching by the window for Waverly’s arrival. The air staled in Waverly’s lungs at the sight of her. She took a deep breath, pressed a steadying hand beneath her ribs, and poured herself out of the car.

Nicole met her on the bottom step, arms already wide and waiting, and Waverly let herself be caught, let Nicole fold her close against her chest, against her beating heart.

They parted only for Nicole to open the front door and usher Waverly inside. Waverly dropped onto the couch, and Nicole attempted to offer her a hot drink, but Waverly caught her hand and drew her down instead.

“Okay, what’s up?” Nicole laid one hand on Waverly’s thigh, tracing soothing paths against her skin. “Did something happen?”

Waverly sighed. “It’s my parents. They got in another fight. I think they're both going to be miserable as long as he's here, which means someone needs to find Bobo as soon as possible."

"With any luck, you’ll talk to Willa and she’ll tell the cops everything she knows."

"I don’t feel very lucky these days."

Nicole’s hand stilled. Waverly curled her fingers around it, lifted it, and pressed her lips to the knuckles. She looked up again and found Nicole’s eyes on her, so affectionate her heart lurched in response. “Finding you was pretty lucky, though.”

“Not nearly as lucky as me finding you.” Nicole grinned, and leaned in, and Waverly met her halfway. Every nerve in her body thrilled at the barest touch of Nicole’s lips. Her breath caught. Nicole invited her to deepen the kiss and Waverly almost let herself drown in those depths.

Then she remembered her parents, the greenhouse air thick with their anguish, and she pulled away.

Nicole almost toppled over, eyes closed and lips parted, chasing the kiss. When she caught herself, worry flooded her features. “Are you all right?”

Waverly fought back another upswell of tenderness for Nicole, her jaw aching from the tart undercurrent of fear.

“No. I don’t know. It’s… it’s my parents. It always comes back to them. I've never seen my dad so upset. When I was a kid, when he talked about my mom… He was lying about her dying, but the way he talked about her, I knew he loved her. So much. And he still does."

Nicole scooted closer, her knees knocking Waverly’s.

"But she hates him." Waverly leaned against the back of the couch, turned fully sideways to watch Nicole. "She hates him. But at the same time, I think part of her still loves him, too. A little bit. And she hates herself for it."

"He hurt her," said Nicole. “But he’s also the reason she has you.”

"He hurt her more than anyone else ever could. Because she loved him. Because they loved each other. If they didn't love each other, if they hadn't had me..."

Nicole reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind Waverly’s ear. "The world is a better place because they had you."

"That's not what I'm saying." Waverly curled her fingers around Nicole's. "But thank you. You’re ridiculously sweet.” She tamped down the urge to lean in and kiss Nicole again. “It just... scares me. They loved each other. It wasn’t enough. If two people who loved each other that could do this to each other... I don't want that to be me. I don't want that to be us."

Nicole’s fingers, tracing a path down Waverly’s jaw and neck, froze.

"Nicole?” Waverly’s voice shook, a whisper of gossamer. “It won't be us, right?"

When Nicole cupped Waverly’s face in her hands, her touch featherlight, Waverly closed her eyes. Nicole leaned close, and Waverly shuddered beneath her words, whispered loud against her ear.

"Never," said Nicole, and she sealed her promise with a kiss laid against Waverly’s jaw. "I will never let that happen to us."

The dam broke. Waverly turned her head, caught Nicole’s lips, and flung herself over the edge into Nicole’s waiting arms. They fell together, tangling together on Nicole’s scratchy, old couch. Waverly burned where Nicole touched her, lips and neck and oh, god, a trail of lit gunpowder from beneath the hem of her shirt and under her bra and--

She pulled just free enough of Nicole to demand the location of her bed, punctuating the question with her teeth.

Nicole dragged herself away. One foot on the floor, one knee between Waverly's legs--so close to where Waverly wanted it and yet so damn far--Nicole caught her breath. "Are you sure?"

Waverly seized two handfuls of Nicole’s collar, hauled her in for what was easily the filthiest kiss of her life, and broke it off just as it was getting good.

“I’m going to take that as a yes,” said Nicole, then she took Waverly's hand and led her to the stairs.

They burst into the bedroom, Waverly walking Nicole back toward the bed. Nicole’s legs hit the edge of the mattress and she dropped, bounced once, then grabbed Waverly's wrist and pulled her down after.

Waverly found herself beneath Nicole, Nicole's weight pinning her to the bed. She cast her arms around Nicole, one leg lifting and hooking over Nicole's, holding her as close as possible. Nicole's hand crept between them, slipping beneath Waverly’s blouse, hot against Waverly's skin.

Waverly gasped and Nicole chuckled; the gasp dissolved into a whimper. Waverly clutched at Nicole's shoulders and found fabric, too much fabric. She scrambled to find the buttons of Nicole's shirt.

Nicole lifted herself, enough that Waverly could pry each button free, picking up speed as she went. She felt Nicole’s eyes on her, hungry and waiting and eager, and she struggled with the last button, flustered by Nicole’s gaze.

As soon as the last button popped loose, Nicole reared back on her knees and shucked the shirt entirely, casting it off into the abyss of the room. She gazed down at Waverly, from the waist of Waverly's jeans, across her stomach, to the hem of her shirt scrunched beneath her breasts, and exhaled.

Waverly watched Nicole watch her. She watched the nervousness flicker in Nicole's eyes and watched her expel it with that one breath.

“What?” asked Waverly.

“I really like you,” said Nicole. Waverly read the deeper meaning of Nicole’s words in the way Nicole’s breath caught, the tension in her muscles, the vulnerability in her eyes. Affection surged through Waverly; before Nicole could press in again, Waverly sat up, pulled Nicole into a kiss, and whispered, "I really like you, too.”

A slow, dimpled smile spread on Nicole’s cheeks. "Oh, yeah?"

Yes, Nicole. I really, really do,” said Waverly, and when Nicole surged toward her, she met her with a giddy laugh.

Waverly's shoulders struck the mattress. Nicole’s hands slipped beneath Waverly's shirt, beneath her bra. Bit by bit, their clothes disappeared. Nicole's finger grazed the inside of Waverly's thigh, and the last part of Waverly’s mind clinging to the memory of her parents in the greenhouse snapped to the now, to Nicole's lips at her neck, to red hair tickling her cheek.

There was nothing between them but Nicole's hand, tracing a scorching path down to Waverly’s hip, her thigh, between her legs. Heat crept across Waverly's skin, spreading over her shoulders. Sounds tumbled over her lips, foreign to her ears. With each one, Nicole pressed closer. Waverly clung to Nicole, one hand in her hair, one arm thrown across her shoulders. Nicole's old bed rattled, squeaking with their rhythm.

Waverly made a fist of the hand tangled in Nicole's hair, drawing a new note from Nicole, a gasp, a grunt, a whine. The sound poured gasoline on the bonfire they built between them. It burned through Waverly, licking up from where Nicole touched her, up her belly and out to the tips of her fingers and toes. Waverly broke beneath Nicole, teeth in Nicole's shoulder, and Nicole eased the pieces of her down.

That wouldn't be the end of it. In moments--in minutes, maybe, or even seconds--Nicole's fingertips would brush the curve of Waverly's hip, just barely, just enough, and the embers of the fire in Waverly's gut would glow hot again, and Waverly would roll on top of Nicole with a kiss that would make Nicole's toes curl.

Later than that, much later--maybe hours this time--Waverly would peel herself from the bed and laugh at the sight of her shirt just barely clinging to the corner of Nicole's open door. She would dress, and Nicole would offer to drive her to the station to see Willa, and Waverly would decline, wanting Nicole to lie in the bed, naked, thinking of Waverly long after she'd gone.

In that moment, though, in the first coming-down, as her muscles turned to jelly and as Nicole nuzzled into her with a barely-hidden grin? In that moment, Waverly Gibson was perfectly, utterly happy.


Waverly sat on a bench in the lobby of the sheriff's department, watching Wynonna pace back and forth and trying to quiet the part of her fretting over her imminent meeting with Willa. Wynonna, Waverly’s ride to the station, had given voice to all of Waverly’s anxieties, complaining incessantly since they’d left the homestead.

“Please sit down,” said Waverly. “You’re going to make me sick.”

“She’s up to something.” The fringe of Wynonna’s leather jacket streamed behind her as she stomped from wall to wall. “You should just let her rot.”

“She can’t do anything locked up in the police station.”

Wynonna scoffed. “If you think that, you don’t know Willa.”

Just as Wynonna was about to launch into another anti-Willa tirade, she was interrupted by the shuffle of boots on tile. Randy Nedley lumbered into the lobby, and Waverly wondered when he’d last slept.

“Nedley,” said Wynonna, hands on her hips. “Tell her this is a dumb idea.”

“She just wants to talk, Earp.” Nedley shrugged. “And we’ve had no luck finding Del Rey up ‘til now, so talking’s good.”

She threw up her hands. “Nobody in this town listens to me.”

Proving her point, Nedley turned his full attention to Waverly. "You sure you want to do this?" he asked, hands hooked around his duty belt.

"I do.” Waverly twisted one of her rings. "If it means she'll cooperate... I'm ready."

"All right. Come with me. You wait here." He jabbed a finger at Wynonna, and when he was sure she’d stay put, he led Waverly into the depths of the station.

They stopped outside a heavy door. Nedley paused, hand on the doorknob. "So, I gotta ask. Why's she asking for you?"

Waverly frowned. "Honestly? I don't know."

Nedley raised an eyebrow. "Really? You sure?"

"I'm as in the dark about it as you are. If I knew anything, I'd tell you."

"I was hoping you wouldn’t say that. Wynonna’s paranoid, but I don’t blame her for being concerned. I don't like this, either." He sighed. "Go on in. I'll keep an eye on you."

He opened the door. Willa Earp waited beyond it, a smile stitched on her face.

Willa's eyes tracked Waverly as she entered, as she pulled out her chair, as she settled into it. Waverly knitted her arms across her chest, raised an eyebrow, and said, "all right. I'm here. You wanted to talk, so... talk."

Willa leaned back, legs crossed at the knee, hands neatly folded. "Did you have a nice vacation?"

"I did, thanks." Waverly forced her own smile. "Are you enjoying yours? I've heard the beds here are terrible."

"I’ve slept in better, but Earps are hardy stock.” Willa arched an eyebrow. “Speaking of beds, I assume you're sharing one with Nicole now?"

A memory flashed through Waverly's mind: Nicole, propped up on one elbow in bed, the sheet slipping down to the curve of her waist, a renaissance painting made so tantalizingly real. Waverly pressed her legs together. Her foot bounced.

Willa laughed. "I love when I'm right."

"Then you must be miserable right now," Waverly snapped. "You thought you had Nicole under your thumb, and yet here you are."

"So much for her fabled loyalty." Willa's smile crumbled and blew away like ash in the wind. “I thought she learned her lesson after that business with Shae, but apparently ‘lovesick idiot’ is a permanent character deficit. But honestly, how could I resist? A disgraced detective, ripe and ready for plucking? Wynonna practically served her to me on a platter.”

“You took advantage of her.”

“I saved her. She was happy to repay the favor.”

Waverly ground her teeth. “And then you lied to her about Bobo. She never would have worked for you if she’d known. But she found out, and now you’re going to pay the price.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

"No, I wouldn't!" Waverly squeezed her crossed arms tight around herself, holding herself back. "God, Willa, how many times do we have to go through this? All I ever wanted was to be your sister. All I ever wanted was for you to try."

Willa rolled her eyes. "I can't just--"

"Bullshit, you can't. I don't believe you don't have room for me, even in your shriveled heart. You just didn't want to let me in, because Bobo Del Rey's dirty laundry was more important than a sister who wanted to love you. Because I have enough love for both of us."

Willa's jaw tightened. She stared at a spot on the floor, and when she spoke, her jaw moved as though fighting years of rust. "You don't know me."

"That's the point," said Waverly. "I wanted to get to know you. You just wouldn't let me."

Willa's eyes snapped to Waverly's. "And now it's too late, right? That's what you'll tell me next?"

Waverly uncoiled. She laid her hands flat on the table. The metal sapped the heat from her skin, leaving only cool truth. "No. No, I don't think it is."

Just as Willa reeled back, eyes wide with confusion, a gunshot hammered their eardrums. Waverly jumped out of her seat, her hip striking the edge of the table. "What was that? Was that a gun?"

Another gunshot. People shouted, their voices muffled through the walls. Waverly ran to the door and it burst open, revealing Nedley, a pistol in his hands. "Stay here," he said. "I'm locking you in." The shouting knifed past him, sharp and clear.

"Wait!" shouted Waverly, but the door slammed shut. She paced. "Shit," she said, fingers burrowing in her hair. "Shitshitshit!"

"Calm down," said Willa.

"Calm down? Wynonna’s out there!"

All of the color drained from Willa’s face. “You brought Wynonna? No...” She dropped into her seat like a ragdoll.

Waverly pressed her palms over her mouth, fighting to breathe through her fingers. When she felt on the verge of fainting, she let herself drift back to earth. "Okay. You're right. Freaking out won't help. Wynonna’s tough. Nedley’s there.” She managed one long, slow breath.

As she exhaled, she watched her sister. Willa chewed the inside of her cheek. She tapped one finger on the table arrhythmically. Her eyes flitted to the door.

Realization rimed Waverly’s bones. "You’re behind this," she said, and Willa's tapping finger froze.

The shouting grew louder. They were in the hall. One voice rumbled low--Nedley, she thought--and then another burst of gunfire. Then silence.

“Oh, god. Wynonna…” Willa turned toward Waverly, pale and shaking. "I’m sorry. I never--"

"What did you do?" Waverly rushed toward Willa, seizing her shoulders. “What did you do?”

The lock clicked. The door swung open. Bobo Del Rey swept through.

He rushed to Willa, framing her ice-white face in his hands. With a curse, he peeled her from her seat, gentler than Waverly would have thought possible. She goggled at them, hardly noticing when another man pressed into the room behind Bobo, armed and scowling: Red, the tall Revenant Waverly had seen threatening Malcolm Ramaker outside a bar.

Bobo, cradling Willa beneath his arm, tossed a pair of handcuffs to Red, who snapped them to Waverly's wrists. "Move," said Bobo, and they dragged her out of the room.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked.

"Quiet," Bobo hissed, stepping over a facedown body. Waverly stopped in front of it, staring down at it. It groaned, one hand stretching toward Waverly's shoes.

"No..." Waverly's knees shook; she dropped, the impact rattling through her, and grasped the jacket, her fingers sifting through pooled leather fringe. "Wake up, please, you can’t, wake--"

Red hooked her under the armpit and jerked her upright. He dragged her away, but her eyes stayed fixed on the body of Wynonna, crumpled on the floor.

Chapter Text

Waverly twisted in Red’s grip as he hauled her into the lobby of the police station. His fingers tightened, hard enough to bruise. She drove her heels into the floor, braking against his force, but with a snarl he jerked her forward. She lost her balance, and made the rest of the journey dangling, trying to regain her footing.

A cluster of Revenants milled in the lobby, stone-faced, weapons raised and ready. One toed the heaped body of a deputy, turning her staring face toward him and grimacing.

Bobo strode out of the building without a word, and his army followed. They flanked Waverly, and with her eyes on their guns she followed without protest. Two cars idled on the street, one half climbing onto the sidewalk. Still cradling Willa beneath his arm, Bobo popped the trunk of the rear vehicle and flung it open, then stepped aside.

Fear seized Waverly like an arm crushing her throat. She hurled herself as hard as she could away from Red, felt herself slip through his fingers, and almost as soon as she hit the ground on hands and knees she was up and running.

"Grab her!" shouted Bobo, and the rest of the Revenants surrounded her. Hands grasped her from all sides, hooking her arms, her jacket, her collar. She drove an elbow into the nearest body, but the hand on her collar yanked her down and flung her to the sidewalk. She kicked, heels striking someone's kneecaps, and screamed obscenities that would have made Wynonna proud.

“Shut her up and get her in the car!" said Bobo, and one of them hauled her to her feet, a hand over her mouth. She worked her mouth free and bit down as hard as she could. The hand flinched beneath her bite but bore the pain; she was lifted off the ground, carted thrashing to the car, and shoved into the trunk.

It slammed shut before she could right herself and try to fling herself out. The car rocked as her captors piled into it. Doors slammed. Someone shouted, voice muffled through the backseat, and the car took off. It rolled out from beneath Waverly and she crashed into the back end of the trunk, smacking her head on the metal.

She groped around. The trunk was empty: no tools, no trash, nothing. Without light, she made her way by feel. She found something that could have been the latch, but without her eyes, she couldn't make sense of it, couldn't find a way to pop it loose.

Scooting around the trunk, she tested everything, feeling beneath every panel, running her fingers along every surface. She found the edge of the interior paneling and worked at it, pulling it away until she exposed one of the taillights.

She struck, driving her heel into the light. She felt it give; she struck again. The driver braked. Her momentum sent her sliding into one side of the compartment again and she yelped in pain.

When the trunk opened, she saw Bobo Del Rey glaring down at her behind the barrel of his gun. "If I didn't know any better," he said, cocking his head, "I'd say you're... unhappy with the accommodations on this trip."

"It's a little cramped," she said. "And the air's stale."

"Beggars can't be choosers, now can they?" He narrowed his eyes. "I want to make something clear. I don't want to kill you. I'd rather not upset your sister any more. But if you make this difficult, I promise you, I will put a bullet right through your pretty skull. I'm giving you a choice: get in the back seat of this car, sit still, and have a chance at walking out of this alive... or die."

She got in the back seat of the car, sandwiched between two hulking men, and sat still.

Willa was nowhere to be seen. One of the Revenants fished in his pocket, pulled out a nylon bag, and forced it over Waverly's head, blinding her for the rest of the ride.

The next time the car stopped, everyone piled out. Someone yanked Waverly by the arm. With that iron grip around her bicep and a palm digging between her shoulder blades, she stumbled over snow-covered ground until she passed a threshold. Their steps echoed with deadened thumps on the wood floor.

She tried to track the hallways they led her down, the turns they took, but her head spun, every turn around the corner like a dizzying loss of gravity. Eventually, they stopped, and a door creaked open. There was a scrape, and her captor pushed her down. Her ass hit the hard wood of a chair, and they held her down while they bound her to her seat.

Someone seized a handful of the bag over her head and ripped it off. Bobo, again. She glared at him through disheveled hair.

"You don't look happy to see me, little Gibson," said Bobo, menace lurking in the corners of his mouth.

She met his menace and turned it back against him. "I wonder why that could be? Oh, yeah, you kidnapped me."

He clasped his hands in front of him, feet shoulder width apart, and shook his head. "You brought this on yourself. Willa gave you two chances. You took neither."

Waverly scoffed. "You should be blaming her for her poor sales tactics." Her eyes darted around the room: wood ceilings supported by heavy beams. Dim light. Barrels piled against the wall. "Where are we?"

He raised his hands, gesturing at the space, and spun as if to take it all in. "This? This is where I hide my precious things." His eyes landed on Waverly again; they glittered, and it turned her insides to ice. He grabbed her chin with one hand and leaned in close, so close their noses brushed. "Right now, Waverly Gibson, you're the most precious thing I own."

As he released her, she tried to bite his fingers, more out of pique than anything else. He jerked away from her gnashing teeth, then unwound and struck her across the cheek. His ring bit her skin, and as he wiped his palm on the front of his shirt, hot blood trickled toward her chin. He grabbed her face again, twisting it to peer at his handiwork.

"Yes, I think that will do," he murmured.

"What are you planning?" She glared at him. "Ransoming me? Can’t your Cult friends help you?"

"When did that become your business?" His tongue slipped from his mouth. He dragged his thumb across it, holding her gaze. Then he swiped his thumb across her wound, smearing blood over her cheekbone. A shiver raced through her, revulsion threatening to expel the contents of her stomach over her lap.

He stood, rolling his shoulders, and smiled. "Perfect. I hope you're ready for your closeup."


She stared at the door.

She had been staring at the door for hours.

Bobo had left her, alone, still tied to the chair. She'd struggled at first, twisting this way and that, trying to loosen her binds. She tried to stand, quadriceps burning as she lifted the chair with her, and staggered around the room with the chair on her back like the worst turtle shell. Shuffling toward the wall, she tried to throw herself back against it in hopes of breaking something, of jarring something loose.

She bounced off, then fell to the ground, smashing her nose on the floor. The chair remained doggedly intact.

So she rolled over, sagging in the prison of the straight-backed chair, and laid there, one cheek on the ground, hair puddling around her, and stared at the door.

It creaked open.

"Waverly?"

Willa.

Waverly didn't move. Fury boiled within her. She choked it down and it made its escape as a huff through her nostrils, kicking up eddies of dust from the floor.

"Really?" Willa stared at the mess beyond her feet. She rounded the chair, worked her fingers beneath it, and levered Waverly back up. "Idiot. Once you got out of the chair, what did you think would happen? You're still handcuffed. Honestly."

"I'm not going to sit here and play the perfect victim for Bobo Del Rey." Waverly tried to blow an errant strand of hair out of her face and frowned when it settled back down between her eyes. "Why are you here?"

"To talk."

"You could have talked to me back in town if your boy Robert hadn't kidnapped me.”

"You said all you wanted was to get to know me." Willa wrapped her arms around her chest, cocooning herself within them.

Waverly regarded her. "I did."

"And that it wasn't too late."

"That was before you kidnapped me. Before you left Wynonna for dead.” Waverly’s voice shook. She swallowed, tried to regain control. “And for what? To ransom me? I don’t even know why you’d need to--”

Waverly stopped. Considered the knot of Willa’s jaw, the flint-edge of her eyes, all anger and indignation and fear. Her eyes went wide with realization.

“You set the police on the Cult’s tail, so you’re a dead woman walking. Oh, I get it now. You need money from Mama so you and Bobo can slink off like rats!” A wild laugh escaped her, a vengeful smile riding its coattails. “'Oh howe are the myghtie ouerthrowen.'"

As Waverly spoke, one of Willa's fingers tapped a staccato beat against her arm. She stared at Waverly, into Waverly, and Waverly stared back.

Willa flinched first.

"Why are you working with Bobo?" asked Waverly.

Willa leaned back against the door. "Bobo--Robert--is my friend. My... only friend."

"Your friend?"

"Yes."

"Bobo."

"Yes."

Waverly blinked. "And... how the heck did that happen?"

Willa shook her head, unfolding her arms and pressing both palms flat against the door behind her. "Do you know how Daddy died?"

Nibbling at her bottom lip, Waverly answered. "Wynonna shot him."

"She did. Eleven years old and killed her Daddy with his own gun. She still carries the damn thing around in some kind of ridiculous, perpetual self-flagellation."

Waverly gasped. "Peacemaker? She shot him with Peacemaker? And I touched it!"

Willa continued as if she hadn't heard. "Apparently shooting your own father does a number on you. Every waking moment of her teen years was a cry for attention, and Mama and Gus and every other sucker in Purgatory answered her every time. Right up until Mama shipped her off to boarding school to try and set her straight."

"It... didn't work."

"No, it didn't." Willa chuckled, dark and cold. "I was twelve when he died. I was there. I watched it happen and I held him until the cops got there. But no one paid any attention to me. No one thought to ask if I was okay."

She stared at the ground, jaw as tight as a vise, and something loosened in Waverly. "Except... Bobo?"

"Except him. I was invisible... and he saw me."

Neither of them looked at each other. Waverly toed the floor, then chanced a look up through the bedraggled locks of hair she couldn't toss back into place. "And that was all it took? To get you tangled up in all… this?"

"He made me an offer," said Willa. "Like I made you an offer. I considered it, and I decided the reward was worth the risk. It was a business opportunity."

"It was a crime!"

Willa shrugged. "Semantics."

"Do you really want to argue about what words mean? With me? The ancient languages major?" Waverly's face contorted with disbelief. "He's a murderer!"

"I was never a part of that." Willa shook her head.

"Whatever helps you sleep at night, Willa." Waverly tipped her head back, studying the wood grain of the beams spanning the ceiling, and let her frustration seep out of her. She leaned toward her sister. "Look. You've made me two offers now, and I turned them both down. Let me make a third one. Be my sister. Give me a chance. And help me get out of here."

Willa drummed her fingers on the door, the dull tum-tum-tum-tum, tum-tum-tum-tum marking the seconds as they passed. "Why do you think I should betray my one friend in the world?"

"Because he's going to kill me," said Waverly. "You know that, right?"

"I won't let him."

Waverly dropped her voice to a whisper. "He might have killed Wynonna. Did you stop him then?"

Willa stayed silent.

"Look, I don't know him. Maybe he really does care about you. But he wouldn't have hurt her if that was true. I think he's using you the same way you used Nicole. And if the Cult’s as mad at you for exposing their scheme as I think they are… he’s going to get us both killed, too."

Willa met Waverly's eyes. Her drumming fingers stilled. She pushed away from the door and bent over Waverly, easing Waverly's hair out of her face. "There. That must have been driving you insane."

The gentle touch stunned Waverly into silence.

Backing toward the door, laying her hand on the handle, Willa paused. "How long do I have to think about it?"

Waverly grimaced. "Until he doesn't need me alive anymore."


Waverly dozed, chin bobbing against her chest. The door to her makeshift prison slammed open, startling her awake. Red thundered through, freeing her from the chair, and hauled her to her feet.

She tried to struggle, but hunger and fatigue clogged her mind. What little energy she had left dissipated like smoke and she let Red drag her into the hall.

He ushered her into another room, with another chair. A crinkled, blue tarp, duct-taped to the wall, spilled down and over the floor. They crunched across it, past a tripod-mounted camera with its beady eye fixed on the chair, and Red pushed Waverly into the seat. He didn't bind her; the shotgun in his free hand held her fast.

He backed away from her and huddled against the wall. Then Bobo lumbered in, the hunter's pelt of his coat swirling around him.

"Here's how this is going to work," he said, two fingers dancing atop the camera. "I will speak. You will speak... when I want you to. Say something I don't like and... well. That injury must sting."

Waverly's cheek throbbed at his mention, the pain of it clawing back from the recesses of her mind where she'd squashed it.

Bobo jerked his head, and Red stumbled toward her. He pulled a bag from his pocket and dropped it over her head. She stiffened, hands snapping toward it to pull it off, when Bobo's voice reached her.

"Behave, little Gibson. Don't make me ask again."

Her hands settled in her lap.

His steps brought him closer. His clothes rustled as he moved in front of the camera. In the darkness of the makeshift hood, she seethed. She wanted to scream, wanted to kick and fight and howl, but they were armed and they were killers, and in any case, none of that would do her any good at this point. She was at their mercy.

Except he was going to let her talk.

He spoke into the camera. Part of her mind tucked his words away for consideration, quietly scanning them for anything important, but the rest of her threw itself at the new idea like a prospector striking paydirt.

He was going to let her talk. For dramatic effect, she was sure, to let her Mama and Gus and Wynonna--if she was alive--see their Waverly, to remind them of what they'd lose if they didn't give him what he wanted. She couldn't blurt out any identifying information or he'd strike her again. Not that she cared, in the face of everything, but he wouldn't give her a second chance.

But if she was careful, she could give clues to where they were. Subtle enough to get past Bobo. Clear enough for someone--for Nicole--to understand.

Her breath caught in the space between the bag and her lips, hot and wet. Bobo moved again, coming to rest beside her. His hand fell heavy on her head and she flinched.

"I know what you're thinking," he said, continuing the speech he'd been giving to the camera. "How do you know this is really her?"

He made a fist and flung the bag off of her head. Some of her hair caught in it, ripping out by the root, and she yelped. Bobo dropped onto his heels and peered up at her face. "Well?" he asked. "How are you feeling?"

She glared at him. The urge to curse him out rolled over her like a thunderstorm over the prairie, but she fought it. "Oh, I don't know," she said her eyes dancing past him to the brick walls, the arching brick ceiling. "Maybe like I got hit in the face with a brick."

Her eyes widened with horror as he took one of her hands in both of his, his fingers tracing the tendons spanning the back of her hand. His fingers were cracked and rough, and dried blood crept around the edge of one fingernail. "That's too bad. I was just telling your family what good care you've been receiving. And how that might change if they don't... cooperate."

She tried to jerk her hand away, but his grip tightened. She glared at him, sniffing haughtily, and the same scent that had enveloped her as she'd lain on the floor filled her nose. "I'd have a better time if it weren't for your sour attitude."

The bones in her hand protested his grip, pain blooming first in her knuckles. His fingers curled around her little finger. "I don't think my attitude is the problem," he said, and drew her finger to the side, away from her other fingers.

"Wait," she said, as pressure mounted in the joint.

He kept going. The pressure became pain. Every limb stiffened; she tried to retreat, from him, from the pain. Red rushed in and pushed her down, pinning her to her seat. She shouted. She thrashed. She kicked, caught Bobo on the chin with her heel, and with a grunt he gave her finger one last, sudden jerk.

Her finger broke with a wet crack.

She howled. She bent over the hand, trying to cradle it against herself. Bobo stepped away from her. He dusted off his hands, then peered into the lens of the camera. "You have twenty-four hours. No more cops. I get my money, or I won't just break the next one."

He raised his hand to end the recording, but Waverly hauled herself up, her swelling hand tucked in her lap, and hissed. "You're not going to get out of this," she said. "You just poured gasoline on the fire. Nicole will find you."

Bobo planted his hands on the arms of her chair. His face hovered millimeters from hers. His eyes bored into her. "You put too much faith in your precious Officer Haught."

"I don't think I do," she said. "I know who she is. I know who she was. And I know she'll find me."

"Will she?"

Waverly looked down at the bruise already forming around the root of her finger. She imagined Nicole watching the video, the fire that would ignite in her, the knife-edge of her fury sharpened by the whetstone of Waverly's pain.

Nothing could stop that Nicole. Not Willa, not Bobo, not an army of Revenants.

Waverly smiled. "She always does."

Chapter Text

Waverly waited. In her little room, with only a chair and a handful of thin blankets, she waited for a chance.

She paced, etching a trail around the perimeter. The fingers of her good hand skimmed the wall. The old bricks nipped at her; the tingling of her skin tethered her to reality. It distracted her, just a bit, from the throbbing of her broken finger.

Without windows, without the dance of the moon and sun across the sky, she lost all sense of time. She wondered if her family had received Bobo's video. She wondered if her parents had been in the same room when they'd watched it. She wondered how many broken things lay in the wake of her mama's rage.

When she managed to sleep, in a nest in the corner, she dreamed of Nicole.

A creak startled Waverly from her latest reverie. She bolted upright, eyes snapping to the door just in time to see Willa slipping into the room and easing the door shut behind her.

"Get up. It's time to go." Willa's hand hovered over the door handle.

"Where am I going?" Waverly scrambled to her feet.

"Don't play dumb. I'm getting you out of here."

Waverly flexed her injured hand. A bolt of pain lanced up her arm. "Is this your answer?"

"Yes. I must be losing my mind, but yes." Willa's fingers and feet and eyes danced with impatience. "Enough stupid questions. We have to go, now."

She held out her hand.

The moment crystallized: Willa's hand outstretched, Waverly's breath frozen in her lungs, a frown on Willa's lips.

And in Willa's eyes, fear and hope in equal measure.

Waverly took her sister's hand.

Without another word, Willa flung open the door, checked the hall for Revenants, and dragged Waverly toward freedom.

They crept through the halls, and Waverly realized the Revenants' hideaway was a nest of tunnels, brick and wood interred ages ago. Willa led them around corners, peering around each before they continued on their way. Willa refused to drop Waverly's hand, and Waverly met her sudden, fierce protectiveness with all the trust she had in her.

As they eased down one tunnel, voices echoed behind them, tinged with alarm. For a moment, they froze, then Willa's grip grew tighter and she whisked them toward a cluster of barrels against a wall. Waverly peered over the barrels into a nook barely big enough for one person.

"Get in," said Willa.

Waverly didn't move. "What about you?"

Willa snatched her hand away from Waverly. "I'm part of this operation, remember? Now get in, stay quiet, and wait for me."

Waverly clambered over the barrels and dropped into the space. Her knees pressed hard into the crevice between one barrel and another as she twisted to keep her broken hand isolated.

As she settled in, ignoring her body's protests, Willa's steps sounded fainter down the hall. "Smith. Larson." she said, her voice taut and irritated. "What's the matter?"

"Oh, uh, Earp, I mean, Ms. Earp, ma'am," said one of the voices. "Nothing. Nothing's the matter."

"Really." Waverly pressed a hand over her mouth to repress a laugh at the disdain and disbelief dripping from Willa's voice. "Larson, aren't you supposed to be guarding my sister's room?"

"Well I... she..."

Another voice, the other Revenant, cut over his friend. "I took over for him. He had to go... uh, take a leak."

"Yeah, right," said the first one.

"So who's guarding the door now?"

"Uh..."

"Listen." Willa spoke like the slash of a knife. "I am aware that the door to her room is locked and she is unlikely to escape. I am aware that this has made you feel comfortable taking, let's say, extended breaks. I'm also aware that I'm not your boss. However, if you would like me to neglect to mention this to your boss, then I suggest you turn around, go back to her room, and stay there until you are explicitly told you can leave."

"Yes, ma'am!" they shouted, and their feet pounded away in a hurry.

Moments later, Willa whispered from above. "You can come out now."

Waverly hauled herself out from behind the barrels. "We're lucky they were gone when you came to get me."

"Luck had nothing to do with it." Willa extended her hand again, offering Waverly support as she tried to free herself without knocking her bad finger. "They take a smoke break with the lookouts aboveground, every day like clockwork. But they clearly realized that you're missing. They'll try to lie and cover it up as long as they can, but it won't be long before Bobo finds out. Now be quiet."

At that moment, they heard a distant crack, a sound Waverly was coming to recognize.

Gunfire.

"Shit," hissed Willa, and Waverly stared.

"Is that—"

"Yes. Come on." Willa jerked Waverly's arm and started running down the hall. "Your idiot girlfriend sent the cavalry. Damn her, this didn't have to be complicated."

"She figured it out." Waverly babbled as they whipped around a corner. "She found me!"

"I told you, you need to be... Bobo?"

They staggered to a halt. Bobo strode down the hall toward them, scowling. "They're here." His coat billowed behind him. "We need to go. Why did you take her?"

"She'll be useful," said Willa.

"She'll be a liability." His expression unchanging, he reached beneath his coat, unholstered a pistol, and aimed it at Waverly.

Willa dropped Waverly's hand and stepped in front of the barrel. "That's unacceptable."

"We don't have time to rehash this," he said. "Gibson or Earp, she's an obstacle."

"That's unacceptable." The fear that had begun pooling in Waverly as she stared down the barrel of the gun flash-froze at the sound of Willa's icy resolve.

Bobo held Willa's eyes for another strangled breath, then relented, holstering the gun. "You win," he said. "Lead on, your majesty." He swept his hand in front of him, and Willa flounced past. As his fingers dug into Waverly's arm like talons, she peered up at him.

She read the undisguised truth in his eyes: he would kill her.

They made a strange parade through the tunnels. The gunfire grew louder, more frequent, and Bobo barked orders at Revenants they passed. Some listened and hurried off to do his bidding. Others just hurried, far past the point of taking orders.

They turned down one last hall and found Red guarding a set of stairs, armed with a rifle. "Boss," he said, eyeing Waverly. "We're taking the girl after all?"

"We are," said Willa, before Bobo could answer. Red glanced over her shoulder at Bobo. He nodded, and Red shrugged, then led them up the stairs.

A bulkhead sloped over them, and Red threw his weight against it. As he levered it open, groaning with the strain, cold wind sliced through the opening. Waverly winced at the sunlight, ducking her head. Bobo thrust her forward.

They stumbled into a parking lot filled with cars and knee-deep powder. Cold leached through Waverly's clothes, clammy against her skin. Red raised his rifle and scuttled forward, whipping back and forth, surveying the vehicles around them as he made for the nearest car.

A shot rang out. Red stiffened, gurgled, and dropped, a spurt of blood staining the snow his namesake color.

"Run!" shouted Bobo, and the three of them staggered past Red and threw themselves behind the car. A bullet screamed through one of the windows.

Waverly tried to twist free of Bobo's grasp but he held her firm, digging bruises into her skin. He roared over the hood of the car, his voice tangling with the shrieking wind. "We have the girl! Stop shooting!"

His only answer was the whistling of the wind.

Just as Waverly began to catch her breath, filling her lungs with the stinging air, Bobo jerked her upright again. "All right. Time to go. Willa, the door."

Willa had been leaning against the car, eyes closed and breaths heavy. At his command, she popped upright and stared at him. "You can't be serious."

"We'll use the girl as a shield," he said. "Get the door."

"Robert, we are out of options. We have to surrender. Maybe we can make a deal—"

He slammed the butt of his pistol into the body of the car with a scraping clang. "No deals! I'll tell you one last time, Willa Earp: open the door, get in the car, and don't you ever question me again."

A scowl like a thundercloud swelled on Willa's face. "You can leave," she said, through gritted teeth. "We are staying here."

Bobo's grip tightened on Waverly's arm. She held her breath.

"Wrong answer," said Bobo, and he drove his fist into Willa's temple. She crumpled to the ground, and he reached into the pocket of her coat and fished out a set of keys.

Then he turned the gun on Waverly again, and dangled the keys in front of her. "Your turn."

She spat in his face.

He wiped it away, and the stillness of his movements flooded her with fear. He didn't need to ask again.

She clambered into the driver's seat and he slipped in behind her, the gun trained on her at all times. A voice pierced the rumble of the engine turning over.

"Waverly!"

She knew that voice. Her eyes scanned the snow until she saw the flash of red: Nicole barreling through the parking lot, hair streaming behind her.

"Nicole!" shouted Waverly, but as she reached for the door, cold metal pressed against her skin.

"Hands on the wheel," said Bobo.

Waverly gulped and obeyed, wincing as she curled her broken finger, and through the window she saw the color drain from Nicole's face.

White-hot anger rushed to fill the void. "Let her go, Bobo!"

He bellowed his answer. "Drop the gun, detective!" The gun pressed harder against the base of Waverly's skull. "You wouldn't want her pretty little head blown to bits, would you?"

Knuckles white on the wheel, Waverly watched Nicole glower at Bobo. Watched her crouch, as slowly as a stalking cat, and place the weapon on the ground. "Let her go," said Nicole again, as she rose.

With a flick of his gun, Bobo ordered Nicole to move out of the way of the car. She stood her ground. He sighed. "A noble fool to the end. Time to go, Waverly."

Nicole stood stock still in front of the car, the wind tousling her hair. "But—"

"Drive."

Her arms felt like lead. Her heart lodged itself in her throat. Nicole Haught waited, palms open, and smiled. "Waverly Gibson, I love you," she said, and somehow Waverly could hear her over the wind whipping itself into a frenzy.

"Whatever happens next, I want you to know that." Nicole's eyes flickered, from Waverly's face to some point in the distance. "And I want you to know... I've always been behind you. Okay? Right behind you, every step of the way."

Something in Nicole's tone snagged on the sharp edges of Waverly's mind, even as every other part of her dashed itself against Nicole's desperate I love you and shattered into a million pieces.

Behind you. The movement of her eyes. The tension in her body. Behind you.

Waverly glanced at the side mirror and gasped.

"This is touching," said Bobo, and her eyes slid to his in the rear mirror. "But I told you to drive."

"You want me to drive, Bobo?" Waverly tightened her grip on the steering wheel, and flashed him a toothy grin. His brows furrowed in confusion. She laughed, slammed her foot into the pedal, and with her aching, broken hand, flung her door open.

The car lurched and spun in the snow. Bobo shouted. Her ears exploded with the twin blasts of Bobo's weapon and Peacemaker, with the screech of bullets tearing through metal and glass, with Nicole's wind-rending scream. Waverly toppled through the door, splashed into the snow, and clutched at the searing pain in her shoulder.

"Baby girl!"

Waverly rolled onto her back, staring up at the swirling gray sky. Wynonna's face appeared, shadowed, in her vision. Waverly felt her head lift and settle in Wynonna's lap. Wynonna seemed to vibrate beneath her.

"Fuck. Hey! We need medical attention!"

"Am I dying?" asked Waverly, as Wynonna shouted. Her shoulder throbbed. She tried to press her hand against it. "I think I'm dying."

"Come on, let me see it." Wynonna pried Waverly's hand from the wound, her face tight with concern; when she saw it, it loosened, and she exhaled. "Not a medical expert, but I don't think you're dying yet. But... cover your ears, okay?" Waverly did her best to cover her ears. Wynonna drew a deep breath and bellowed, "I said, we need some fucking medical attention! Fucking useless cops!"

Footsteps sounded, louder as their owner crunched through the snow, slipping once or twice. "Is she okay?" Nicole shouted, her voice ragged and shrill. "Wynonna, is she fucking okay?"

"She's fine, calm your tits."

Waverly blinked, and silhouetted against the sky was Nicole, bent nearly double.

"Baby." Nicole leaned in, framing Waverly's face with her hands, and pressed a shaking, fierce kiss to Waverly's lips. "Oh my god, baby, you're okay."

"That's what I said," mumbled Wynonna.

Nicole took Waverly's hand in hers, and Waverly winced. Nicole went pale, dropping the hand like a hot coal. "Oh god. Broken finger. Baby, I'm so sorry."

"It's fine," said Waverly, trying to catch Nicole's hand again, but Nicole wouldn't be caught. Waverly frowned. The world seemed slow, like everything was underwater.

"I just want to point out, she was doing fine until you got here," said Wynonna.

Nicole narrowed her eyes at Wynonna. "She's bleeding from a gunshot wound! Not what I would call fine, Wynonna!"

Waverly blinked. "I'm bleeding?" She pulled her hand away from her shoulder and held it aloft above her eyes. It took a considerable effort to hold it still. Against the white sky, she could only just make out the red smeared across her skin. "Oh," she said, and giggled. "I'm bleeding."

She passed out.


She woke to someone grabbing her arm and pushing it onto the bed. "No, Waverly," said someone.

She lifted her hand again. Her eyes itched, and she wanted to rub them. The someone intercepted her again. "Hands away from the face, baby girl."

Waverly's mind swam. She knew that voice. She puzzled over it. The voice said, "someone go find Mama and let her know."

"I'll go," said another voice. Waverly knew that one, too.

"Thanks," said the first voice. "Hey... Haught?"

Hot. Who was hot?

"Oh no," said the second one, presumably the hot one. "Please don't, not in front of—"

"Thank you," said the first someone, running roughshod over the second. "We wouldn't have her back without you. I owe you."

Waverly decided that while they were distracted having their little tete-a-tete, she could get in some quality eye rubs.

A third voice spoke, soft and low. "Nice try, kiddo." A hand covered hers, holding it down on the bed. The sensation was familiar. She felt small, and safe.

The other conversation continued, with the hot one—Nicole, Waverly realized—beginning to whine. "I'm officially creeped out by all this sincerity from you."

"Yeah, well, take a picture. You won't see this again for a long time. Probably not until you two idiots get married."

That was Wynonna, Waverly realized. Her sister. Teasing her brand-new girlfriend about a wedding. She felt sure she could open her eyes... she could maybe try to speak. But she kept quiet. She wanted to hear the rest of it.

Nicole sighed. "You promise you can keep it in check until then?"

"Just go find my mom, Haught."

A door opened and clicked shut again.

Charlie—of course it was him, sitting at her bedside, holding her hand—chuckled. "Is there an engagement I need to be aware of?"

"Come on, you see it, don't you?"

With a hum, Charlie brushed Waverly's hair away from her face. "I do," he said. "I'm pretty sure that girl does, too. This one..."

"I love her," Waverly said, eyes fluttering open. Or... she tried to say it. Her tongue hadn't caught up with her brain, and she managed only a mumbled sound. Huh. Maybe she couldn't talk yet, after all.

Wynonna and Charlie bent over her. She took in the scene as her vision swam back toward clarity: ascetic, blue-white hospital room. Bandages and a splint on her broken finger and a monitor clamped to one finger on her other hand. Charlie, exhaustion lining his face. Wynonna, with a bruise mottling her skin and relief shining through her smile.

They talked her through her condition, explaining the surgery on her hand and the stitches in her shoulder. They ran her through what had happened, that Bobo was dead and Willa had been arrested, apparently without any fuss.

By the time Michelle arrived, Gus and Nicole on her heels, Waverly had almost regained the power of speech.

They took turns at her bedside, answering her questions and listening with her as doctors and nurses checked on her. Charlie and Michelle danced around each other, always keeping her in view but maintaining as much distance between themselves as possible.

Then there was a knock at the door, and Nedley shuffled in, doffing his hat as he did.

Waverly tried to sit a little straighter but couldn't quite manage it. "Sheriff! You're alive!"

"That's what they tell me," he said. "No offense, but I knew I needed to start wearing a vest as soon as we brought your sister in. Earps might be unbreakable, but us Nedleys are only human."

"Not my fault all I got was a concussion," muttered Wynonna.

Nedley ignored her. "So, Waverly... I see you're alive. That's good. Real good." He tapped his hat on his chest, avoiding Waverly's eyes.

She frowned. "Nedley... are you here on business?"

"'Fraid so," he said, and his eyes slipped to Charlie.

Waverly wanted to leap out of her bed and throw herself between the sheriff and her father. Her exhausted muscles wouldn't cooperate. "You can't."

"It's not my call," said Nedley, who looked like he'd rather be anywhere else.

"It's all right." Charlie rose from his seat and stood at Waverly's bedside, ignoring the way Michelle tensed as he drew near. "I'm going to go with him." He bent down, kissed Waverly's forehead, and nodded at Nedley when he straightened.

Waverly caught his arm, willing all her meager strength into her good hand. "Wait," she said. "Can I have... can I have a moment? With my dad? Please. You can stand right outside, just let me... please."

Nedley sighed. "Yeah, all right," he said, and he donned his hat again and slumped out of the room.

"All right, everyone else out," said Wynonna, raising her arms and herding the rest of them after Nedley. Nicole paused, throwing one last look at Waverly over Wynonna's shoulder. Waverly mouthed, 'go,' punctuating it with the best smile she could manage, and Nicole let herself be ushered from the room.

When they were alone, Charlie shook his head. "I'm not disappearing," he said. "You'll be able to visit me."

"But you'll be in jail," she said, and she pouted. "I hate thinking of you in prison."

"It won't be forever." He settled into the chair beside her, easing himself down like a man twice his age. "But, you know... I did what I set out to do. I kept you safe. And you grew up to be an amazing young woman. I'll pay the price for that, any day."

She tried to wipe the tears from her face but found both hands encumbered. Charlie pulled his sleeve down over his palm and dabbed them away. Waverly leaned into him, as much as she could with the dull pain in her shoulder. "I don't want you to go."

"I know, kiddo. But it'll be okay, you'll see."

He started to rise, gently untangling her hands from his shirt, her head from his shoulder. As she sank back against her pillows, she called his name.

When he paused, she smiled. "I forgive you. Daddy... I forgive you."

He dropped back into his chair. "I don't deserve it."

"That has nothing to do with anything." Waverly sniffed as her face puffed up with tears. "I still think what you did was awful, even if I get why you did it. But I'm not... I'm not mad anymore. I'm not okay, and I don't know if I ever will be, but... I don't know. I just... I forgive you."

Charlie leaned back in his seat, nodding slowly, as though working through a problem he couldn't quite solve. "Thank you," he said, eventually. "I'm... I..." He shrugged. "Thank you."

When the moment finally broke, he stood, walked to the door, and paused, turning back to her one last time. "I love you," he said. "I love you so much, kiddo."

Then, as the first tear reached his chin and dripped to the ground, he left. In the open door beyond him stood Michelle, her eyes fixed on him as Nedley led him away. When he'd gone, Michelle slipped into the room.

"How are you feeling, little one?" she asked.

Waverly blinked away her tears. "Honestly? I feel terrible." Her voice started to break. "I know you think he deserves this, and he probably does, but I hate it. I hate that it all turned out like this."

"I know." Michelle sank onto the bed beside her daughter. "I'm sorry that you have to live with the results of our bad decisions. I wish we'd been the parents you deserve."

Waverly studied the speckled ceiling panels, unable to look at the regret and helplessness on her mother's face, and sighed. "Do you ever think about what it would have been like if he'd stayed? If Ward hadn't been the way he was?"

"Oh, sometimes." said Michelle, soft like a faint, tickling breeze. "But I try not to. All it does is make me regret what I lost... what they stole."

"I forgave him," said Waverly.

Michelle took a sharp breath, chewed the inside of her cheek, and shook her head. "You're a better person than I am."

"I don't think so." Waverly rolled toward her mother. "Even if you never forgive him, you're a good person. Okay? One of the best people I've ever met... and I'm so glad you're my mama."

At that, Michelle burst into tears. She doubled over, head in her hands, and sobbed through her fingers. Waverly ignored the pain in her shoulder. She dragged herself up, threw her arms around her mother, and held her until both their tears had dried.

Chapter Text

Waverly tried to ignore the itch in her shoulder as she surveyed the patchwork collection of people sitting around the old cafeteria-style table, visiting her sister in prison.

There was Dolls, straight-backed and stern at Waverly’s right hand, nodding along to comments from Kate. Kate’s lawyer sat beside her client, mostly silent. Bunny Loblaw, Willa's replacement for the disbarred Constance Clootie, cast disapproving looks at everyone from her seat across the table.

Willa sat next to Bunny, across from Waverly, and said nothing. She stared at her hands, palms flat on the table, and let Bunny do the talking for her.

"My client offered to sell her shares of Earp-Holliday as a gesture of good will," said Bunny. "The least you could do is offer her a fair value for them."

"Your client," said Kate, with a smile like a garrotte, "put Earp-Holliday at serious risk by involving it and its subsidiaries in a web of criminal activity that stretched across the globe. Share prices are falling by the minute, and will continue to fall as long as she has any stake in the company."

Bunny's lips puckered, as if Kate had shoved a lemon between them. "Which is why my client has so generously offered to sell now, while shares are still valuable, rather than wait for you to force a sale and—"

Kate's smile vanished. "I wasn't done speaking."

Bunny reeled back. Kate's lips twisted in a snarl. "The least she can do, as the only one left responsible for this whole fiasco, is accept this offer, serve her sentence quietly, and never set foot on EHCG property again."

“I won’t let you walk all over my client just because—”

Willa raised a hand. “I can speak for myself, Ms. Loblaw." As Bunny stammered, Willa turned her attention to Kate. "It’s a fair deal. I'll accept."

"But Miss Earp—"

"I've made up my mind." Willa regarded Bunny coolly. "I didn't hire you to negotiate. You’re here to make sure this deal is as watertight as possible and nothing more."

Bunny sniffed, hands fluttering through the papers in front of her, and threw passive-aggressive glares at Willa and Kate that went ignored.

Kate turned her attention to Waverly. "And you... are you really sure you want to sell? Doc and I are still happy to have you. It might be nice to have a protégée."

All eyes turned to Waverly. She fidgeted in her seat. "I never really wanted to own a company. I wanted..." Her eyes slipped to Willa; she found her sister's eyes already on her, wide and considering. "Yeah, I'm sure."

They passed the contract and all its copies around the table. Waverly gripped the pen in her uninjured off-hand, tongue pinched between her teeth as she scrawled her name like a kindergartener. Kate signed next. Then Willa inscribed her name with a flourish, set the pen on the table with a clack, and pushed everything away from her.

They divvied up the copies. Lawyers conferred with their clients. One by one, they left.

On his way out, Dolls leaned down and squeezed Waverly's good shoulder. "Do you have another ride? I'd like to stop by my office before the inquiry but I’m happy to drive you."

"Nicole's picking me up. But thank you. For everything." Waverly pressed her hand over his.

“Don’t thank me yet,” he said, and then he, too, was gone.

Willa watched the interaction, impassive. Waverly's foot bobbed.

"Somewhere else you have to be?" asked Willa.

"The preliminary inquiry for my dad," said Waverly.

"Oh." Willa blinked. "I didn't know he'd been arrested. I'm... sorry. Really."

Waverly shrugged, the knot of her hands falling to the table. She twisted one of her rings and tried to corral the anxiety that had been nipping at her heels since she’d left the hospital. "Yeah, it's fine. I mean, it's not fine, it sucks, but he wants to be as cooperative as possible and..." She spread her palms over the laminate tabletop and released her worries in a huff. "I'll deal with it later. For now, I'm here with you."

"You don't have to stay. You can go be with your family. With Nicole."

Waverly frowned at the suspicion in Willa’s eyes, the threatened animal rumble lurking in her voice. "You are my family."

She wondered if Willa would ever stop being surprised at that. If she’d ever accept it. She hoped—and she still had so much hope, even after everything—that they’d get there someday.

"We haven't had a chance to talk, have we?” she said. “Did you, um… did you mean it? You’re really going to try?”

"Of course I meant it. Are you saying you meant it?"

“Yes. I always did." A smile settled on Waverly's lips, soft and sure.

For a moment, Willa still hid behind her mask of arched eyebrows and thin-pressed lips. Then her mask shattered. Drawing a shaking breath, she stretched her hand toward Waverly.

Waverly met her halfway. Her sister’s hand was more delicate than she’d expected, all long bones, her skin just beginning to show her age. At a warning shout from the guard, Willa retreated. She wrapped her arms around herself. "I... don't know how to do this."

"Talk to someone? Get to know them?"

"Of course I know how to do that." Willa scoffed. "You don't become student body president at sixteen without knowing how to talk to people."

Waverly maintained her smile and waited.

Willa deflated. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."

"It's okay."

"Is it?"

"Well, no." Waverly leaned forward on folded arms. "But you apologized, right? You're learning. We both are. That's the point."

"And… what if this doesn't work after all?"

Waverly shrugged. "Then it doesn't work. And that’ll be hard. And sad. But... I'm still going to try."

After a long moment, Willa uncrossed her arms and laid her hands on the table. She closed her eyes. She took a deep breath. "All right. Let's get to know each other. Where do you want to start?"

Waverly grinned. "Tell me about running for student body president."


The courthouse loomed over them. Nicole leaned across the steering wheel, peering at the overweening highway rest stop of a building through the windshield. Waverly braced herself against the dashboard and did the same.

"I'm not ready for this." Waverly slouched back into the refuge of her seat. "I'm not ready."

Nicole peeled herself from the wheel. She ran her hand down Waverly's arm, drawing Waverly’s attention to her with the electric thrill of her touch. "You'll get through this."

"How do you know?" Waverly leaned against her seat, studying Nicole. There was nothing left of the Nicole she’d found on the steps outside her apartment. This woman, this Nicole, hid nothing from Waverly: not her fear, not her pride, not her affection so deep and so strong Waverly thought she might drown in it.

"Because I know you," said Nicole, and Waverly held her gaze, hoping she was as much of an open book to Nicole as Nicole was to her. "You are extraordinary. And you have so many people behind you."

They tipped toward each other, succumbing to the gravity between them. When their lips met, the kiss warmed Waverly from within, chasing away the chilly fear of what lay inside the courthouse. "Okay," she said, when they parted. "Let's do this."

They made their silent march to the courtroom, hands linked. Another hearing was in session, and the room was silent save for the voice of one lawyer addressing the judge. Charlie sat with Dolls, their heads bent together over a folder in Dolls' hands. Waverly and Nicole inched into the aisle behind them. At a tap on his shoulder, Charlie turned. He leaned over the seats to pull Waverly into an awkward hug, mindful of the stitches in her shoulder.

"Thank you for coming," he whispered.

"Of course." She held him as long as he needed, shocked at the fear wreathing him like smoke, struck with the thought that in this moment, their roles were reversed: that she was her father’s strongest, staunchest support.

She gripped Nicole's knee. Nicole let her squeeze as hard as she needed.

The gallery was fuller than Waverly had expected. A handful of people clustered opposite her, all eyeing her. They tapped away at laptops and scribbled in notebooks, and with a flash of resentment she pegged them as journalists, there to report on an episode of juicy family drama.

The hearing ended and the next one began: Charlie's. Dolls and Charlie rose and took their places in front of the judge. Mirrored across the room, the crown prosecutor rolled her shoulders, a chorus of cracks rippling from her joints, and opened her mouth to speak.

A voice lifted above the clacking of laptop keys and the scritch of pens on paper, not from the prosecutor but from the back of the room. "Your honour? I know I'm talking out of turn, but I'd like to save you some time."

Every set of eyes turned to the back of the gallery. Michelle Gibson towered above the crowd, staring down the judge like a woman about to be hanged.

The judge narrowed her eyes. "Who are you?"

"Michelle Gibson Earp, Your Honour. Mother of Waverly Gibson."

Dozens of eyes turned to Waverly in a chorus of creaking seats and rustling fabric.

"Ms. Earp," said the judge, a frown weighting her lips. Waverly sank back with a sigh of relief as the gallery’s attention shifted. "The Crown is going to call you as a witness. Whatever you have to say, it can wait."

"That's the thing. I don't think it can. My daughter wasn't kidnapped."

The courtroom frothed with whispers. Heads swiveled from Michelle, to Waverly, to the judge.

Waverly watched her father. Charlie had become stone, his gaze fixed on Michelle.

The judge raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the crown prosecutor, who shrugged, and then at Dolls, who shook his head. The judge sighed. "Very well, Ms. Earp. Take the podium and let's get to the bottom of this."

Michelle strode toward the bar and let herself into the well of the courtroom. Charlie twisted to watch her every step. When Nicole’s hand brushed hers, Waverly seized it without thinking, drawing it into her lap and holding it firm.

"So you're telling me," said the judge, fingers drumming on the bench, "that your daughter wasn't kidnapped?"

"Yes."

"Explain."

"I told her father…” Michelle’s voice strained like a snagged thread and she glanced behind her, finding Waverly and Charlie in the crowd. “I told Julian to take her. I was afraid of my husband, Ward Earp. I was afraid of what he would do to her."

"So you told Mr. Charles to take your child? You just... gave her up? Completely?"

"I did, Your Honour. For her own good."

"Mr. Charles?"

Charlie pushed himself to his feet. "Yes, Your Honour?"

"Is that true?"

"I—" He glanced from the judge, to Michelle, to the judge again.

"Answer the question, Mr. Charles."

Michelle held Charlie's gaze. Something passed between them, wordless: an apology given, a truce brokered, an understanding reached.

Charlie's attention returned to the judge. "It's true." he said. "Ward Earp broke Waverly's arm. I have the records. Michelle and I were terrified. She told me to take Waverly and go and… we did. I took Waverly and we ran. Michelle gave me some money. I made us disappear."

Waverly had never seen such naked skepticism as on the judge’s face in that moment. After a long moment of studying Charlie, the judge said, "Ms. Lucado?"

The crown prosecutor, who had sunk into her chair with a look of weary resignation, popped back up again. "Your Honour?"

"How would you like to proceed?"

"The Crown requests a one hour recess."

"Granted."

Just like that, the court had moved on. Another crown prosecutor slipped into the well, conferring with Ms. Lucado a moment before turning their attention to the next case on the docket.

The crowd in the gallery thinned. Waverly and Charlie rose from their seats, inching toward the aisle, and met Michelle before she could dart from the room.

"Thank you," said Charlie. He seemed to sway toward Michelle, catching himself at the last moment.

Michelle flinched away from him. "I didn't do it for you."

A smile slid onto his face like a gentle wave breaking on the shore. “I know why you did it, Chelle.”

“You don’t get to call me that anymore,” she said, but there was no venom in it. She peered up at him. “You’re welcome to stay at the house when they let you go. As Waverly’s guest. And if you’d like to make yourself useful while you’re there, there are some plants in the greenhouse that need repotting. But you keep your distance.”

“Of course.”

She took a deep breath and dragged her eyes away from him, just as Dolls called Charlie’s name. Michelle turned on her heel and marched out of the room. Waverly felt torn between them until Charlie tucked her under his arm, kissed the crown of her head, and let her go. “Go with her,” he said. “I’ll be a while.”

Waverly and Nicole found Michelle lingering just outside the courthouse. Sunlight knifed through the clouds, scattering off the days-old blanket of snow. Michelle shaded her eyes with her hand and squinted at Waverly. "Here to see me off?”

“Yes, Mama.”

"Thought so. Walk me to my car."

Hand in hand with Nicole, Waverly crept alongside her mother like noontime shadow. Salt crunched beneath their feet. The wind snapped the flag cord against its pole.

They reached the car. No one moved. No one spoke. Unsaid things bottled up behind memories and hopes and fears.

Waverly uncorked her questions first. "Was that true?"

“You know it isn’t.”

“Why did you do it?”

“To keep them from throwing your daddy in jail, obviously.”

“Oh, you’re as bad as Willa sometimes. Be honest with me, Mama. Why did you help him?”

“This isn’t about him.” Michelle propped her hands on her hips. "I know you, Waverly. I know how this would have gone down if I hadn’t stepped in. You'd have been here for every hearing, every trial, watching your daddy get dragged to hell and back for something that happened before you could even remember. I didn't want that for you. You’ve been through enough.”

Reaching toward Waverly, Michelle laid one gloved hand on Waverly’s cheek and smiled, soft as featherdown. “I’m your mama, remember? I may not have done a good job protecting you before, but I’m not going to let that stop me now.”

As they pulled apart from another bonecrushing-yet-gentle hug—a Gibson special—Michelle cast an appraising look at Nicole. “Speaking of protecting,” she whispered in Waverly’s ear, “that girl barely left your side while you were in the hospital. I was worried we’d have to chase her off with a shotgun just to get her to eat.”

“You don’t need to sell me on her merits, Mama.” Waverly cast a glance over her shoulder at Nicole, who smiled, totally unaware that they were talking about her. Waverly couldn’t stop her own smile, her face warm like summer sun. “I’m sold. Totally.”

“I know you are.” Michelle popped the car door open and slid inside. “But does she?”


Waverly stood in the foyer of the great Earp house, totally alone.

There was something different about its silence. She’d walked its halls before, passing the doors that led to her sisters’ bedrooms, and found that the house grew so quiet that she could forget anyone else was there. Every footstep rustled through the woolen carpets. Every breath echoed in the cavernous halls.

But now she was alone, and the silence swelled to fill the space.

It was too much. She slipped into her jacket and boots and made for the cacophony of the outside world.

Charlie had gone back to Vancouver. He’d stayed one night, and woke her early the next morning. She’d dragged bleary eyes open to the dim shape of him, dressed and packed, and they said their goodbyes there.

She didn’t blame him, she thought, wading through a knee-deep snowdrift. He couldn’t stay there, in the house where so many of his dreams had crumbled like sand through his fingers.

That was why her mother had left, too, she was sure. Wynonna announced another trip to Europe, this time with Michelle along for the ride. Waverly had watched them go from the front door, and she’d seen the way Michelle turned away from the house, fleeing all the ghosts of the might-have-beens within.

A bird called out, a low, round whistle from the trees skirting the plains where the ancient Earps had made their home. Waverly trudged toward those trees, up a scant hill, her breath growing thick and sharp as she fought through the snow. Eventually, she saw what she was looking for: a fence, half-buried, gray with age.

She lifted herself up when she reached it, turning to face the home she’d left behind. The ground sloped toward the Homestead, weighted by its gravity. Someday, she thought, the memories would pile up so dense and heavy that the whole house would rip right through the world.

It didn’t belong. It never had.

Her eyes slipped to the little house. The real homestead. Nicole’s home.

In the chaos of her family fleeing, she hadn’t had a moment with Nicole. Nicole, she suspected, had made herself scarce anyway, off chasing errand after errand. Waverly wondered how many errands Nicole could possibly run, with one boss in jail and the other flying first-class above the Atlantic. She wondered if Nicole was afraid that Waverly would be the next one to up-and-go.

As she wondered, she noticed a spot on the white canvas below her. As she watched, it drew closer, hewing to the trough she’d carved earlier. Eventually, the spot came into clearer view: tall, red-cheeked, red-haired.

Nicole.

Waverly lifted a hand and waved, and Nicole waved back, something square and tan in her hand. It was an envelope, Waverly realized. A plain, brown envelope.

“There you are!” said Nicole, huffing and puffing. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

“Yeah, I decided to go for a walk.”

Nicole reached the fence, leaned against it, and whipped off her toque to waft steam from her neck. “Up a hill, in the snow?”

“I couldn’t stay there alone,” said Waverly, noticing the way Nicole’s eyes flickered at that. She patted the fence beside her. “Sit with me?”

Hauling herself up, Nicole settled down as close to Waverly as she could manage, their thighs flush, their arms brushing. Waverly leaned in, and Nicole leaned down to meet her, and their kiss was soft and wind-bitten and wonderful.

“What,” Waverly whispered, reveling in the feel of Nicole’s jaw beneath her fingers, “did you drag yourself up this hill to talk to me about?”

“Maybe I just wanted to kiss my girlfriend,” said Nicole, proving it by darting in again. Time slipped away from them, lost in roving hands and happy sighs.

Waverly broke the spell first, reaching out to tap once, twice on the envelope still clutched in Nicole’s hand. “Not that I don’t want to kiss you for hours,” she said, and just barely avoided Nicole’s attempt to do just that, “but I think you came out here for a reason.”

Nicole reeled back. “Oh. Right.” She hopped off the fence and came to stand before Waverly. She offered up the envelope. “Here. Open this, first.”

“Last time you handed me a manila envelope, I hit you with it.” Waverly bent open the clasp.

“I don’t think you’ll hit me this time, but I’m prepared.”

Reaching into the envelope, Waverly pulled out a bundle of papers. Her eyes snagged on the logo on the upper corner of the first sheet: her old university. She looked up, brows furrowed. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been thinking about where we go from here,” said Nicole. “You. Me. Both of us. I don’t know what I want to do next. It’s been so long since I had to think about it. But for once in my life, I guess, I like not knowing. I like having this chance to figure it out. But you…”

Nicole tucked a loose strand of hair behind Waverly’s ear. “You, Waverly Earp, had a plan before all this happened. Ancient languages and history, right?”

“Gosh, that feels like so long ago.” Waverly glanced down at the envelope in her hands. “Nicole, this school is in the States.”

“I know.” Nicole searched Waverly’s face, as though memorizing every feature. “There's so much I remember about when I first met you. When you told me about transferring schools, I remember thinking how sad you seemed. Not even sad, really, just... dejected. You can afford to go to any school you want now. And I think you should."

A chill rattled through Waverly. "I'd have to leave."

"You were always going to leave,” said Nicole. “A place like Purgatory could never keep you pinned down.”

She tried to pull her hand away, but Waverly caught it. The folder and its contents fluttered forgotten to the ground. “Come with me.”

“To the US?”

“Anywhere. You said it yourself, I can go to any school I want now, and there are good schools everywhere. But there’s only one you. Nicole... I love you.”

Nicole closed the distance between them in one long step. “I love you, too,” she muttered between kisses. “God, Waverly, I love you, too.” Waverly lost herself in the currents of Nicole’s emotion, staggering back until she hit the fence and gasped against Nicole’s lips.

Bracing herself against the fence, Nicole pulled away, just enough to look down at Waverly with love-drunk eyes. “I’d follow you anywhere.” She bit her lip. “Across the country. To another country. To the moon. Anywhere you want to go.”

“Do you—” Waverly kissed Nicole’s lips. “—know where—” She kissed her jaw. “—I want to go now?” Her lips blazed down Nicole’s neck.

“Where?” whispered Nicole.

“Take a guess.”

Nicole scooped Waverly into her arms. Their laughter echoed, mingling with birdsong and windsong, as they forged a new path, together.