Xavier Dolls showed up at Nicole Haught's apartment, breathing as heavily as if he had sprinted halfway across the city to get there.
She let him in, the crease between her eyes digging deeper as he hung up his scarf and jacket. He carried a thick manila folder and didn't speak.
When he headed for the kitchen, she followed, waiting as he set the folder on the counter and poured himself a cup of coffee. As soon as it touched his lips, he shuddered.
"What's going on?" she asked.
He set the mug on the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. "WAVES wants to do a song with you."
Nicole gaped at him as though he'd grown a second head. "You're joking."
Dolls met her stare with one of his own, as placid as a lake on a clear day. "I don't joke. And neither do they, looks like. They sent over all the usual boilerplate, and I mean all of it." He hefted the straining manila folder.
"But... WAVES? And me?" Nicole leaned against her kitchen counter, uncrossing her arms to massage her temples. Someone seemed to have pumped her full of helium. The laminate edge of the counter pressed into her spine, anchoring her in place. "She's pop and I'm... is there an opposite to pop music?"
"Pop's a very diverse genre, Haught." Dolls grounded her, too. His face, his voice, his carriage: everything about him was steady and sure. "She's branching out, and you're talented."
"You have to say that, you're my agent," said Nicole, delivering the line with well-worn ease.
"And your friend." His riposte was just as practiced. "So? Are you interested?"
"I don't know. Go over it with me again?" Ignoring Dolls' sigh, Nicole turned to her age-stained coffee maker and poured herself a cup. The coffee was room temperature, and it was already mid-afternoon, and if she drank any more she'd never get to sleep. She drank it anyway.
Dolls dropped the folder on her counter and the entire apartment shook. "WAVES is working on a new album. She wants you to be a guest artist on one of the tracks. This would include recording the song and filming a video if the label is willing."
"Do you know anything about this song?"
"All I've been told is that she's still working on it."
Nicole's eyebrows arched as she took another sip of tepid coffee. "I didn't know she wrote her own songs."
"It sounds like you should do a little research on her. You don't have to decide today, but I'd like to respond within twenty-four hours."
"Very punctual." Her fingers drummed on the side of her mug. "Okay, agent-Dolls, what's your opinion?"
He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his feet shoulder-width apart. "I don't think you need my opinion to know this could be a career-changing opportunity. Of all the pop artists out there, WAVES is probably most compatible with your particular brand. She has enormous potential, creatively and financially, and she's already one of the most recognized names in the world. Having your voice and your guitar on her next album would give me a lot of clout in negotiating a tour for you, plus the gig pays extremely well. It's not retire-early money, but it would certainly finance a full album release."
"And what does friend-Dolls say?"
Without relaxing at all, he managed to shrug. It hurt Nicole to watch. "The studio's paying for everything. Should be fun, right?"
"You make a strong argument." She sipped her drink and studied him. He studied her right back. She sighed. "I'll consider it, okay?"
"Good." Dolls gathered the folder and headed for the door. Nicole followed him, accepting the folder for a moment as he shrugged on his coat and wrapped a scarf around his neck. She handed it back and made a show of shaking the exertion out of her arm. He almost smiled.
As Dolls stepped into the dingy hallway, he turned. "This is ultimately your decision. And I'll respect it either way. But I think this is a great opportunity for you."
She closed the door behind him, locked it, and slumped against it. She pressed her mug against her forehead, the cool curve of ceramic giving her a point of focus. Everything lingered—Nicole, her emotions, her coffee—until she straightened, drained the last lukewarm drop, and headed to her bedroom to listen to hours of frothy pop music.
WAVES' real name was Waverly Earp, she was in her early twenties, and her music wasn't as bad as Nicole had expected.
Her early stuff, Nicole remembered from her own early twenties. It threaded through the soundtrack of hazy memories of parties and drinking and dancing. Neither the music nor the activities had been Nicole's cup of tea, but she forgave herself and WAVES their youthful indiscretions.
Each proceeding album showed the growth of WAVES as an artist and of Waverly Earp as a songwriter. Her relationship with the listener shifted from fun acquaintance to trusted confidant. And still, her music was meant to get people up and dancing.
Nicole laid back on her bed, one knee bent and the other crossed over it, keeping the beat with a roll of her ankle. As she added a few songs to the various playlists she kept organized by mood, Nicole turned to WAVES' music videos.
She was on the phone to Dolls one minute into the first video.
He vaulted past any greetings. "I told you, you've got twenty-four hours to decide. Although at this point you've got..." She imagined him tugging his sleeve aside to check his watch. "...Eighteen and a half hours."
"I don't need them. Have you seen her music videos? I can't do that." Nicole paced her bedroom, tracing the edges of the woven rug she'd found in a secondhand shop.
"What is 'that'?"
"There's dancing. Dolls, I know a line dance or two but other than that it's just a lot of swayin' back and forth." She dropped back onto her bed in a cacophony of straining springs and a rattling metal frame.
"No one's going to force you to dance, and if they want you to dance, you don't have to do the song. We can hash all this out with her team."
"Just..." Dolls sighed, and Nicole squeezed her eyes together. "Think of this with the part of you that almost became a cop. Don't panic. Take your time and make the best choice for you."
"I just don't see how this is going to work. I still think Ashton Kutcher is going to show up and tell me I'm on Punk'd."
"That kind of reference is going to start dating you, you know. You need to develop some more contemporary tastes."
She rolled her eyes. "Isn't the whole point of my music that I'm bringing back good old sounds?"
"With a modern sensibility." She knew his lips had moved ever so slightly upward, in his best imitation of a smile. "Make a deal with me. Resist throwing yourself out of the window for five minutes. Just five minutes. Then you can panic as much as you want."
"What's going to happen in five minutes?" He couldn't see her, but she scowled at him just in case.
"Just wait. And breathe. Whatever you decide, I've got your back."
She dropped her phone on her stomach when he hung up and folded her hands over it. Her eyes traced the craters and peaks of the popcorn ceiling hanging above her.
Her phone warbled at her. She held it over her face to see a text from an unknown number. Then another. She opened them, brows furrowed.
Unknown: This is Waverly
Unknown: Waverly Earp, I mean
Unknown: I got your number from my people who got it from your people
Unknown: Is this okay?
Nicole blinked at her phone, then added Waverly to her contacts.
Nicole: It's fine. What's up?
Waverly: I just wanted to reach out about this guest artist thing. Your people told my people that you're not sure about it
Waverly: but I don't want you to think this is just business
Waverly: or maybe you like things that way, I've met people like that
Waverly: I just really like your music and thought how cool it would be to do a song with you and my life is pretttttty cool these days because I say stuff like that and people make it happen
Waverly liked her music? WAVES, a "pop kween" (according to the internet), liked Nicole's "indie blues-folk-rock" (also according to the internet) sound? The tips of Nicole's ears started to feel like they were drenched in noontime sun.
Nicole: You like my music?
Waverly: Yeah, it's not like that's weird or anything
Waverly: is it weird?
Nicole: Not weird, just surprising
Nicole: And thank you. I should have said that first
Waverly: Can I call you?
"Uh," said Nicole, out loud, just before her phone started to ring. Her fingers turned to rubber and she nearly fumbled the device as she brought it to her ear. "Waverly?"
"Hi!" Nicole jerked the phone away from her ear, and as she brought it back she heard Waverly muttering an apology. "—rry, sorry, that was loud, I'm a bit nervous."
A laugh bubbled in Nicole's throat. She stood up, started pacing the edges of her rug again, slower this time, balancing like a kid walking along a curb. "I'm making you nervous?"
"Well, I've never reached out to another artist like this before. But I have a lot of control over this album and I said, 'I want to work with Nicole Haught' and they said sure, so I really, really, really want you to say yes."
"I really am flattered." Nicole made her way to the desk and fiddled with the corner of a piece of paper.
"I'll be more flattered if you say yes."
Another laugh escaped Nicole. She stepped out of her bedroom, suddenly claustrophobic. "Now, see, that's what I find surprising. You're WAVES."
"Ugh, don't say it like that."
"Like you're not a huge pop star with millions of fans and tens of millions of hits on your videos?" The smile on Nicole's face burned her cheeks. She perched on the back of her old couch—another thrift shop find—and opened the window beside her. It was December, and it was snowing. It was just cold enough to make Nicole feel less like a rocket about to explode.
Waverly had gone a bit quiet. "Like I'm... I don't know, not a regular person with regular feelings anymore."
"I'm sorry. I'm still just surprised you want to work with me. I know, I know," said Nicole, cutting off a protest from Waverly, "you like my stuff, but are you sure I'm a good match for your style?"
"What? Of course you are! I might be a pop artist, or whatever, but pop has room for all different sounds and influences! That's what makes it so fun! And like I said, lots of control. We'll make it work."
"We will, huh?" Nicole leaned by the window, watching cars creep down salted streets, watching pedestrians slog through heavy, falling snow. A horn honked in the distance. Someone else honked back in argument.
"Yeah, we will. If you're in."
A chill rattled Nicole's bones, up her spine and into her teeth. In the street below, a couple stumbled by. The man slipped and landed on his ass, the woman laughed, and the sound trickled through Nicole's screen like the last memory of a fading dream.
Nicole sighed. She closed the window, bolted it, and said, "I'm in."