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Break Ground

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Disastrous. It was completely, absolutely, disastrous.

“Why did you stop playing?”

Buffoonery; her answer was to start playing again! Like a wind-up toy!

The thought of it was an earthquake, nuclear explosion, and a morning alarm clock’s annoying chirp all rolled up in one. The top jazz band’s director stopped in, during her practice time, and watched her make a fool of herself.

She groaned. “Way to go, Nicole.”

It was enough for the day. Maybe the whole week. She put her sticks down and left mid-session, as he did. That was enough buffoonery for today, thanks.

She dreaded it the entire drive to work. A whole school of students, and music department head Ward Earp just happened to be in the same place as her. He asked her to play. She did terrible. He left.

Nicole had just been starting today’s practice. Stretched out her wrists. Did some rudiments. Paradiddles and all their equally ridiculously named variations. Ward walked in. She froze like a deer in headlights. He asked why she stopped. She started playing again. He stopped her, Did I ask you to start playing again? Had her do a swing beat. Easy. Latin beat. Rock, for a laugh. Double-time swing. Had her stop. Try the double-time swing again. Stop. Again. Wasn’t fast enough. He left without a word. Unless a disappointed sigh counted as a word, in which case he left with the worst word of all. 

Her chance with the face of Purgatory’s famous arts academy, the man who made the world’s greatest musicians, blown.

Damn she could use a drink.

-

“And what, he just left?”

Nicole’s responding groan was lost in the checkout counter she laid her head. Maybe, just maybe, if she was lucky, an asteroid would simply take her right now. (Or maybe not—her final memory, one of embarrassment? What a thing to take into the afterlife.)

“Maybe he had to take a phone call?”

Nicole groaned louder, and her coworker, fellow academy music student, laughed, patting her back sympathetically.

Shae Pressman was the name. Bassist since she was five. Simply because the other kids thought guitar was cooler and she wanted to give the poor, boring, simple man’s bass a try. She would make it cool. She was a certified prodigy. But not enough of a prodigy to make the top bands. Not jazz, not symphony orchestra. She acted like it didn’t sting. Nicole saw right through that rouse.

It was commonplace. The Purgatory Academy of Performing Arts was a highly competitive school to get into. Nicole still didn’t understand how she got in, herself. Students were from all over the country, some even international. Superior dance programs, theatre, music, all attended by the best of the best. Every kid thought to be a prodigy, as Shae. Not as Nicole. Again, she still thought the whole thing was a dream. After all, she did blow a one-time chance into the top jazz band with the school’s world famous, king-making director of music.

She’d heard a little about Ward from what microscopic details she could pry from her roommate, the sole drummer of the top jazz band and no doubt the best percussionist in the symphonic band’s history, Xavier Dolls. They’d met and hit it off when she subbed last minute for an orchestra percussionist. Ward was not happy about their absence. Kid dropped out the next day, after Ward yelled at him for hours. Nicole agreed with the whole ordeal. What he got for cancelling last minute, she decided.

That night was unforgettable for a multitude of reasons. For one, Ward thought her competent, before she blew that sky high. Second, she got to play in her world famous college’s top orchestra. Whether or not it was for a single cymbal crash in one song.

Third: the vocalist.

It was rare for Ward to pick a song with a vocalist. The audition process it brought along was no one’s favorite. It took forever, it was stressful, and high school drama seemed to resurrect with it. Legal adults, able to vote, threatening to tell so-and-so’s girlfriend about dumb, petty things as small as Hey, your partner says you’re not as good a player as so-and-so else. But this year Ward’s youngest was a freshman. Everyone knew he took the chance for her.

Barely anyone auditioned. Those who did, did out of spite. Disbelief Ward would actually choose his own daughter.

They were right; he voted against her. 

But Ward wasn’t the only one deciding. This performance concerned every department of music, and thus every member had a say. Waverly Earp was voted in by her own choir teacher, the orchestra teacher, and the lower band teacher. Every member of the academy’s music department chose her. But everyone knew Ward only did it to make it seem he wasn’t giving his daughter special treatment.

Waverly sat with the percussion section during warm ups. Mostly she talked with Dolls. Pre-existing friendship; Dolls knew her sister, Wynonna. Nicole managed one or two words. Everything else was a blank stare. All of a sudden her brain didn’t work. Pre-show nerves, right? Because her part tonight was so huge and inspiring? (It wasn’t.)

Waverly Earp. Nicole nearly missed the hit all together. When Waverly Earp sang, the universe stopped to listen in pure adoration.

She had the voice of an angel.

She touched the souls of everyone in the crowded theatre, not a single one unsatisfied. She—

Oh dear Jesus , Waverly Earp was walking over.

“Shae! Shae! Fuck! I know you can hear—Don’t leave me, you asshole!”

Shae had long turned her back on Nicole, walking unfairly quickly to a shelf across their bookstore. “She’s cute! Talk to her, you dumbass!”

“I am a dumbass!” Nicole hissed. “That's why I’m asking you for—Good evening, how can I help you today?”

Shae snickered as she scurried off, leaving Nicole and all her terribly horrible nerves all alone. With Waverly’s terribly, horribly, warm smile and terribly, horribly, gorgeous face.

“You don’t—You don’t listen to the town radio by chance, do you? The Purgatory Haunted HAM?”

Nicole blinked. What kind of question— “Uh, n-no, not in 2019, I don’t.”

Yeah, that was it. Play it cool. Ignore the really dumb radio name. And how really, very, truly, Good-Lord-Christ-holy-fuck gorgeous Waverly was under the unforgiving brightness of a bookstore. Like a spotlight. Or a heavenly glow of an angel descending from heaven itself.

An angel who was going red in the face?

“Well,” Waverly said after a moment, and she laughed , in embarrassment , growing redder by the second, “my-my older sister, Wynonna runs it. She misunderstood what a HAM radio is and she thinks Purgatory’s haunted, because one time she—Uh, anyway, it’s just better to do this in person.”

Oh no, do what?

Nicole saw Shae around the corner, headphones and phone in hand. By the time Waverly stopped talking, she was hunched over in laughter.

Oh no, do what?

“This is probably completely inappropriate to ask you at your workplace, but—”

Oh god , oh—

“—can I take you on a date? Tomorrow night?”

The end. Nicole fell over and died.

Waverly Earp asked her out. This was a dream. This had to be a dream. The prettiest girl in the whole school—the whole world. Seeking her out. Asking her on a date. Red in the face. Laughing nervously. 

“I am free tomorrow night.”

She wasn’t. But Nicole knew Shae had her shift covered. Shae, who was giving a truly aggressive thumbs-up in the background.

Waverly grinned wider. Glowed, brighter. “It’s a date, then.”

Had to be a dream.

“Also, can I buy these books?”

Not long after Waverly left, Shae returned with a proud, “Congrats, you’re not as big a dumbass as you thought!”

“Let’s see how the date goes, first.” Nicole paused. “Also, what the hell did Wynonna Earp say? On the radio? In front of the whole town?”

“Check the school Facebook group. The student one.”

“You still use Facebook?”

“Shut up. I can’t figure out Twitter. I got catfished on Instagram, and Tumblr people are weird.”

“Fine.”

“Just skip ahead a little.”

“No,” Nicole sourly added, “I want the whole experience.”

Wynonna Earp, as the townsfolk said in a religious way, was crazy.

“It’s about that time, listeners. Purgatory’s annual town fair. Awkward sex in the pumpkin patch, annoying kids and their dumb parents failing miserably at carnival games, our Ferris wheel—also world famous, for breaking down the most amount of times possible in a night. Got stuck up there with an ex once, as we were breaking up. Jonas, you are not missed. Also, you ruined Ferris wheels. But, if you’re in a good place with your mutual fuck buddy slash partner-you-keep-to-shut-your-parents-up, the Ferris wheel is the place for you! That’s why I, Wynonna Earp, personally invite Nicole Haught to take my baby sister, Waverly Earp, on a date. She’s crazy about you. She thinks you’re ‘cute’ and ‘funny’, which, gross. She’s way out of your league, so I’d jump at the chance if I were you. This is essentially Hanson asking out a teenage me. Or current me—it’s never too late, Hanson! Just don’t take my sister to the pumpkin patch, Haught. Or I’ll personally fuck you with a pumpkin. Make my sister happy, city slicker. Anyway, here’s Monster Mash, Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett, you know by now. Don’t chickenshit this up, Haught.”

Nicole returned Shae’s phone. Laughing miserably.

“If this date doesn’t go well,” she told Shae, “please call the cops. Preferably before Wynonna murders me.”

-

Originally released under Randy Weston as “Fire Down There”, “St. Thomas” brought Sonny Rollins into the spotlight upon the song’s hit release, off the album “Saxophone Colossus”. “St. Thomas” is a nod to Rollins’s Caribbean ancestry, utilizing a calypso styling. It is based off the nursery song Rollins’s mother sang to him.

Her stick bag rested against the floor tom—which, despite its high price and overall equally high quality, was still somehow considered the worst one in the school—at a length tried and tested, an extra two pairs of sticks awaiting easy access. Her hands got so damn sweaty.

Music stand over her left shoulder, the piano alternate ready to turn her pages. It was a nice change. Usually Nicole was turning the pages for Champ Hardy. Because she was an alternate.

The glory was short-lived. Champ was walking through the door, his ugly, smug face and pointless tattoos always present.

Carl, the immature trombone player who proudly told everyone possible, while laughing irrationally hard, he was a “boner”, flew right over to Champ. Usual bro fist and half hug thing all the men in this place did, always adding an aggressive pat to the back. You should always break your friend’s shoulder blades.

“Damn, man,” Carl did not say quietly, “things were hurting with Haught on the kit.”

Ouch.

Boner Carl blabbed on and on until the session finally started—approximately four minutes late—and Professor Holliday wrangled everyone to their seats. Nicole got off the kit. Champ returned to it like he was the rightful owner. The rightful king of the land, at home.

“Hey,” he said, changing all the adjustments Nicole made to his kit, “don’t take Carl seriously. He’s just an idiot. He’s a real—Hey, can I borrow your sticks?”

He took a vacation in the middle of the school year and showed up without sticks. Nicole had no idea why she agreed.

“Easy, now,” Holliday started, “I know it is later than usual and y’all’re jumpy to get to the fair before it leaves town, but we have work to do still. Let’s get to workin’.”

Professor “Doc” Holliday was a strange find for a place like this. Born in Georgia, not without the accent of an old timey southerner. Most of his musical career was spent with a former Purgatory fire crew turned rock band. They were called “The Order,” and, in Nicole’s honest opinion, they were just terrible . But Doc knew his way around a guitar. Truthfully, people only went to those rock shows for him. He was hired to the academy on recommendation of his predecessor, Robert Svane. They were never close, and Doc killed Robert’s chance of being a rock guitarist the same under a new persona of “Bobo Del Rey”, but Robert was mature enough to leave the school in Doc’s hands. He’d found fame because Doc took his spot in “The Order”. Far more mature than “Boner” Carl.

Ward liked Robert. Ward did not like Doc. Robert switched to symphony compositions. Left to work the several video game and movie deals he’d been offered. He always sent pieces to the school, jazz included. Doc was a long-haired rock ‘n roll man. A genre Ward referred to on many occasions as “talentless”.

Doc didn’t let it bring him down. He had pride. He polished his performances to the highest quality he could forge from a low-tier group. And he smiled while he did it.

“I would like to take this chance,” the great professor continued, “to welcome back Mister Hardy James. Let’s have Haught back on the kit a moment so he can get a feel for the new set. We are doin’ a full run, everybody.”

“Solo Flight”, by Benny Goodman. Featuring jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, yet another star who died much too young at the age of twenty-five. Doc’s choice, one hundred percent.

The fact it was an easygoing song was the part that worried Nicole. Jazz guitar was smooth. Soothing. Pleasant to listen to. Their current guitarist, in his free time, played for a heavy metal band. Sharpened his teeth to look tough, and went by “Red”, because, according to him, “it was the color of blood”. Wild, crazy eyes, always.

Playing Solo Flight was always an interesting experience. Red’s crazy eyes going crazier as his head actually banged back and forth like one of his concerts. The instrument cradled in a gentle balance on his crossed legs in an opposite contrast. His solos were genuine. Gently put. A kind level of volume.

And then, when the practice session ends, he’ll walk out blasting Avenged Sevenfold and air guitaring like a madman.

Shae always lost time playing this song. Red was too distracting. Nicole always missed cues. She was most definitely losing this one to Champ. But then again, he was cackling behind her at his own friend, taking videos, so perhaps not. 

After the song Doc made his observations. Bass going too slow. Drums missing cues. Asking both bass and drums to pay attention. Phrasing in trumpets lacking. Tonguing wasn’t quick enough in saxes . . .

Nicole’s favorite: “Please do not record video in here, Mister James.” Completely taking Champ’s phone, just to be safe.

Second piece went by quick. Another Benny Goodman song, “Air Mail Special”. Alternate piano, a more experienced percussionist, left core player Jeremy Chetri’s side to play the vibraphone part. Doc pointed out once, “This is why we have alternates.”

Third and final: “St. Thomas”. Sonny Rollins. A calm tone, as Solo Flight, with a distinct Latin feel. Featuring the best tenor sax player they had. If they were in top band, that’d be Jeremy’s boyfriend, Robin Jett.

Latin beats were never Nicole’s specialty. Latin beats were tough. Unpredictable. Syncopated to all hell; weird and inconsistent off-beats. (She was surprised she played one for Ward properly at all.) It just so happened St. Thomas’s drum part had a weird off-beat. The hi-hat, her left foot, was on the back end of every beat, just enough to throw everything off. A normal swing beat had an easy two and four. Not this one. Couldn’t be that easy.

Her left foot was slow on the hi-hat. Trying to fight the weirdness and fall right on the beat. Hands and their own weird rhythm were perfect. Left foot did not want to catch up, no matter how Doc signaled and made faces, and no matter how many swears Nicole yelled in her head. 

He waved the band to a halt. “Drums, you are late. Let’s try again. From the top.”

Thing was, first few bars were drums only.

Stopped. Restarted. Few bars. Stopped. Worse and worse the longer this dragged on.

“You know what, I am sure Hardy gets the point. Let’s switch on the kit, please.”

It wasn’t too dramatic to say Nicole wanted to roll over and die.

-

“Purgatory Haunted HAM, the best tunes in town for all the weirdos who still listen to the radio or just can’t figure out how Spotify works. Tonight we’ve received your calls and Tweets asking why we’re playing love songs and not enough Halloween music. Firstly, Spotify is free. Secondly, the radio doesn’t cater to your specific needs. Thirdly, again, Spotify is free. Fourthly, my darling baby sister has a date tonight with the girl she’s crazy about. Fifthly—fifthly— fively —Jesus, they’re both terrible. Point five: Spotify is free. Stay tuned for more HAM jams. Or don’t. I’m not a beggar.”

-

The Earp homestead was twenty-five minutes deep in the belly of nowhere. No neighbors. No white picket fences. At some points, no real road. Just an old house from farmland prairie days that likely held ghosts lost to ye olde plague.

Waverly was already waiting on the porch when Nicole pulled up, her famous sister sitting next to her. Giving supposed “pointers” on first dates, from what Nicole could hear. Something told her Wynonna did not have a lot of great first dates.

“It’s called a ‘Foodie Call’, Waverly,” Nicole overheard the closer she approached on foot, “and it’s a growing trend. Food, Wave. Food is what’s important in the world.”

“Does that mean I’m getting ditched tonight?” Nicole asked, and Wynonna paused a moment to give her the once-over.

Mumbling, evaluating her right here and now, “Tall, nice face, good sense of humor . . .”

“Okay,” Waverly stood, quickly, straightening out jeans that fit a little too well , “let’s get out of here before Wynonna scares you off.”

“What’s scary is East Purgatory!” Wynonna called after swift shadows as they evacuated the scene, no different from a madwoman. “The ghosts are out there, Waverly Earp!”

The safety of Nicole’s quiet car washed over a new feeling. This was it. This was the official start to Nicole’s date with town sweetheart and superstar vocalist, Waverly Earp. Waverly Earp, who sat in this shitty, pre-owned car much too small for Nicole’s long legs and had a rear view mirror zip-tied on.

Waverly Earp, who was too pretty to be considered fair or legal on any grounds. By comparison, Nicole felt like an unworthy sack of potatoes.

“Oh my god,” Waverly Earp said, “your car has heat!”

Meaning the crappy old pickup she carpooled with Wynonna did not, and it was the middle of October with temperatures only dropping lower and lower.

“I wouldn’t rely too heavily on it,” Nicole laughed, some of it nerves. “If I accelerate too hard, it goes out.”

Waverly giggled. “Well, then slow down, Speed Racer.”

“You should see my dad’s car. ‘69 Challenger. Restored it himself.”

Waverly smiled, naughty and almost wickedly. “You wouldn’t happened to have helped with that, would you?”  

Nicole returned the same grin, with a wink. “I might have.”

Waverly shivered. 

-

It only cost around twenty dollars, but Nicole managed to win Waverly the stuffed panda that caught her eye. There was a chance it cost a portion of her pride, too. Really, how hard was it to knock down three, stained, miserable-looking milk bottles?

“And you’re sure you’re not here on a sports scholarship?”

Pride, hurt. For sure.

“I mean, you were magnificent, Nicole. Hall of Fame work.”

Nicole narrowed her eyes. “I will throw that evil little panda bear so far—”

“No, don’t hurt Dalmatian!” Clutching the little thing and its evil, cold, dead, glaring eyes closer.

“Wait, I’m sorry, you named the panda ‘Dalmatian’?” Nicole laughed. 

Waverly eyed her, probably the same as the evil bear itself. Perhaps the ghosts were real, possessing the putrid, miserable looking thing. Where did the fair find it, ditched on the side of the road? “It’s cute! W—You name him, then! Go on!”

“P—Pete. Yeah, Panda Pete! Alliteration is key.”

Waverly made a face, shaking her head. “What, is Panda Pete a performer?”

Nicole sighed, and took a moment to stroke the stuffed bear’s little head. Growing serious. “It’s been a hard winter for the farm.”

“Nicole!” Waverly laughed, hard enough to stop their easy pace. They were walking nowhere in particular, really. “You’re terrible!”

“Only if you judge him! He’s a hard working bear, Waverly! How dare you!”

“My little Dalmatian would never—Oh, shit.”

As they resumed their pace, Waverly was suddenly tripping over herself. Nicole immediately sprung to her aid, steadying her by the arms. Waverly was red in the face as she borrowed Nicole’s strength. 

“Oh god, I’m so sorry. It’s my leg. I must’ve fastened it wrong.”

“Well—Hey, there’s a restaurant right there. Let’s get you to a seat.”

“Yeah. Thank-Thank you, Nicole.”

“Maybe I’m not so terrible after all.”

Despite the scare, Nicole still managed to make Waverly laugh.

They turned their directionless path to a food stand with a wide arrangement of seating. Popcorn, hotdog, nachos, and a decent looking salad—just under fifteen bucks. Perfect for a college student’s budget. Nicole paid and refused to be paid back.

“I never ask a lady to pay,” was her reason. Waverly was beyond flattered. Not a soul in this town would do that. Not a soul. Unless they were getting something in return. Often getting that something meant the whole event was a one-time type thing. Waverly Earp: the queen of one-night stands.

“Good thing I’m a lady.” She jested, but the appreciation was clear.

Nicole passed the plastic container—a material Waverly expressed her disapproval in clearly—holding the academy’s most beloved and popular vegan’s salad over to Waverly. Popcorn and nachos damp with cheese found their way in the center of the table, a community commodity. Nicole already chowed down her hotdog waiting for the popcorn. Was way too far past her normal dinnertime. Keep yourself on a schedule! her dad always said.

“How’s your leg feeling?”

Waverly looked up from her salad. Wasn’t bad, as far as county fair attempts at “healthy” food went. Salad being the only “healthy” option, with ranch slathered all over it like some sort of passive aggressive disagreement. “Better. I didn’t fasten it right. I might’ve been a little nervous.”

“That’s alright. I fell down the stairs at my apartment complex.”

Waverly dropped her fork back into her salad, eyes going wide with concern. “What—Are you okay?”

Nicole shrugged, like it was nothing. Grabbing a handful of popcorn. “I’m fine. I’m just glad Panda Pete wasn’t there to see it. Never lets a thing die, that one.”

“He has a hard life. You said it yourself!”

“Not an excuse to be a jerk, Pete.”

It took until the end of the drenched nachos for Nicole to ask a question she feared too personal. Especially for a first date. Grounds to end the evening in an awkward stutter. But it was bothering the living hell out of her. 

“It’s alright I drove you here, right? I don’t know how comfortable you—with the—and your—l—I’m gonna stop talking. Yep. Sorry.”

“Nicole,” Waverly fell deathly serious, despite the giant clown on stilts walking past their table, apparently mixing up the delicate difference between carnivals and fairs, “it’s okay to ask.” She sighed, taking a brief moment. “Ever since my mom and my leg, I’ve been cautious, yes. But I’m not uncomfortable. I spent a long time trying to feel comfortable in cars again. I trust you, don’t worry.” She smiled. “But it is sweet you worry.”

Nicole heard the whole story the same night she met Waverly. This was a town full of people who liked to talk, whether they were actually from here or not. Waverly and her mother, on the way back from a funeral. Waverly’s birth father. Raining, like a scene from a movie. Their car swerved on a huge mud patch and hit a tree. Waverly’s mother died on impact. The only reason Waverly survived was because she sat on the passenger’s side, second row. Her left leg was beyond saving. Her current, since then, was a prosthetic. To this day she still refuses to get her license and feels anxious on rainy days. Last time it so much as drizzled, she completely missed all her classes. Couldn’t leave the house. Wouldn’t answer the phone.

Of course Nicole worried!

She tried to play cool. “At least someone feels happy in my crappy old car.”

“I think it’s wonderful,” Waverly laughed. Staring deeply, into Nicole’s eyes. Falling a little serious, suddenly. “Absolutely wonderful.”

-

Wynonna did not miss the smile—the wide, gigantic, Godzilla-sized smile—on her baby sister’s face walking in. “Good date, Wave?”

Her face went red. “Maybe.”

“If that’s a ‘maybe’, I wonder what ‘yes’ looks like.”

Waverly plopped down on her own bed of their shared room, so dreamy-eyed Wynonna almost felt compelled to leave the house in disgust. “She’s really attentive; she listens. She really looks at me when I talk. She’s just as funny and cute as I remember, and she spent twenty dollars trying to win this panda for me.”

She was surprised to find a serious expression on her sister’s face, despite all the gushing she was doing. Surely Wynonna would’ve teased her by now.

Wynonna paused the music playing on her laptop and leaned forward in her desk chair. Still serious. “What’d she say about your leg?”

Waverly’s grin grew wider. Because Nicole was nothing like dates past. “She didn’t! She asked if I was okay with being driven around, but even then she was respectful. She even helped when it—Um.”

Wynonna sat up. “When it what? Did you fasten it wrong again? You have to pay attention! Stop being lazy!”

“She helped me to a table! And bought me dinner. And paid for admission, actually.”

“Okay. What else?”

“She didn’t try anything, Wynonna. She called me a lady, too.”

“She didn’t . . . try anything?”

“We held hands. She asked first. That was it.”

“No smooching?”

“No. No ‘smooching’, Wynonna.”

-

“Goooood Mooorrnning, Purgatory, this is the Purgatory Haunted HAM and this is your host, Wynonna Earp. Nicole Haught is the best fucking person on the planet. Here’s music.”

-

Don’t think I didn’t see the $35 you slipped into my pocket, Waverly Earp.

$35? I thought it was more than that… [thinking emoji]

BRB. I’m blowing it all on a friend/mortal enemy of Pete. Standby…

You better splurge. Next date’s on me. [wink emoji]

Not if I mug you.

Yeah right! Free this Sunday?

Most definitely. Where to?

It’s a surprise. [wink emoji, hushing emoji]

Cool. I look forward to getting murdered Sunday.

It’s a date! [heart emojis, in every color]

-

Nicole felt energized. Ready to work. Ready to prove herself against a stupid off-beat pattern that refused to cooperate—

The drums were going in the practice hall. Piano. Bass line.

Champ, Shae, and Jeremy. Improvising. That song was famili—

They were playing a new version of St. Thomas. A new, improvised version. 

Jeremy, playing both the melody and a solo. Shae, keeping time. Champ . . .

His hi-hat was perfect, disgustingly so, as his hands played a completely different, original part, and never the same one twice. New, almost every phrase. Snare hits combined with long, rhythmic rolls. Left hand carrying the part as his right moved to the ride cymbal to add a new flavor. Stick on the cymbal, stick on the bell, timed so creatively. A level of creativity Nicole feared she’d never achieve. Keeping time and improvising really, really fucking well. More of a Latin feel than written.

Someone standing next to Nicole pointed out the silhouette in the hall outside. Listening. Bobbing their head along in a most satisfied fashion. Sticking around the entire jam session, leaving only as soon as the tune finished its run. Champ’s friends cheering, like a rock concert.

The silhouette had to be Ward. Shae pointed out he was always looking for new players. Not to mention there were currently no alternate drums in varsity jazz.

Nicole spent two hours in the private practice rooms. St. Thomas. Off-beat, weird, syncopated rhythms. Double-time swing. The basics, the not-so-basics. Everything. 

-

“Don’t forget to catch this week’s episode as Mercedes Gardner and yours truly tackle the unseen horrors of East Purgatory. Link in the radio’s Twitter. Don’t have a Twitter? Too bad. Get a Twitter, loser, it’s 2019. Here’s more of that Grande crap you guys ask for so much. Don’t really know what she has to do with Halloween, but whatever. Purgatory Haunted HAM!”

-

Sore, overworked wrists and fingers did not mix well with a long drive into the city. At all.

Waverly had tickets to a hockey game. Ward’s, and he thought sports useless. Tickets were a gift from his boss and head of the academy, Moody. Waverly figured why not. Meanwhile Nicole dreaded sports entirely. Bad experience with it. But spending time with Waverly was quickly growing into one of her favorite pastimes.

Even if it meant wearing a jersey Waverly ordered online.

(Waverly’s was a custom order, and even then much too large.)

Walking into the stadium, Nicole found herself pulling the classic rom com move.

“Take my jacket, you’re freezing.”

Shivering from head to toe, her arms pulled close to her torso, Waverly still refused. “Won’t you be cold, then?”

“I’ll be fine. Take it.”

“No, I’ll be fine. Keep it.”

Nicole completely took the jacket off and tied it around her own waist. Staring, waiting for Waverly to give up.

Waverly took the stupid jacket.

“Better?”

Waverly frowned. “No.”

Nicole smiled. “You’re so cute, with your big shirt.”

“Keep it up. I’ll have Wynonna sic the whole town on you.”

The stadium was crowded with fans who knew a thousand more things about this than Nicole. Such as the names of the teams playing. And the actual rules of hockey, far more than the generalized idea of knocking a puck around.

Waverly noticed something different about Nicole. She was tensing up. Typically Nicole presented herself with a calm energy. Grounded. Together. This was more than date jitters, she knew. 

“You’re not claustrophobic, are you?” Waverly felt the beginning of a downhill spiral coming on. “Oh no, I should’ve told you—”

“Hey, it’s fine.”

Nicole, steadying her by the shoulders in the middle of a crowded snack line. No different than the mishap at the fair. Supportive. Nicole was supportive. Waverly liked that.

“I’m not claustrophobic. I’m just not a fan of sports fans. You know, how they’re always in your face. Loud people freak me out a little, is all. Ironically; I’m a drummer. My dad was a sport guy. Always yelling at the TV.”

“I picked a bad date.”

“No, you didn’t! The greatest part about these places is the food. Speaking of . . .”

The annoyed cashier stared them down. “You gonna order or what?”

-

The conversation was delayed, it did not die. It was not forgotten. One burger, veggie burger, and a basket of fries later, it resumed. Tiny little ants sliding around below them. Back and forth, as a crowd cheered in tense anticipation.

“So, how did you get through it? The yelling? Um, if you don’t mind.”

“No, you told me your damage; it’s only fair.” Nicole downed the rest of her beer and sat back. Low, because some kids behind her couldn’t see and were not shy to mention it. “I got through it with music. I get through everything with music.”

A tiny smile danced across Waverly’s lips. “I can relate to that.”

Nicole could imagine. “Ever wonder why I’m two years older than every other freshman? Two years older than you?”

“I always thought you transferred and had to start over.”

Nicole chuckled. “I wish. I wanted to be a cop. My sister Hayley was, but she died two years ago. Shot in the line of duty. The kid who did it didn’t mean to. He was just scared.”

“I’m so sorry.” Waverly squeezed Nicole’s thigh. Nicole took a breath before continuing. A long, cooling, calming breath.

“My parents didn’t want to lose another kid, so they persuaded me to change my mind. But I had no plan and even bigger problems with depression so all I did was sit on my ass and mope around for two years. Didn’t even have a job.”

Another squeeze. “That must’ve been tough.”

“It was. Then I found an old video of me and Hayley. We used to make these videos and pretend we were rock stars. Right then I knew I wanted to get back into music. My high school teacher turned me away from it, but I really missed it. More than I knew. I put my old kit back together and realized it was everything I needed. Kept practicing. Made it into one of the best schools in the world.” She shrugged. “You know, classic superhero story.”

Waverly was looking into Nicole with the deepest admiration. “That is incredible, Nicole. You-You’re incredible! You pulled yourself back together!”

“Aw, shucks.” Smiling wide, shyly. 

“Are you happy at the academy? Are you feeling better now?”

“Definitely better. I still can’t believe I actually go here. I think I’ll wake up one day and have my old life again.”

“You deserve to be here, Nicole. You’ve earned it.”

“Thanks.” It was best to leave out how she blew a one-time one-on-one with Waverly’s adoptive father. Right? “What about you? What do you want to do with music? I know you have a band. I take music theory with your guitarist.”

“Rosita? Did you know she can play every instrument? Even the harp?”

“She only mentions it four times a day.”

“Hey, she’s earned those bragging rights.”

“Fair.”

“I just want to sing , Nicole. I love it. I write my own songs—Well, lately we’ve been doing more covers than anything else—and I—I just want to make music. I want to make something. Do something, wonderful. I mean, I guess we all do, but . . . I don’t know. Anything that lets me do .”

Nicole smiled. “I can relate to that. Are you the only musician in the family? Besides Ward, of course.”

“Mama always had the best voice, but no, other than that. My dad was a firefighter. He died on the job.” 

“God, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. It was a-a long time ago. Um, my oldest sister, Willa’s a sheriff’s deputy. My Aunt Gus and Uncle Curtis run their ranch. Wynonna has the radio and her ghost hunting show she’s trying to get off the ground. Sometimes she helps Mercedes Gardner with her realtor business, when money is tight.” Waverly seemed to smile at the thought. “She pours every dime into my future. She doesn’t want me to work. Only focus on my ‘real work’, she calls it.”

“Wow.” Nicole was taken back. “This town does not give her enough credit. At all.”

“To be fair, she is technically a criminal. Any and every piece of phallic graffiti around town? That’s hers. She’s fun.”

“I’ll bet.”

“But,” Waverly inched closer, grabbing tight onto Nicole’s arm, “not as fun as you.”

One of the kids behind the couple stood, and screamed, at the top of his lungs, “GROSS, COOTIES!”

-

Look, I might not be great with sports, but I can whip up a GREAT instant ramen.

I don’t know, N, Instant Ramen? Too sexy.

Easy mac?

Now we’re talking!

Look out, Gordon Ramsay.

[laughing emoji] Okay. Be over in twenty. At the library rn.

Nerd!

All the prettiest girls hang around books. [shrug emoji]

Aw. She thinks I’m prettiest.

[kiss emoji]

-

“Saxophones. I need you to listen to the vibraphone part. It is the same as yours. There is no need to take the tempo into your own hands. There is no need to change the part—which I know you must be doin’, because this is a college level course and a fairly easy chart to read. On the reverse side: vibraphone, do us a favor and follow the volume you are asked on the sheet, thank you. Same three bars, here we go. One, two, one two three f—”

The doors opened so fast, so suddenly, a clarinet player squeaked through their horn.

Shined black shoes, blasting the overhead lights back at them brighter than any brass instrument could hope to. Dark black slacks, white shirt, blue jacket, shirt collar popped open, no tie. Dressed professional, but not too committed. No smile, either. Only a natural snarl one might find on a ravenous wolf, cloaking and drowning the room in nervous terror. 

Simply put: he was the man in charge.

Ward Earp was in their practice space. Their lowly, undeserving practice space.

“Holliday, may I?”

He was at the podium before Doc could mumble a confirmation. Or dare refuse. Ward looking down on his associate/subordinate’s music choices and chuckling.

“I see Charlie Christian made his merry, diseased way into my department,” Pages flipped. “Air Mail Special. Cute. Big Benny Goodman fan, Holliday? Ah, St. Thomas. An American classic. Tenors, let’s hear the beginning. Down the line. One, two, one two three four . . .”

The poor freshman in last chair could barely squeak out a sound. Ward moved on.

“Okay, let’s let him figure out what instrument he’s playing. Second chair: one, two, one two three f—”

A squeak. Ward moved on. 

“Can’t start on one. Excellent. Okay, sweetie, let’s see if you’re first chair because you’re cute.”

First chair was cut off after two notes.

“Yep, that’s why. Honestly, Holliday, I don’t know where you find ‘em. I really don’t.” He observed the rest of the terrified faces either looking back at him or trying not to, completely. “Lord knows I’m set on trumpets. Clarinets, I’m good. You have one trombone player, who can’t seem to understand how to sit in a chai—sit up, son! Jesus! I couldn’t give one less shit about vibraphone . . . Piano! Play us your rendition of St. Thomas, will you?”

Nicole watched Jeremy wipe sweat from his palms onto his jeans. His fingers, shaking as they felt around the right keys. His eyes glued steady on the pages in front of him. He took a breath in, out.

And played the best music Nicole heard in her damn life. Better than his previous rendition, even.

Ward was pleased.

“I’m poaching him, Holliday. He’s a regular Michel Camilo.”

Doc simply nodded as Ward instructed Jeremy to step outside.

Stopping next at the drumset. Eyeing Champ and his borrowed pair of sticks. Clapping a tempo. Fast.

“Can you do a double-time swing for me, son?”

Champ scoffed, his own way of telling Ward, confidently, watch this.

Ward cut him off in three bars, expression neutral and unrevealing. He motioned Nicole to try next. How she didn’t fall over and die was a mystery. Her hands, so drenched she feared her sticks would fly out of her grip and into Ward’s eye, then she’d be out for good, left to—

He clapped the tempo. “Whenever you’re ready.”

A breath in, out, as Jeremy did.

Ward cut her off in two bars.

Halfway out the door, he called, “Drums, with me. Thanks, John.” Doc tipping his cowboy hat. In case one couldn’t tell his origins from accent alone.

Nicole watched Champ and his smug face walk out. Again, blowing a chance so rare and so damn important. So terrible Ward couldn’t wait another bar to stop her.

“No, no, other drums.”

Nicole’s head snapped up. Champ’s went back and forth between her and Ward, shocked. Why wouldn’t he want the core drums? Why the alternate? She was the alternate! Had to be because she was seeing Waverly. Right? The whole town knew it. 

It was one thing Ward made clear in the empty hall: “Your personal life isn’t my concern; don’t give a shit who you’re dating. Your talent is. Your passion . Both of you. You worked on your double-time swing. You played the best version of that song I’ve heard in a while. I like talent. I like passion. So let’s try you two out. Practice room 11A. Nine a.m. Tomorrow. I hope to see you both there.”

The second he left, Nicole and Jeremy squealed with joy.

Top jazz. They made top jazz at the top school.

-

Wave! My place! Five! Bring champagne!

What’s the occasion?

Top band! I made top band!

Chapter Text

Practice room 11A. Thirty minutes early. Nicole couldn’t sleep.

The crimson red, polished (and likely waxed) shell of the expensive Yamaha drum kit staring at her. It was no longer Dolls’s turf. It was theirs.

Nicole felt nauseous.

By the time 8:50 hit, she was ready to run and never look back. She couldn’t do this. She wasn’t cut out for this. This was an award-winning, world famous band. It represented the whole school. She could barely play St. Thomas in time! A middle school level song!

“Oh good, you’re sick to your stomach, too!”

Nicole jumped at the sound of Jeremy. Realizing only now how sweaty her palms were. His eyes were red; he didn’t sleep, either.

“Honestly,” Nicole croaked out, her mouth dry, “I’m terrified. At least I’m not the only new kid, though.”

“Ditto.” Jeremy sat at his new piano. Grand piano, another masterful product of Yamaha, also waxed and polished. Shining, bright as the sun. Bright as Waverly’s smile. God, she wished Waverly was here.

The piano was a thousand times better than the splintered, wooden one in lower band. Jeremy gave middle C a test. Sounded like an entirely different instrument. Amazing, what quality and a little care can change. He placed the cover back over the keys and took a seat. His seat. Satisfied, though his wide grin was mostly nerves. Pretty soon he’d be giggling without end, for no reason other than pure terror.

“I heard the last pianist broke two fingers skateboarding,” Jeremy said. “Ward was not happy.”

Nicole laughed, and the feeling brought some of her nerves to ease. “Yeah, I bet that went over about as well as—”

8:55. All at once, the room started flooding with college students, their instruments, and many, many Starbucks cups. Two trumpet players bragging about past dates with dancer Stephanie Jones. The guitarist and first chair trombone, “Fish” and Levi, arguing about their relationship; Fish begging forgiveness and Levi having none of it. Rosita, the guitarist for Waverly’s band, shoving them aside to set up in the woodwinds section. On three stands at her feet she placed an alto saxophone, a clarinet, and a flute.

Entering right behind Rosita was Robin Jett, Jeremy’s boyfriend, holding two coffees and a proud expression as he hurried over to the piano.

“Okay,” he said, handing off Jeremy’s coffee, “ now this is a varsity band; we’ve got the best pianist in town.”

He greeted Nicole with a wave before leaving to set up both the tenor and bari saxes strung over his shoulders. Bright and cheery as he talked with Rosita, who hadn’t seemed to wake for the day yet.

At exactly 8:57, random notes were being yelled to the piano for tuning. Jeremy was too invested in the sheet music Ward handed him the day previous. Before he left and Jeremy and Nicole quite literally squealed with joy. The fact Ward had the music ready meant he showed up in that rehearsal with purpose. Nicole felt a deep terror when she looked at her own copies. She was here with purpose.

One minute later, Dolls entered. With his own sticks. Nicole nearly leapt with joy. Finally, someone who was responsible. She wondered what Champ planned to do after inevitably forgetting his own for today’s practice, playing all by himself. 

“Morning, Haught.” He said nothing after that. Just checked his kit was tuned to a B. At 8:59, he sat completely straight and stared at the conductor’s podium. Sticks at the ready. Waiting. Around him, his peers continued conversation. Same two trumpets, gossiping. Two others, competing to see who could hit the highest note. Levi, hyper focused on literally anything else as Fish stared longingly from his place beside the drum kit. Robin placed his coffee completely out of the way. He sat up, as Dolls. As Rosita next to him. Waiting.

At nine a.m. sharp, the doors slammed open. The room fell dead silent. Fish stopped looking at Levi. The gossiping trumpets shut up. The pair competing held their horns nowhere near their mouths. The only sound the echo of the last note Jeremy played.

Nicole felt nauseous.

Ward Earp approached the empty coat rack by his office. He removed headphones from his ears and placed them carefully, one by one, into a pocket. Jacket off, one sleeve at a time. Hung by the collar perfectly before he turned for his podium. Didn’t say a word. Just did a count off.

Immediately, the band responded with a big band version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca”.

Nicole knew the song. She’d played the original in high school. There was no drum set part, but a conga part. And, of course, it was not nearly as bold and present as this version. Wasn’t nearly as long, either. She was mesmerized by the part Dolls created for it. And the fact he didn’t look like a smart douche whilst playing it. 

Solo section featured Rosita playing a jazz flute. It was also the first section Jeremy jumped in to play, technically sight reading with the band for the first time. For now he had it easy; solo section brought simple accompaniment parts. He accidentally played one set over Dolls’s solo. The expression Dolls gave him, he immediately dropped his hands from the keys. Dolls’s second solo, Jeremy missed one of the band cues. Dolls glared at him. The two were friends, in a band together, long before today; he expected better of Jeremy, expected him to follow along with the song.

One thing Jeremy was not expecting, clearly, was having to solo, himself. Ward’s encouraging gesture was the only reason he didn’t sink into confusion. Wasn’t like the sheet music had anything marked. Not even the amount of soloists.

It was the piano solo, one last repeat of the melody, and then the end. Nicole felt compelled to clap.

Still, not a word said. Pages turned. Next song started. “Space Shuttle”, Buddy Rich.

Ward didn’t even count it off. He simply looked to Dolls to start. Dolls barely took so much as a breath before starting the piece with a triangle. Helping Jeremy by nodding at him when it was his turn to come in. Brass and woodwinds next, playing melody and accompaniment. Switching, back and forth until the solo section. Trumpet player Perry Crofte, one of the two competing with high notes. Second solo went to Fish, on the guitar. 

(He did no head banging.)

Melody. End. Onto the next song.

“Triple Tongue Boogie,” Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights. Absolute hell for an untrained trumpet player. Nicole decided Perry Crofte, the first chair trumpet, deserved his seat.

It was another piano solo song, too. Nicole wondered if Jeremy was feeling alright, at this point. If she were in his shoes, she’d be overwhelmed for certain—a whole first run through, sight read, without warning, and having big solo parts. It also occurred to her Fish had to write his own part. On Manteca, too. Either Doc was hoarding all the guitar songs or Ward was intentionally picking the ones without them. Because Doc was a guitar man and he didn’t like Doc and thus all guitar parts were cursed.

The fourth and final was a piece by Robert Svane. Entitled, “the Revenant”. Time signature started at 14/8. What cruel person writes a song in 14/8?

It went from 14/8—one bar counted in groups of four, four, two, two, two—to simple 4/4 to 14/8 to less complicated 6/8—two simple groups of three per bar—back to 14/8. Dolls kept time like it was nothing. Jeremy sight read masterfully. Less mistakes. 

Nicole thanked the stars Dolls was not smug and Champ-like about it. In fact, he was totally neutral. Like drumming for top band was nothing at all.

When the piece ended, all whispers of noise ended; the room was completely silent. Some brave select few looked to Ward. Most stared into their music stands. Jeremy and Nicole looked to each other, confused. Some sort of group prayer?

Next thing they knew they were jumping out of their skin, as Ward, from behind his podium, screamed, “SULLIVAN!”

The trombone player in last chair went pale. Almost dropped his horn. Almost screamed, as Ward marched over too quickly to be considered normal human speed.

“I invite two new players to my band. I do a full run through. I sit here and expect a fucking college level musician to know how to tune his fucking horn. Can you explain that to me, son? Can you tell me why you’re so determined to sit here and sabotage my band and ruin the futures of your peers?”

Nicole and Jeremy eyed one another. Surely this was a bit of some sort, Ward screaming in a student’s face? Nicole looked to Dolls. Neutral. Robotic.

“Answer me, you lazy fuck!”

Sullivan was on the verge of tears. Ward, right in front of his face, stone cold and unforgiving. “I—I didn’t m-mean—”

“Good Lord Jesus Christ, speak! You can’t speak proper English, either?”

“I-I’m sorry, sir.”

“I-I-I don’t fucking care.” Ward backed off and out of the student’s face, but remained hovering next to him. “I’ve carried your talentless, deaf ass far too long. I’m fucking sick of—in fact, no. Go, get out. Get the fuck out of my band, you hog-fucking twerp. Go fail, like your washed up daddy on his failing farm.”

Nicole didn’t watch Sullivan. Nobody watched Sullivan, as he bunched his items together and left in a hurry, sobbing the whole way out. Nobody said a word. There was only shoes, marching in perfect time against the tile floor until once again they were reunited with their podium. Then there was a breath. And a laugh.

Ward told the band, chuckling, “My daughter says I should take up yoga. Do I seem like the kind of person who needs yoga?”

Laughter echoed him, but none of it was genuine. It was forced. It was out of fear. Then Ward was continuing like nothing happened.

“Okay, gang, let’s give a warm welcome to our two new recruits. Jeremy Chetri, on piano. First year. He’s cute, right? Eighteen years old. Next to him we have alternate drums, Nicole Haught. First year. Two years older, but that’s alright. I’m just glad I could rescue her from Hardy. The mouth on that fucking kid, I swear.”

That’s when Nicole remembered: Champ was Waverly’s ex.

Wait.

She was seeing Waverly. Ward’s daughter. How was that going to work?

Waverly’s father went on, “Everyone, let’s give Jeremy a hand for sight reading our entire set today. Already, he’s better than the last idiot on the keys.”

Nobody on the planet would look prouder than Robin, who immediately turned in his chair to face his red-faced boyfriend in the corner.

Ward’s next words made Nicole turn red.

“Let’s get Haught on the kit now. Come on, Haught, show us what you’re made of.”

Terror, Nicole thought. I’m made of terror.

It was nice, for once, to switch on the kit and not hear the annoyed sound that always erupted from Champ’s lips. Nicole wondered if Dolls was relieved. If so, he showed no trace of it.

With shaky hands, Nicole pulled the chair closer. Took a look around. Got comfortable. Tried to pretend she wasn’t terrified. 

Her lucky red Vic Firths in her grip. Right hand in standard matched grip, left in old, old, old school traditional. The stick held in the space between her pointer finger and thumb, resting between her middle and ring finger, the stick in a sideways fashion. Back in the day, drummers on battlefields used the grip thanks to lacking harness technology; the drum hung at a slanted angle on the left side. The solution was a slanted grip, so as to make playing more comfortable. In more recent times, traditional grip was all for show. Primarily in marching bands. Nicole didn’t prefer it, but it’s what the school wanted. A show of style. Or a show of discipline.

Right now grips were the least of her worries.

Ward gave her a reassuring smile. “Staying on ‘Revenant’, a little under tempo for the new kids.” 

Went well. About four bars in, Ward asked Nicole to do fills. She took it easy. Couple eighth notes, couple well placed quarters, maybe a short rest in between hits. Going time, time, fill, time, time, fill . . . on and off where it fit. Eventually she built the confidence for something more complicated. Some sixteenth notes, split between the snare and the two toms. Couple triplets, here and there.

Ward pleasantly tossed his arms up. “Look at that, we’ve got Buddy Rich here!”

Nicole smiled. Maybe this wasn’t—

She fused sixteenth notes with a triplet pattern. She took it too far and messed up. Ward cut the band.

“That’s alright,” he said nicely, and Nicole felt slightly less like dying. “Let’s try again, yeah? Bar thirty, here we go.”

She made the same mistake trying not to make the same mistake.

“Just relax. Again, here we go.”

Stopped after two bars. Nicole was rushing. She knew it. She felt it.

“Little too fast. That’s alright. Again.”

One bar. Stopped.

“Dragging, just a hair. Come on.”

Two beats. Stopped.

“Alright, with me. Ready?” Clapping his hands in time.

Stopped.

Started before one.

Too fast. Stopped.

Clapping, “With me—No, with me. One two three, one two three.”

Stopped clapping, but something still felt off. Nicole could feel it.

No, Ward stopped. Walked off. Must be nerves. He would’ve restarted if something was wrong.

She gripped her sticks tighter. Embarrassing. This was embarrassing. At least Ward was being nice about—

Nicole dove to the ground.

Ward Earp tossed a chair at her head.

A fucking chair.

From the tile below, she looked at the professor, panting. Terrified. He threw a chair at her.

“Haught,” he said, crossing his arms at his podium, the room dead silent, “why do you figure I just hurled a chair at you?”

She thought, right away, Because you’re fucking insane? She didn’t move. “T-temp-tempo, sir?”

“Get back on the kit, Haught.”

She sincerely didn’t want to. Even Xavier Dolls looked scared for his own life. No wonder he never talked about top jazz. Probably too damn scared.

Ward stared at her with an overbearing weight, long. Long enough for her to consider getting up and getting out. Meeting Sullivan for coffee.

 He said, calmly, as if in casual conversation, “Is this what you did for two gap years? Sat on your lazy, illiterate ass and tried to figure out how to count? Dear, sweet Christ, Jeremy can keep better time than you and he’s on the fucking piano! Are you a charity case, is that it? Did they let you into my program because they felt sorry for you? I mean, can you fucking count? Huh? Do it! Count to four, right now!”

Nicole did not lift her bowed head. “One, two, three, four.”

“Well, thank fuck for that. Here I was, terrified the school system failed you so horribly.” He took a breath. “Nicole, were you rushing, or were you dragging?”

She shook her head. “I-I don’t—”

Ward rushed her direction, at speeds possibly faster than the chair he tossed like a weightless wiffle ball. “What the fuck does that mean? How do you not know! Answer the fucking question, Nicole!”

“Dragging!”

Ward did not ease off. In fact, he stepped closer. “Count. From one to four.”

“One, two, three, four.”

“Keep counting! Don’t stop counting. One to four, go!”

“One, two, three, f—”

“One!”

“F-four. One, two, three, f—”

“One!”

“Four. One, two three, f—”

Screaming in her ear, five or six more times. Until, quieter, “Stop. Now, was I rushing or was I dragging?”

Nicole’s jaw tightened. Head, still bowed.  She swallowed, hard.

“Oh my god. Are you about to start weeping on my fucking drum set? How old are you? Are you a fucking infant? Are you going to cry, Nicole? In front of the whole band, you’re going to cry?”

She did not answer. It only made Ward angrier.

“Which is it, Nicole? Rushing, or dragging?”

“Rushing. You were rushing.”

“Congratulations, you know the difference! Or you’re just very, very good at guessing!” Finally, Ward got out of her face. Walked back to the podium. “I invited you here, Haught. If you want to stay, it’s on you. Start fucking practicing or quit now and stop wasting my time. Xavier, get your ass back on the kit. Let’s play at grown up tempo. In time, preferably.”

As the tune began at the appropriate tempo, bar after bar going uninterrupted, Waverly’s voice echoed in Nicole’s head. You deserve to be here, Nicole. It was something Nicole began to question.

-

Out the door at the end of the session, Dolls stopped Nicole. Promised practice wasn’t always like that. She seriously doubted that, too.

She didn’t want Dolls’s sympathy. She didn’t want Jeremy’s offer to walk with her. Nicole just wanted a minute alone.

Most of all, she ignored the text Waverly sent moments after she left the practice hall.

How was your first day? Did you kick ass?

Regardless, Waverly managed to track Nicole down at the bookstore. So proud and cheerful it was plain unfair. How could Nicole disappoint someone so sweet?

“You didn’t answer my text! How’d it go? Did you blow them all away?”

Does almost crying and/or quitting fall under that category, “blowing them all away”?

Nicole shrugged. “I wouldn’t say I blew anyone away.”

Waverly leaned up and kissed her on the cheek. “Nonsense.”

She had no idea.

“So, I know we said dinner at your place tonight—”

“Because I make amazing Instant Ramen—”

“But what if we went to my place? So I can make you dinner, for a change? It’ll be the whole family, though, if that’s alright.”

“I don’t know. You’ve seen me eat.”

“Yes, and you’re as big an eater as Wynonna. Your appetites combined could endanger whole countries.” Waverly looked at her seriously. “Please let me do something for you. You always pay and you always cook. Just this once?”

Only a monster could deny that face. That pout. “Yeah, okay. I’ll see you at seven.”

Waverly kissed her on the cheek again. Grinning, before actually skipping off. “It’s a date!”

It wasn’t until Waverly left, Nicole realized what she agreed to.

A dinner date, with Ward Earp’s daughter.

At Ward Earp’s house.

With Ward Earp.

She went to the back room and screamed into a dictionary.

-

“The Purgatory Haunted HAM, the best place in town to jam! I’ve received your Tweets and taken your calls, but my manager says I can’t legally threaten people on my show with strangulation, so instead I’ll say this: the ghosts are real, people. Don’t believe me? Then have fun getting strangled by your own curtains when they inevitably get possessed, losers! Oh, I’m getting the look. Here’s music. I’ll be strangling my manager.”

-

7:30. Thirty. Minutes. Late. Of course, it didn’t help Nicole took two showers and scrambled to buy a whole new outfit. Dinner with Ward Earp and his daughter, after today’s catastrophic rehearsal. Perfect was a bar too low. She had to be beyond perfect.

Dressed in new jeans and a new button up, Nicole knocked on the door. Hands shaking.

Wynonna Earp answered the door, mouth full of bread, crumbs clinging to her ripped jeans, and asked, casually, instead of a normal greeting, “What’s your opinion on pizza toppings?”

Nicole blinked.

“We’re not having pizza, we’re just talking about it.”

“I don’t mind pineapple—”

Wynonna groaned loudly and retreated back into the house. Adding, “I hope that’s the only thing you have bad taste in.”

Nicole just blinked, again. What now?

If Waverly hadn’t rescued her from the porch, she might’ve stayed out there all night.

Grinning happily, lighting up the entire evening sky, “You made it!” and hugging Nicole before taking her inside by the hand, helping her shrug off her early winter coat.

“Sorry I’m late. I also wanted to bring you flowers, but they died. So . . .”

Because she forgot them in the car when she ran to her apartment to change and take multiple showers. Not relevant, was it?

Waverly’s delight went unchanged. “That’s alright. I’m just glad you’re here. I was behind on dinner, so you’re just in time.”

“It all worked out, then.” So maybe there was a chance in the universe tonight would work out and not go horribly south. Maybe.

Conversation and low music emitted from the kitchen. Jazz music; Glenn Miller. Waverly’s sisters, arguing no longer about pizza toppings but now about boy bands. Willa Earp was no NSync fan.

The second Nicole saw Ward, her skin went pale. She wondered if it was too late to scream and run out the door, back to her apartment like the whole day never happened. Tuesdays were just like that sometimes.

Ward Earp looked at her, smiled kindly , and happily exclaimed, “Hey, it’s Buddy Rich! She made it!” Like absolutely nothing happened. Like this morning was a VR simulation. Or a really, really cruel prank.

Hands shaking, Nicole cleared her throat. “Uh, evening, sir.”

He even stood and pulled out a chair for her. She half expected him to whisper a threat in her ear. He didn’t.

“Willa, Wynonna,” his cheery tone kept (was he drugged?), calling the sisters from where they fought over pasta at the kitchen stove, “care to greet our guest? Maybe take a seat?”

Willa was fully clothed in her deputy gear, everything but the utility belt. She so generously tossed a “Hey” over her shoulder. Meanwhile Wynonna completely turned to face Nicole. With eyes narrowed.

“Pineapple eater,” she grumbled.

Ward played along, chuckling. “I have to agree with Haught—” Nicole nearly collapsed— “pineapple on pizza. Love it.”

Wynonna made a disgusted face. “Bunch of weirdos. What’re you drinkin’, Haught? Beer? Please drink that nasty Modelo crap Willa stuck us with.”

I like the Modelo,” Willa defended.

“Then drink some! You buy so much and never drink! Please, Haught.”

Nicole took a moment to thank Waverly, who’d kindly gotten a plate of food for her. Somehow sneaking past her older sisters as they fought about portions. “I actually, uh, I, um, I don’t drink. I’ve been sober for about a year now.”

She caught the proud expression in Ward’s eye. His small nod of the head and small smile as he revealed, “Me, too. Almost twenty years. The first year’s the toughest, but it gets easier. Impressive work.”

“Oh, thank—thank you, sir.”

Such pleasantness continued throughout the night. Laughter, overshadowing the jazz music keeping the mood high. Whenever the song changed, Ward asked Waverly which one was playing. She gave the title, artist, and year. Correct, every time. Like she was studying for a test. Wynonna poked fun, but seemed to like Nicole. Willa mostly kept quiet. One-word sentence, when not. And Ward . . .

Ward was absolutely delighted to have Nicole in his home. Any time the conversation slowed or completely halted he tossed a new question at her.

“Where you from, Haught?”

She told him. Big city in Wyoming, with long and frequent getaways to her uncle’s farm in the country, smaller town. Much smaller town, about Purgatory’s size. Probably spent more time at the farm. He joked she had a thing for getting stuck in small towns. She said this particular small town has a bigger presence.

“What do your parents do?”

“Well, they’re not famous musicians, for one.” Got a good laugh out of Ward on that one. Just keep the charm turned up. Only way to survive. “My mom’s an engineer. Project manager; always traveling. My dad works with a butcher. Cows outnumber us down there, you know.”

“They’ll have their revenge one day,” Waverly joked.

“So no musicians in the family, then?” Ward asked. “That’s a shame. You have to listen to the greats, then. Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa.”

“Dave Weckl. Max Roach,” Nicole added, and Ward smiled in satisfaction.

Suddenly he burst into laughter. “What’d you think of that hockey team’s drumline? Waverly mentioned they ‘performed’.”

Waverly began to laugh, too. “She was fuming.”

The hockey “drumline” had eight snares, two tenor drums, and one, single bass drum—bad sound balance. The entire performance, they played along to a pre-recorded track composed mostly of synth parts. Music easy enough for a beginner level. Matched grip. Worst of it all: the drumline did not march. They walked, out of time. In the moment, Nicole swore to the universe she’d destroy the group one day. With a bazooka.

Nicole agreed, “I was fuming.”

“Makes my blood boil,” Ward said, “knowing they are paid for that. They’re allowed to play that. I’m just thankful they’re not in my school. Or even in my town. Waverly, can you imagine playing against that at the festival? Completely talentless.”

“Festival?” Nicole asked. Some kind of town competition?

“It’s a town competition.” Bingo. Waverly sat forward to explain. “Every band in Purgatory competes. There’s a cash prize, but that’s really not what it’s about.”

Ward finished, “It’s about who’s sitting in the audience and which label they work for.”

“It’s also favors season at the station,” Willa mumbled. Most she said all night. “Nobody wants to work security.” She looked directly at Wynonna, who sank lower in her seat. “Too many drunken idiots.”

“Last year my band made second.” Waverly beamed.

Ward did not share her enthusiasm. “Because your drummer was a piece of shit. Thank God he quit. Maybe that terrible drumline attracted him. Idiot could barely hold a stick.”

“Only now Waves is out a drummer,” Wynonna said. “So, not worth it.”

“No,” Ward disagreed, setting his fork aside, “worth it. Moron was holding Waverly back.” He looked to his left, right at Nicole. “You understand my frustration, don’t you, Haught? Ill-prepared drummers who can’t bother to give a shit about the people around them? Who think they’re better than everyone else?”

Immediately, she thought of Champ Hardy. 

“Like Hardy James.” Ward read her mind. 

Oh no, he was in her mind.

“Can’t believe you dated that twerp, Wave,” Wynonna added. “For most of high school.”

“I know,” Waverly sighed.

“Remind us what he said when you asked him to play for your band? When you were starting out?”

Waverly sighed again. Ashamed, no doubt, she’d even bother to speak with Champ Hardy at all. “He said he can’t play in a group.”

“Then . . .”

“Then he joined a different band the next day.”

“Which is a . . . ?”

“Group.”

Wynonna shook her head, laughing. “You ever just want to strangle someone?”

Nicole almost answered. Who wouldn’t support Waverly?

“Waverly deserves someone capable. Mature. Actual fucking talent, you know? With all the work she’s put in?” Ward was looking directly at Nicole.

Because he was in her head. Playing a game. Challenging her, the way he kept staring. The way his smile shrunk. The way he was growing more and more serious with every syllable.

Nicole could play that game, too. “I’ll help you, Waverly.”

Ward’s smile grew.

His youngest was far more polite, outright refusing. “You don’t have to do that, babe. Really, it’ll be okay.”

Nicole persisted, right for Ward to see. “It’s not a problem, really. I am in the top band, so I promise I don’t suck.”

Something told her she’d be in that band for much longer, now.

“Excuse me,” Ward stood, “it’s well past nine. There’s work I need to catch up on.” He left, his mission completed.

What a sly bastard.

Not long after, Willa was gone for her graveyard shift. Nicole wondered: did the woman even like her? Waverly said Willa was the quiet, observing type. If she did say something, there was trouble. There was no doubt in Nicole’s mind Willa was Ward’s daughter, one hundred percent. Same level of scary.

Waverly convinced Nicole to stay and watch a movie. But Nicole wasn’t focused on it. Couldn't, the way Wynonna blabbed on and on about ghost hunting and, allegedly, almost catching one for real. Nicole’s attention was on her new commitment. She stared at the mounted gun above the mantle, “Peacemaker” etched above it, as she considered the situation. It all made sense now. Ward was nice to her because Waverly needed a drummer. But then again, didn’t he spend a good chunk of rehearsal today demonstrating how incapable he thought Nicole was? Desperate times, maybe.

“It belonged to Wyatt Earp, you know,” Waverly whispered. Wrapped in several blankets at the same time, with the fireplace going. “One time Wynonna took it out to shoot, but she couldn’t figure how to reload it.”

The madwoman across the room, talking lively about “haunted” houses she’s sold, couldn’t load a gun. Probably for the best.

“You don’t have to do it, Nicole,” Waverly whispered again. “Don’t feel pressured, please. I can find another drummer. There’s still time.”

Nicole pulled her close, closer into the corner of the couch they sat. “I want to do it, Waverly. And then, when we’re super rich rock stars, I’ll buy out Panda Pete’s farm.”

“Aw—”

“And evict his entire family.”

“You’re terrible!”

A pillow flew in their direction. Nicole found herself more afraid of it than what was considered rational. At least it wasn’t a chair.

“Hey!” Wynonna called. “I’m telling a story!”

“We’re watching a movie!” Waverly rightly argued, gesturing to the TV screen. “But for the record, you shouldn’t go around telling people the house you’re selling is haunted!”

“People eat that crap up. Just last week . . .”

Another ghost story. Nicole simply laughed. This family was sweet. Strange. A little scary, sure. But sweet.

She was more determined than ever. Stay in top band. Stay on Ward’s good side. Don’t lose Waverly. Never, ever lose Waverly.

-

Life was a balance. “Balance” here meaning a scale doing a seesaw back and forth at breakneck speeds.

Nicole was juggling her job at the bookstore, classroom assignments, varsity jazz, JV symphonic band, her relationship, and rehearsals with Waverly’s band. On the bright side, Ward seemed to be easing off. She’d only been embarrassed thrice, and even then it wasn’t too severe. Nothing like the first time.

She could not screw up this performance with Waverly. Ward might kill her on the spot.

-

“The Purgatory Haunted HAM, where all your dreams come true. I saw your Tweets, hung up your annoying calls. I’m feeling well. Yes, I’m being a smidge nicer now. Take it up with my manager. Guy’s a freak. And my babysitter, apparently. Tonight is a town favorite: the annual Music Expo, where young talent and old washed up dorks compete for a grand prize of three thousand big ones. And the chance to catch some producer’s attention. Nothing like whoring yourself out on stage, am I right? Tonight each band is going to perform two songs for four stuck-up judges. Audience can vote too, just keep an eye on Twitter. Or bribe one of the judges, old fashioned styles. I can respect that. Tonight, ten bands will be chosen and will move on to the next round. After that, two bands will be kicked out, once a week, until four remain. On finals night, the four bands will perform two songs of their choice, and one original. Please be advised the performance area tonight will be completely blocked off. Don’t go driving down a roadblock. Sheriff Nedley is an unforgiving bastard. Good luck tonight, losers. Feel free to buy me a drink. Don’t feel free to flirt.”

-

The entire block surrounding Shorty’s was barricaded off for the event. Every inch of the road was lined with bodies, surrounding the outdoor stage in the middle of the road like moths to a light.

Inside Shorty’s was worse. Apparently the whole town was here, in line for drinks. Nicole spotted Ward and Wynonna by the bar, as she pushed against the crowd to meet her band in the blocked-off basement. Overheard, too. Though Wynonna’s infuriated expression could tell a story of its own.

“If you do anything stupid tonight, Wynonna, I swear to dear old Christ himself, I will put your lazy ass out on the curb. Do not ruin this for your sister. Do not screw her career getting drunk and doing something stupid. Do you understand?”

Wynonna downed a shot whilst eyeing her father, who was actively omitting the perfect image he put on at dinner a few weeks ago, the entire time. “Got it, chief. Don’t be a fuck up. Don’t make Ward look bad.”

“Can’t you take anything seriously? Can’t you care, for once? I’m asking you, Wynonna. Do not make a scene, do not embarrass your sister.”

“Take it easy. The last thing I want is to screw up Waverly’s career.”

“Start acting like it. Maybe grow up a little.”

“Don’t worry. Your reputation will not go tarnished today. Waverly’s going to do great, your ego will inflate, and we’ll have a big celebration—a testament to Ward Earp and all he’s done for Purgatory!” Another shot. “You put the guitar in her hand. But you didn’t get her on that stage.”

Wynonna left after that. For the basement, guarded by Willa and Officer Lonnie, a man Willa’s polar opposite. He gave Wynonna a fistbump.

Briskly, Nicole followed. Didn’t feel like getting threatened by Ward tonight. If he was threatening his own daughter, who knows what he’d do to an outsider.

Few of the bands were cramped in Shorty’s basement, essentially a prep room for the performers. Others, the ones first to perform, were queued backstage outside. Security buzzing all over the stage and at the top of the basement stairs. Making sure no foul play introduced itself.

Champ’s band in one corner, that guitarist Red listening to music and banging his head around. Second guitar, Marty, jumping up and down. Bassist, Mercedes Gardner’s brother, Tucker, staring at his toes. Completely silent. Across the way, Fish was staring at Levi while sulking on a crate of booze. Levi, ignoring him.

Robin, Jeremy, and Levi were chatting with Waverly’s band. Dolls was present, though Nicole barely caught a glimpse of him before he was pulled away by Wynonna. They were awfully close.

Shae was present, too. Robin got her the job at the bookstore, so she played bass for his band. A fair trade-off. She teased Nicole about the fact they were competing, often.

Ten minutes until their turn to migrate to the stage, the groups separated off into their own private divisions. Dolls returned. His tidy shirt messy now. Wynonna zoomed past, swiftly. All of a sudden Waverly was handing ten bucks over to Rosita.

“I told you they were banging,” Rosita said, smug. “Why else would your sister be at campus?”

“To drop me off?” Waverly sighed. “Why even hide it? Who cares?”

“Your dad is Ward Earp. It’s a miracle he hasn’t killed Nicole yet.”

Rosita knew well about the flying chair incident; he tried already.

“Speaking of,” she continued, “what’d he think of the new song?”

The final round of competition was far away. Still, it was required an original song be written. Rosita was on Waverly’s case about actually writing it. Waverly refused to reuse old ones, ones played at events separate from past festivals. 

“Truthfully,” Waverly admitted, an apologetic expression on her, “I’ve been in a huge slump. I haven’t finished it yet.”

Nicole stepped in. Rosita looked ready to blow the whole night’s energy. If they went on stage frustrated, no way were they performing as a team. “We have time, babe. First round hasn’t even started yet.”

A scoff. Rosita wasn’t having it, “We’re getting through the first round.”

Waverly raised her brow. “What, did you bribe a judge?”

Another scoff. “No. We’re good. We sound good. We’ll make it.”

Nicole smirked, in a wicked way. “What about round two?”

“We’ll be at finals.” She made sure to prevent the chaos Nicole was stirring; skip to the end. “And we’ll need a song.”

“There will be a song!” Quieter, Waverly added, “Eventually.”

Rosita walked off. “I hope so, Waverly.” In a gentle tone; it wasn’t a threat. It was a worry. Waverly not writing songs was an abnormality. Used to be rare for them to perform cover songs. Tonight both their songs were covers.

The thought hit Waverly, and immediately she turned to Nicole. “What if I can’t? What if this is it? What if I’m all out of songs to write?”

Nicole, steadying her again. “Whoa, hey, it’ll be okay. You’re just hitting an obstacle right now. There is a way past every obstacle, Wave. Don’t sweat it, okay? Don’t stress. Let’s just get through tonight. It’ll come back to you.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

“It will . Just take it easy. You can’t force creativity. Creativity’s like a cat. Right? Fussy, but by your side.”

“So what you’re saying is I need a ball of yarn?”

Nicole shrugged. “If that’s what it takes. You’ll never lose your muse, Wave. Sometimes it just takes a vacation. You’ll be fine.”

Waverly still looked stressed. She stepped closer, into arms that held her tight. “I’m holding you to that. I expect a kitty muse on my desk at sundown.”

-

Experimental jazz was of the highest interest to Robin. Mixing sax with electronics or unorthodox instruments was his go-to style. His band’s first song was a cover of “Held Apart” by Stephen Kielty, Glenn Herweijer, and Ben Sumner. Shae playing bass, Jeremy on synth, Levi on guitar. Fish, watching Levi like a sad puppy backstage. Nicole heard their big break up was thanks to a disagreement: who the best guitarist in rock history was. She refused to believe it was true. But it was a tad too ridiculous to be made up. 

Joining the group on stage was Dolls, with his electric drum set. He and Jeremy were friends long before tonight. Otherwise Nicole would wonder how the hell they scored the best drummer at the academy.

Their second song was curious. “All This I Do for Glory,” by Colin Stetson. A saxophonist Robin idolized. A saxophonist known for the odd sounds he could pull from his horn.

Had to get creative. The song was played by one person alone, over multiple takes. Stetson layering different sax play throughs against each other. Dolls had no worry; there was already a distinctive drum part for him to keep time moving with, now played by him and not entirely by keyboard. Shae took over the lower sax parts and turned it into the perfect bass line. Robin stuck to the melody. Levi replicated the vocal part, his long notes haunting the background. Jeremy had to create a completely new piano part. Setting his synth to a low bass sound and doing a regular accompaniment with lower notes. Adding in a few off-beat hits every other bar. When Robin’s sax reached the brief lower note section, he followed lower, first with descending half notes that began on off-beats, then returning to the same pattern. He played no accidentals;natural notes only. The note contrast made for the best. Jeremy certainly looked proud of himself. Or perhaps that pride was for his boyfriend, playing with the natural charisma of a star?

Nicole didn’t watch the next performer, per se. She watched Levi, as actual steam emitted from his ears. Because his boyfriend, on stage playing the part of superstar, partnered with his Elvis Presley cover band, spent both songs as an extended effort to beg Levi’s forgiveness for their, alleged, ridiculous, fight. Making full eye contact the entirety of his performance, Levi the unlucky bastard sitting first row.

“Reconsider Baby,” by the king himself. (Robin was unhappy to find the sax solo replaced with a guitar solo played by Fish.) Second performance was by Ray Smith, entitled, “Break Up”. A song were Smith asks his ex not to break up with him. Levi was not impressed. Come on baby, don’t break up with me . . .

Next up: terror. Pure, untethered, organic, chair-thrown-at-your-head terror . There were a billion people in the audience. No. Two billion. Waverly’s entire career was riding on this. Ward was in the audience, watching. If she failed, she was positively dead.  

Nicole’s bouncing leg was foiled by Waverly’s hand. The other was handing over a glass of water.

“Babe,” Waverly said, softly, “you’re pale. Take a breath, okay?”

Nicole took a breath. Drank the water. “I haven’t had pre-show jitters since middle school,” she tried to joke. It delivered as flat as a belly flop.

“It’s okay.” Waverly kneeled in front of her, taking both her hands. “I still get them.” Quieter, “So does Rosita.”

Rosita, who tuned and re-tuned her guitar four times in the past fifteen minutes.

“Well, how do you get rid of them? Especially  you. The whole town is watching you.”

Waverly gripped her hand, tighter. “You can’t care about them. Wynonna told me once: ‘Don’t give a shit’. Because the whole town is watching me. Waiting for me to fail. Always, waiting for an Earp to fail. She told me not to do this for them. Or dad. Do it for myself. Perform, for me, not the town. Make myself happy, and nobody else. It’s also why I finally broke up with Champ.”

Stagehand signaled them. Nicole wanted to scream with dread in his pudgy face.

Standing before the stage, awaiting their big shot, Waverly squeezed Nicole’s hand. She tiptoed, to whisper, “You deserve to do something for yourself, Nicole.”

Then she kissed Nicole for the first time in their entire relationship.

“Because you’re amazing .”

Thing was, Nicole didn’t want to do this for herself. Not because of Ward’s tricks, either. She wanted to do this for Waverly.

Waverly, who worked herself from unimaginable pain and even crueler obstacles to be here, on this stage. Performing not as a singer, but as an artist. Singing, so sweetly, as if a plea to the town and their watching eyes. Whispering, gossiping, hissing tongues.

Underneath the skin there’s a human

Buried deep within there’s a human

And despite everything I’m still human

Nicole’s quick snare hits. The guitar on Rosita’s shoulders building a crescendo. Waverly’s second guitar part contributing to the tone. None of it spoke the way her voice did. 

But I think I’m dying here

Nicole noticed Waverly’s eyes, and learned, here, Waverly was lying.

When she sang the line, she was looking right at her father.

-

You got issues, darling

'Cause you waste it all away

You're full of yourself

It's all in vain, all in vain

And it breaks my heart

 

It was the perfect plan. It was a perfect, devious plan.

 

'Cause every time is the last time

And I'm kicking myself just trying to be understanding

 

It was plain evil. Waverly Earp was an evil genius.

 

'Cause it's never your fault

When you're keeping your knees clean

And sorry's below you

It's always me, always me

 

Nicole wished Waverly could’ve watched the redness in Champ’s face, as he and his band lined up on stage. She just had to get a drink of water. Stupid vocalist strains.

Waverly wasn’t dumb. She saw the band line ups. She knew Champ’s band was after hers. She knew calling him out to the tune of Broods’s “Everytime” was completely, truly, evil. A whole song, to call him out; every time she tried to help him, do something for him, he never reciprocated. Never appreciated. Poor fool looked downright offended his entire sound check. Like he finally understood. Or simply felt the ignorant victim.

A snow white grand piano was wheeled out. All bands were to provide their own instruments. Prevented foul play. Nicole’s current kit was a rental. Something told her the piano was not. The way its player, the lead singer, approached it was all too familiar. Or maybe he was more adjusted than Nicole when it came to rentals. (That kit still felt foreign, even after several weeks now.)

He was a strange man. Scratch that. Every member of Champ’s band was strange. Off stage and without parts on this particular Avenged Sevenfold cover of “Fiction”, were the two guitarists. Red, the head-banger from lower jazz. Not a student on second guitar was Marty, who somehow managed to be wilder and more high strung than Red. Next to the two was their bassist. Mercedes’s brother. The town pervert. Expelled from the academyp for getting a little too close and personal with several different women. Standing, staring, stone-faced. Like he hated the stage itself.

On stage: drums and piano. Champ—no explanation needed. Weirdo because he dated Waverly for years and never gave her the time of day. It was a concept Nicole couldn’t grasp. Waverly was worth all the effort in the universe.

The lead singer/piano player was talked about all over campus. Frequently. Showed up every day in suits one might find in Victorian London, minus any hint of an accent. But it wasn’t what he was known for. He was known for his obsession with knives. A garage full of any and every variation of blades. His name was Jack. People called him the “Jack of Knives”.

In all honesty, he was a phenomenal piano player. He and Champ worked quite well on their duet.

There was a quieter section at the end, where Jack stood from his off-facing piano for a synth that addressed the audience. Keeping a continuation of the song on an organ setting. Red, Marty, and Tucker entered the stage as the song came to a close.

Two beats. Right into the next song. Jack, switching his softer side for that of a heavy metal song of the screamo variety. 

This is the anti, anticosmic overload!

Triple the speed of “Fiction”.

Nicole could not believe how fast Champ was playing.

She could never get the hang of a double pedal piece, never mind a part requiring sixteenth triplets; condensed rhythms requiring six hits to land in one beat. It was absolutely never needed in jazz, so she put it off.

Ward was right next to her. Still no Waverly. He was smiling. Nodding his head. Watching Champ.

Under all the noise, he said something to himself. Something easy enough for Nicole to decode.

“He’s fast.”

She looked back to the stage. Champ was barely breaking a sweat.

-

The time between the final band and the announcement of the winners was twenty minutes. Fans, rushing to the festival’s web site or Tweeting in votes. Judges, discussing backstage technicality, proficiency, and overall likeability on stage; who was made for this and who should keep taking lessons.

Nicole and the Earps grabbed dinner at Shorty’s. Nicole lost her appetite the moment she saw Ward, chatting with Champ. Who he hated. Was there a contractually binding rule on “first come first serve” for varsity jazz membership? She still had issues with tempo. It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? Was she about to lose her seat?

There was a hand on her shoulder. Only slightly startling. It was Waverly, looking a bit concerned. “Hey,” she said, “where’d you go there?”

Nicole’s eyes grew wider with each passing second. “I messed up the end of ‘Human’. I added a bass hit when I wasn’t supposed to—”

“Hey. No. You did great, Nicole. You did great! Really, that was our best run.”

Expression went unchanged. “You’re such a liar.”

“I’m not lying!” Waverly wrapped her arms around Nicole in their booth, leaning completely into her. Nuzzling into her neck. Nicole did not mind. “You’re the best drummer in this town. the cutest, too.”

Nicole remained the same. Grumbling, “Liar.”

Waverly kissed her on the cheek. “Cutest. Bestest.”

Finally, Nicole turned to face her. “You can’t bribe me with kisses.”

A shrug. Another kiss on the cheek. “I can try. Don’t pretend—”

Wynonna, who, by all accounts, had been missing from her seat, reentered the scene with a loud, disgusted groan. “Great,” she said, “now my appetite is spoiled. I haven’t even eaten my breadsticks yet. My breadsticks, Waverly!”

-

Just over twenty minutes, all bands were called on stage. Their loyal supporters, watching below. Wishing and praying their favorites advance. The results, as explained by head judge Doc Holliday, were calculated with the judge’s scale and audience votes. Not explained by Doc: primarily judge’s scales. Professional opinions were calculated. Audiences were amateur opinions.

“When I call your group’s name, please step forward. Those I call will be allowed to advance to the next round. I will be callin’ a total of ten groups. The remainin’ nine—this is your stop.”

Geo-Fusion: a dubstep group. If Waverly Earp’s voice lost to a dubstep group, Nicole was fully prepared to burn this place to the ground.

Rocky and the Blue Diamonds: an 80s cover band.

Inside/Outside: a band claiming to be genre-less but playing rock the entire evening.

Sin City: Fish’s Elvis cover band. Levi tried not to look proud.

The Purgatorians: The oldest band here. Country.

DWNBT: A rap group and huge supporters of Wynonna’s ghost hunting show. They would definitely be getting a shout out the next installment.

Robin and the Jetts. Fish cheered, loud. Curiously, so did Wynonna.

Search + Rescue: a rock group who also experimented with electronics. Not as well as Robin, in Nicole’s opinion.

Ocean Blue. Waverly’s band, met with bellowing cheering, enough to cause an earthquake. Waverly was so happy she actually cried. Rosita was too deep in euphoria to be smug about her prediction. Maybe she did have her doubts, after all.

Lake Whisper: slot ten. Champ’s band.  Strong applause, too. Champ was smug. More than the rest of his group. It made Nicole’s smile die down.

What did Ward say to him?

-

The apartment wasn’t anything special. Downstairs was a garage, where Nicole’s beat up old car and Dolls’s electric drum set dwelled. One tiny room upstairs, one bathroom, one tiny master bedroom with its own bathroom. Moderate living room. Decent sized kitchen. Candles from Dolls’s secret girlfriend Wynonna scattered around.

The apartment was Nicole’s, and thus, one of Waverly’s favorite places in the world.

Celebrations were had at Shorty’s. Nicole didn’t stay too long. Too many drunk people. Too many unattended drinks. At least, it was Waverly’s interpretation. She didn’t care to drink. She just wanted to spend the time with Nicole. Dolls staying back at Shorty’s was a bonus. She liked the guy, but cuddling with a third wheel across the room felt strange. Especially when Waverly felt a need to pull Nicole aside and do more than cuddle. Maybe tonight— 

Something else caught her attention, first. There was a beer in the fridge. But Nicole didn’t even look at it. Not even with a sneaky side eye. Just went about her business, clearing room to store leftovers from Shorty’s. Turning to Waverly with a laugh.

“Isn’t that Wynonna’s brand in the fridge?”

“You aren’t bothered it’s in there?” Jokes aside for now. At the homestead, they monitored their fridge at all times. Ward had a habit of lingering. Nicole shook her head.

“The second Dolls sees it he’ll dump it and apologize for half an hour.”

“I’m serious, Nicole.”

And with it, Nicole fell serious, too. “I’m alright, Waverly. Really, it doesn’t bother me. I only drink when I’m depressed. Like, immobile depressed, and I know the signs. I have techniques to counter it if it gets bad, I promise. And I have an observant roommate now. And a really cool girlfriend who cares a lot.”

“You make it sound like it’s easy.”

A shrug. “Not at first, but after a while. I know you know what that’s like.”

Waverly tapped her left foot. “Maybe.”

“If you saw me two years ago,” Nicole leaned against the island in the kitchen, just next to where Waverly sat, “you would not like what you see.”

Waverly grabbed her hand. “I would never judge you like that, Nicole. Not now, not then.”

Nicole’s frown, and shame, only grew. “It was bad, Waverly.”

“I understand.” Waverly stood, right in front of Nicole. Ghosts of her own struggles shining in her eyes. “And I don’t care. I like you, in every shape and form. I always will.”

Nicole leaned down and kissed Waverly. Completely stealing her breath. Inhaling every detail of her. A hand inched up and caressed Nicole’s cheek.

“Sorry,” Nicole exhaled. “Was that okay?”

“It will always be okay, Nicole.” A shy grin. “Do it again.”

Within the minute, they went crashing into Nicole’s room. Fingers fisting tresses of hair. Shirt buttons popping. But, even with the heat and the need of the moment, this immediate second , Nicole dropped Waverly gentle on the bed. Slowly, her hand grappling for Waverly’s belt.

Waverly stopped her. Immediately, Nicole pulled back. Horrified. Not annoyed.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay? Are we going too f—”

“I—I just—I really, really like you.” Waverly pushed herself up on her elbows, shirt strung elsewhere. Suddenly even her tank top felt too revealing. “God, this is so dumb, I’ve done this so many times before—but it’s—It’s a fake leg and it’s not—I don’t want you to be—”

Nicole eyed her sternly. “I won’t.”

“I know, but I’m—”

“I don’t care.” Nicole’s fingers returned to Waverly’s jeans. “Please, may I?”

Waverly was quiet. Then, “Yes.”

Slowly, Nicole tugged, inch by inch, lower and lower. Slowly. Watching Waverly. Waiting for protest. She found none.

All the way, until Nicole, for the first time, met the silver prosthetic everyone knew Waverly for but never saw. Never, under long pants, hot or cold weather. Inserted where Waverly’s leg was amputated in the middle of her left thigh. Nicole stared. As did Waverly, with her jaw clenched and hands shaking.

Nicole leaned down. Kissing at Waverly’s thigh.

Waverly wanted to melt.

“Beautiful. You are so beautiful, Waverly. So brave. So, so, strong.

Waverly fell back. Relaxed. Nicole did not stop.

“You are extraordinary.”

Like was not the word. It was too small. It was not as important. Not as committed.

The proper word was love. Waverly loved Nicole Haught.

It wasn’t too soon. Love was not a timed event. A waiting list. It was a feeling, a surefire feeling.

Waverly was certain she loved this woman. This woman worshipping her like no one ever did, and never would. This kind, proper, woman , worshipping the parts of her past and present.

Waverly was inclined to stay for future.

-

“Wynonna Earp, your host, your DJ, your musical hero. Your general one, too. Ghosts are meaner than you think. Anyway, the results are in. Last night, Geo-Fusion, Blue Diamonds, Inside/Outside, Sin City, the Purgatorians, DWNBT, Jetts, Search, Lake Whisper, and, importantly, Ocean Blue advanced to round two. Nine of them deserved it. I sincerely hope you butthurt assholes trolling my sister on Twitter, calling her a cheater, make it out of your mom’s basement, so I can fucking strangle you. Oh shit, side eye. Have some Swift. My sister works harder than you ever will, suck it!”

-

Nicole’s blissful, Waverly-filled weekend was killed in one, precise shot.

Champ Hardy was at the drum kit.

She looked to Dolls, sitting behind him. Shaking his head, annoyed. Champ had a pair of his sticks. Jeremy was mouthing, Sorry!

Champ greeted Nicole like they were friends. Like she wasn’t here before he was and dating his ex. He did not move from the kit, all the way until Ward entered the room. Ward did not do a silent, intimidating full run. He took a moment to introduce Champ.

They already performed the old set of songs, prepping a whole new show now. He told the drummers, “I want to try something new.”

Another Robert Svane song, “Wind Fires”. Slower tempo than normal.

Champ did not make a fool of himself. He played in time. Played fills that didn’t screw the whole band up. He had the smug, proud look on his face, one of complete overconfidence. At the end of the song, Ward thanked him.

They took it at tempo. Champ made no mistakes.

Ward was pleased . Smiling, addressing the drummers, “See? This is why we have alternates. We’ll keep Hardy on this one.”

Nicole fell back in her chair. Furious. Wind Fires was her song. She earned it in the first place!

Dolls looked to her. “He can have one,” he whispered. “The other two are ours.”

Three songs, a new drummer for each. Did Ward really think them so incompetent? So talentless? That they each had the capacity for one song?

Every day, the entire week, Nicole spent two hours in the practice hall. Each day, cancelling or postponing dinner plans with Waverly. She wasn’t losing to Champ.

Never again.

Chapter Text

Dolls sighed. “He just keeps assigning him parts. He’s basically taken everything from the two of us.”

Across the center of their kitchen, pouring coffee, Nicole felt a spike of frustration. “Tonight’s concert is basically all Champ. Why should we even bother wasting our gas driving?”

They descended the stairs, together, cold stick bags clutched in their hands. The contents would continue to go unused; Dolls had a single conga part and Nicole’s grand contribution tonight was turning pages. The full college experience.

They tossed their things in Dolls’s SUV and prepared for an uneventful drive into the big city for an even less eventful performance. Last time they took Nicole’s car. Dolls complained about the fussy heat the entire way.

About five minutes into their drive, Dolls added, “There is no way Ward is taking Champ seriously. He hates people like Hardy. People who can’t show up with their own sticks. This is all a way to get under our skin.”

Nicole’s eyes were stuck on the window. The white-painted town she traveled so far to see and dreamed so long to live in. She only grew more and more homesick. And she hated home.

The night went as expected. Silently turning pages for a doofus who forgot his sticks again. Watching him create a great glory for himself. Watching Ward, allowing him to sit there and take the whole show for himself.

-

The one, single, sole downside to dating Waverly was the fact her father was Ward Earp. The fact Nicole sat across from him in a fancy restaurant she had absolutely no appetite for. Every time he so much as smiled she was ready to smack him. He gave all her parts to Champ Hardy. 

As if he knew, in a silence between subjects, he proclaimed, “Hardy did excellent tonight. Not bad for his first concert with us. He has potential to be one of the greats someday, I think.”

Never brought up Champ again, or the performance. Not once. Didn’t even talk about music. Just politics, with Willa.

He paid Nicole no mind until they left the restaurant. Standing outside, where Waverly convinced the group to migrate to the cinema directly across the street.

She had asked Nicole, “Any movies you want to see, sweetheart?”

Ward watched Nicole from off in the corner. This was a test. She knew the answer.

“Actually, babe, I should head home. I’m so behind on assignments right now.” Lying. She was lying to Waverly Earp, and her father was happy about it.

Nicole caught a ride home with Jeremy and Robin, who’d hung back for a date. Dolls arranged it, after she’d called to see if he left. When she made it back to the apartment she saw why he left so quick: he’d stolen her plan. Practicing until the sun came back up.

-

Are you sure you’re okay, baby? You were really quiet last night.

I’m okay, Wave. I’m sorry I left early. 

That’s alright. You seemed tense.

Just tired. Staying up late before a 6 AM rehearsal wasn’t the best idea.

I told you!

Eh. Worth it.

[Wink emoji]

-

Monday. Nine p.m. on the dot, the doors burst open. The lively practice room died at an instant. The figures inside snapping to attention no different from a military lineup. The drill sergeant making his stride to his podium. His pupils waiting in terror and not in the wonder of a new lesson. Only tonight was different. Ward was somber. His phone on and in his hand.

“Okay, gang, let’s put our instruments down. Put ‘em down. Today we’re starting things different. There’s something I’d like to show you.”

He actually looked sad.

“A few hours ago I received some terrible news. An old student of mine, Mikey Barnes, died in a car accident. When he started here, we could barely remember his scales. His first audition was almost bad enough to get him rejected. But I had a feeling about him. Sure enough, by the time he graduated, he was a signed musician and he sat in first chair in each and every one of our top bands. He was the best damn trumpet player I’ve ever heard. Please, just listen.”

The tune was a ballad. Brushes on the drums, quiet long notes on an upright bass. Barnes soloed with a plunger mute the entirety of the three minute piece. He didn’t play, he performed ; pouring his very soul into each and every note he breathed. 

The room went silent, in a way different from usual. It wasn’t until Ward thanked them for listening things moved ahead.

“Let’s make some art,” he said.

New charts were passed around. This time they’d be prepping for the school’s annual winter show, the last show of the year before winter break and all the holidays that came with it. Every piece was written by Robert Svane. For the first time in the two years since he’d left, he’d be in attendance. Home. 

The thought must’ve been stressful. It must’ve been the reason Ward saw fit to cut the first song in the middle of sight reading to scream at Champ about tempo. Quarter note equals 300; fast. Very, very, very fast. Too fast to be sensible.

Ten bars. Ward stopped again. Growing furious.

And, after stopping a third time, after throwing a pencil in Champ’s direction, “I am not slowing down, you pathetic, horse-faced moron. Play in my fucking time or get out of my fucking band!”

Nicole sat up. 

This was it. This was Champ’s embarrassing moment.

The fourth stop, Ward had no mercy as he shouted, “Motherfucker!” and nearly threw Champ off his chair the way he stormed over. The way Ward got in his face. 

“Are you really this stupid?” he asked, and Champ gulped in horror. “You horse-faced pile of horse shit , play the god damn tempo!”

“I am!” Champ was brave enough to fight back. Nicole felt scared for him. So did Ward, maybe.

“Get the fuck off my kit, White Strips. I mean really, did you use the whole fucking box?”

Champ dropped himself in Dolls’s chair. Dolls tried not to look too happy as he settled back onto the kit. As did Nicole. Finally, Champ was getting no more special treatment.

“Fuck!”

Oh, no. Dolls couldn’t play at tempo, either. Ward threw a stray cowbell at him. Luckily the only thing it hit was Champ’s backpack. Champ’s for-show, empty-looking backpack.

Rotation continued. Nicole’s turn. Her big moment to win everything back. It ended with Ward screaming, “Fuck you!” In such a sudden fashion she nearly dropped her sticks. 

He sighed, before turning to address the band.

“I apologize, you guys. I have to babysit the drummers. Go take five. Take a breather, get a drink, take a dump. Go on vacation. I don’t know how long this is bound to take.”

He remained completely silent until the room cleared. The second the door shut, the last sax out the door, he turned to the drummers.

“One of you shit-headed rats can play that kit. I mean, statistically. Let’s find out who it is.”

Champ cycled back. Ward clapped at tempo. He was adamant about it. It was the tempo, and they’d deal with it or get out. 

Champ tried for a few bars. Close. But not fast enough. Ward clapped harder. Stepped closer. Screamed in his face. Nothing. Drummers cycled out.

Same thing for Dolls, and he was even closer. Genuinely, Ward looked disappointed he couldn’t do it. His longest standing drummer, disappointing him. Failing him. 

Nicole approached the kit with a steeled determination. This was it. This was the chance to win. This was the chance to solidify who was great and who was turning pages.

Not quite. Though by far she did last the longest. 

One more complete cycle of failure. On round three Ward commented how he truly hated Champ’s face. He also called him “Pepsi breath”.

Dolls accidentally dropped a stick when he sat down. Ward didn’t even let him play. Commenting, “You used to be the heart of this group, Xavier. A real solid player. Now you can’t hold a fucking stick. You’re a fast ride, too, I bet. Not a fast player, but a fast ride. No wonder you never fucking smile, you miserable fuck up loser.”

He had an introduction for Nicole.

“From way up fucking north, it’s Patty McWay-Too-Fucking-Slow! You know, you really do look like an oversized leprechaun, Haught. Redder than Mars it-fucking-self.”

Nicole was too slow. But when Ward tried to cut her off, she kept going. Kept pushing. For a second he let her. Then he was cursing her out for going too slow and trying to outdo his authority. Something in there about her never finding a “pot of gold”.

Champ. Dolls. Nicole.

Champ. Dolls. Nicole.

Champ.

Dolls.

Nicole.

Two hours passed.

The cycle never stopped.

“Oh thank god, he’s found the problem. Thank you, James, it was the fucking seat height. Wow, you are a sack of stupid! You really think that's going to help you, you dumbass?” 

Champ’s bright solution: raising the seat height. It absolutely did not help him. If anything, it made it worse. He cursed and wiped the sweat from his brow, before making room for Dolls to fail the same.

Ward sighed when Nicole sat. “Let’s finally bring this home. What do you say, Haught? Will you play the fucking kit so everyone can move on with their lives?”

She did not answer. She became a windup toy and played. By now she wasn’t sure what it was she was playing, only that she played. A windup toy. Sweat fell into her eyes and down her arms. Her fingers numb as something, by instinct, wiggled between them. She couldn’t feel the sticks in her hands anymore. Or her hands, for that matter. There was one on the ride cymbal, bouncing up and down like a sign on a windy day. The angled tool in her left hand was the same; a basketball on a court. Her legs, a numb, rhythmic stomping.

Ward had yet to stop her. He yelled, over the beating of cymbals and beating of Nicole’s blood, but not for her to stop. Curses and demands, for her to keep going. 

“Faster! You motherfucker, play faster! Faster! God damn it, faster!”

She looked up at him with one, crazed, half-open eye. Sweat blinding her. He was staring back at her. Stone-faced. Calculating. Waiting. Watching. She was not ordered to stop playing, thus she did not stop playing.

Exactly one minute later, Ward’s fingers curled together into a fist and raised. Nicole took the cue, nearly toppling over the snare drum. If he was talking, she could not hear him the way her heart pounded in her ears. The way she was panting as a dog on a hot summer day.

It was another full minute before Ward stepped closer. Leaned in. “Congratulations, Haught, you’ve earned the part. I guess it really was the fucking seat height. Alternates, get your sweat off Haught’s kit. I will go get the musicians.”

Rehearsal ended at one in the morning. Nicole slept in her car; she was too exhausted to make it home.

-

Save me

I’m losing my only dream

I can use some guiding light

Some place to go

If you hear me let me know

-

“Oh shit, I fell asleep!”

Nicole blinked her confused eyes, to find Waverly in the kitchen. Turning the pot she fell asleep tending. She’d put her head down for one second . . .

Waverly was so, so, so generous. Not that Nicole needed a reminder, but she finished dinner. Adding, with a genuine smile, “I took care of it, babe. I can cook too, you know.”

Nicole blinked again and rubbed her eyes once before standing, meeting Waverly in the kitchen. “I invited you to my place. It’s only right I cook for you.”

“So what you’re saying is we need to go to the homestead more?” 

Promptly, Nicole shut up. And went pale. If Ward knew how many times they’d slept together already . . .

Waverly caught on. Tapping Nicole’s nose. “Didn’t think so. Sit down, you big, stubborn baby.”

Nicole obliged, but only because taking every practice slot every day of the week was exhausting.

Frustratingly so; she fell asleep during the movie they watched, too. Waking just in time to catch the ending. Looked like it might’ve been a good film. There was no credits music, just apologies flying left and right. But Waverly was so kind.

“My poor baby,” she said, “getting overworked in top band.”

Waverly had absolutely no idea.

“I heard you got the hard part! Playing at 300 BPM is not easy.”

The memory of that first rehearsal exactly one week ago came back to Nicole. All the drummers, competing for one part for a little over two hours. “No it isn’t,” she agreed.

Waverly kissed her on the cheek, making to untangle herself from their designated spot on the couch. “You look so cute when you sleep.”

“Even when I snore?”

Waverly leaned down to grab their plates. Nicole’s food half-eaten. “Even when you snore.”

“Hey, no, let me wash those.”

Waverly rushed faster to the kitchen. “You’re tired!”

Nicole jumped off the couch, sprinting across the apartment faster. Longer legs! “I had a nap!” 

She managed to arrive at the sink first, just barely cutting Waverly’s path. Waverly had no luck trying to sneak past her.

“Get out of the way, please!” She set the glass plates aside, safely on the counter. “Nicole Haught—”

Nicole Haught lifted Waverly, tossed her on the couch, and sprinted back to the sink. Only problem was Waverly recovered deceptively fast and raced back before a single dish could be wet. But she could not physically pull Nicole away, no matter how she tried.

“Let me do it, you tired, overly tall jerk!” Yanking at Nicole’s arm. 

“No! Sit down and be a guest!”

Before Nicole could use it, Waverly stole the bottle of dish soap and ran. Nicole chased. They fell into a pickle in the living room, all thanks to the couch, until Waverly managed to make a break for the left. Nicole’s bedroom close by. Nicole tackled her to the bed and pinned her down.

“Hand over the dish soap, fiend!” she warned. Waverly retaliated with a kiss. “No, I will not be won with sweet kisses, Waverly Earp!”

Waverly lunged up and kissed her again. “I don’t see the crime here, officer.”

With a wink. Biting her lip. Nicole nearly melted.

“Aren’t you going to do something about it, Haught?”

Nicole leaned lower, closer. “I might.”

It was a smooth flow by now. A practiced groove, a song and dance they performed by heart. Soft lips, meeting again and again in such a fashion they may never meet again; the tugging of buttons, the downward slide of pants, a gleaming, silver shine always meeting Nicole’s eyes; a closeness that should’ve been terrifying, but felt so damn right.

The high was unfortunate. The higher they went, the lower there was to fall.

Waverly was in Nicole’s ear. Nicole’s ear was on Waverly, listening, to every pant, as she begged, “Faster.”

Something about that word felt off.

“Faster, baby.”

She ignored the word.

“Faster, Nicole!”

Nicole stopped.

Something came over her. Something forced her to jump far, all the way to the edge of the bed. An urgent, panicked need to escape. To never, ever hear that word again.

“Nicole? Nicole, are you okay? Babe, you’re pale, are you okay?”

The answer was no. As she sat here, wide-eyed, mind falling into a trapdoor of an endless, looping spiral, drenched suddenly in a cold sweat, the answer was no.

That night, playing. Ward’s screaming, so crystal clear to her. The chair on the first day. The battle for a stupid part. In that moment, she was terrified.

Nicole was terrified of Ward.

A gentle hand stroked the back of hers. Slowly. Cautiously. “Nicole, are you okay? Please, baby, talk to me.”

Nicole was too embarrassed to look at Waverly. “I—I just—I think I need a minute.”

“Yes, of course.”

It took a long, long shower to clear her head. Even then, it remained clouded.

Waverly did not move from the bed. Leg was off. She was here to say. Here, to make sure Nicole was okay for the night.

I don’t deserve this woman, Nicole thought.

“How’re you feeling?”

Nicole felt disgusted with herself. Embarrassed. She was disgusted. “I’m sorry, Wave, I don’t what’s—”

“Come lay down. Come on.”

Nicole did not move. “This is so stupid. I’m so sor—” 

“You’re not feeling well, Nicole. That’s not stupid.” She patted the empty spot next to her. “Come lay down.”

Waverly did not leave her side. She held Nicole all night. Made sure, all night, Nicole was okay.

Nicole spent the time thinking of ways to pay this back. This . . . love. This was love. A love she never experienced before.

-

I’m really sorry.

Nicole. Don’t.

It’s just… really embarrassing. I don’t know what happened.

It’s okay.

I just need you to know it’s not because of you.

I know.

I really like you, Waverly.

I really like you, too.

I’m sorry.

Nicole Haught, stop apologizing!

-

“To the person who requested ‘literally anything but Christmas music’—I’m right there with you. On the bright side, it’s almost stupid Christmas. It’s almost over, buddy, just hang in there. Speaking of which, there’s a sale down at our sponsor’s shop. Visit Kate Elder’s Tarot Reading on Main before the New Year and get your reading half off. Good way to find out whether or not your x-mas dinner will go according to plan or get completely derailed by your drunken aunt and her deadbeat husband. Happy holidays, Purgatory. Don’t drink too much ‘nog. Except for the asshole still trolling my sister on Twitter. Choke on some ‘nog. You're lucky she doesn't use that thing. I’ll find you, you shit wagon!”

-

It was in reverse; Champ had a single, auxiliary cabasa part for the concert. Dolls played the Latin piece. Nicole played the two swing pieces. Apparently, according to Ward over dinner with the Earps, Robert was in awe of Nicole’s styling. Whether or not this was true or because Waverly was in the room was a mystery. Either way, Nicole was feeling confident. A little overconfident.

The timing was excellent; she was visiting her family for winter break. Alone. (Though it was probably best not to bring Waverly; if her family ruined this, she would be ruined.)

In the driver’s seat of her car, driving down all the way from Purgatory, Nicole slumped in her seat and groaned forever.

Maybe it won’t be that bad.

She groaned louder. What a stupidly ignorant thought to have!

She got out of the car. Grabbed her bag, screamed internally, and headed for the home she knew for years but could never seem to force herself to love.

On the second floor, the curtains of her sister’s old room were open. Moonlight mingling, inviting itself in. The entire white brick home, reflecting the glow as the moon itself. There were no decorations in the yard. Hadn’t been for a long time.

Nicole pressed forward.

Joel Haught, the brother of Nicole’s father, a man with a different colored beard from that on his head, answered the door. Big grin on his face, one of a troublemaker. Same one Wynonna Earp back in Purgatory had. “Uh oh,” he said, “it’s trouble! Big red trouble!”

Nicole shook her head. Smiling in the same playful kind of fashion, because, so far, Joel had never done anybody any harm. Alternatively: she liked her Uncle Joel. “Just because your hair grayed out doesn’t mean you’re not as red as the rest of us.”

“It’s not gray. It’s a dye job. All the kids’re doin’ it.”

“Uh huh.”

“Come on in, kid, no use in freezin’ outside.” He paused. Peeked further out the door. “What, your lady friend didn’t come with you?”

“I didn’t want to put her through that drive.” More like she didn’t want to risk Waverly getting scared off by the family. By the parents.

“So you’re sayin’ I prepared a demonstration of my talents for no reason?”

“Didn’t you get banned from the karaoke bar? Because you scared business away?”

“I beg to differ. Nobody will ever do a better Cash cover. Nobody!”

Trekking deeper into the house, Nicole found inside was as bare as out. Clearly, there was room set aside for a tree at the bottom of the stairs. But, no tree. No decorations. Not even the slightest scent of pine.

At the dinner table: Nicole’s father. The grip on her bag tightened.

He did not look up from his cell phone, and Nicole did not try to grab his attention. The silence would have remained forever if Joel hadn’t walked in and broke it himself.

“Earth to Billy! Nicole’s here!”

Waverly laughed for a solid five minutes when Nicole mentioned her father’s and uncle’s names, twins, combined, made “Billy Joel”. What’s worse was Nicole’s cousins: Johnny and Willie. Joel claimed Willie was after his brother, not Nelson. It wasn’t. And Johnny had nothing to do with Cash. It did.

“There you are.” Nicole’s father stood, to his towering height, but he did not look up from his phone. “Have a nice drive?”

“I was hoping for a lot less snow.”

William Haught did not reciprocate. Looking at his phone.

“Any problems with dinner?” Nicole thought she'd try again. Why not.

He was kind enough to look up then. “Help me in the kitchen.”

Then he was off. Looking back at his phone.

Nicole wasn’t stupid. She knew William was looking at scores. Whilst a football game played across the room. Always with the sports. Hayley died—too busy watching sports to talk about it. Too busy watching sports to celebrate Nicole’s acceptance into the academy. Too busy watching spots to realize he was bound to lose his only other daughter.

It wasn’t the sports fans Nicole hated. It was the sports themselves. She wouldn’t tell Waverly. It was too petty and stupid.

In the corner of the kitchen, after his guests’ attentions turned toward the TV, he spoke again. “I told you to be here at six. Mind reading the time?” At least the phone was away. It was a start.

“There was traffic. It’s 6:10, is it really that big a deal?”

“I expect you to keep your promises, Nicole. You tell someone you’re—God damn it, where does your mother keep the damn plates?”

Nicole opened the cabinet directly to his right. Asking, as he basically pushed her aside, “Why isn’t Mom here to do this?”

William shoved a stack of white ceramic plates into her hands. “Business trip. She’ll be back on the third.”

Nicole frowned. “It’s Christmas.”

“It’s work. There will be more Christmases.”

Not for Hayley, Nicole thought. She bit her tongue. They weren’t fighting here. She didn’t drive a brutal drive to fight.

William exhaled. Annoyed with her questioning. “Plans change.”

“You said you’d be at the winter show, but you cancelled. Guess everyone's plans are always changing, then.” So much for biting her tongue. She was aware she needed to keep calm. But with William, it was hard sometimes. 

“Are you payin’ for my gas? You best watch that attitude, kid.”

“You have never been to a single one of my shows. Not ever.”

She wasn’t really sure why it was pouring from her mouth. That’s just how this family worked: preach togetherness, while simultaneously sitting ten feet apart. She worked hard . Why couldn’t he just care?

It was further infuriating, how much he didn’t care now. And how little she could do about it. “I said watch your mouth, Nicole. Some of us work for a livin’. We ain’t got time for no silly music shows.”

“When I played softball you never missed a game. Both of you—you used to take time off to watch!”

“Are you signed? You makin’ money? Huh? Didn’t think so.”

“I didn’t make money off of softball.”

“Jesus Christ, I’ll set the damn table myself.”

Typical. Wasn’t winning, so he ran away.

Same as always.

-

William watched football the entire dinner, barely making conversation. Primarily, those who spoke were Nicole’s uncle and two cousins. Mostly bragging about careers. Willie, about his failing cannabis shop—as if there was something to brag about there—and Johnny, about his soaring college run as a kicker.

“Funny, I heard the kicker was the laziest position on the team.”

Nicole smiled at her own comment, as Johnny's died, his gauges swinging in his ears as he looked between his giggling father and giggling brother. “I do stuff, too!”

“Like what,” Nicole teased, “kick?”

Even William got a laugh out of that one.

“Like you’re so good! Music’s easy.”

“After nine or ten years, sure. Yeah.”

Johnny wasn’t done with the conversation, but Willie changed the subject. “Waverly’s a singer, right? The best one, I bet. Real pretty, too.”

Nicole tilted her head, no different from a confused dog. What she got for adding him on Instagram. “Are you hitting on my girlfriend? In front of me?”

He waved his hand. No big thing, just flirting with his cousin’s girlfriend at the dinner table! “Whatever. She’s bisexual, right? I got one of those, uh, those gaydar things. I know things.”

“Only gay people have gaydars, Will.”

Immediately, his father burst out laughing. “Always knew you had it in ya, son!”

Face redder than Santa’s suit itself, Willie stammered. Nicole stared him down until he completely shut up. 

“What kind of music does she do?” Joel leaned in his chair, an eyebrow perked. Wickedness on his face. “Country?”

Nicole’s face twisted into disgust. “A whole genre about hating your wife and wanting to fuck your truck . . .”

“Not that redneck nonsense, country country! Purgatory’s a small farmin’ town, ain’t it?”

“It is, but she doesn’t sing country. Her dad’s too much of a jazz fanatic to let her anywhere near it. Last week her older sister played some just to make him mad.”

Joel laughed. “Good on her.”

“She does indie folk, mostly. Slow songs with emotion, that sort of thing.”

She wouldn’t have it any other way. Waverly’s voice was peaceful and relaxing. Their weekly rehearsals were bliss. Listening to Waverly, carry out a tune with elegance and the grace of someone deeply passionate and long practiced? It was therapeutic.

But maybe too relaxing. One time they played a ballad and Nicole fell right asleep at the kit. Had nothing to do with the extra midnight practice she kept secret from Waverly, right? Or the fact it was an everyday affair?

“Wait, you drum for her?” Johnny asked, not much waiting for a response before tacking on, “Wow, I’m so sorry for her.”

Nicole leaned forward to whisper, “Kicker.”

Johnny glared at her.

“For the record, I’m core drums for the top band. The composer for our winter show songs said my styling was brilliant.”

“Yeah, well, dumb luck, I guess. You’ve always had luck like that.”

Nicole snorted. Absolutely nothing about her journey to core drums was dumb luck. Every breath of it was work . “The kicker thing was a joke, Johnny. Feeling a little offended?”

“Music is subjective, Nicole,” William finally piped up. To dump on her career. Typical, again. Always had to have the last word. He was even kind enough to give the game behind her a break. “You can’t prove you’re a good drummer, per se. Johnny’s got stats. You got opinion.”

The hand in Nicole’s lap clenched. She could damn well prove. “There are techniques and technicalities to music, too. They don’t sit there and pick their favorites at concerts.”

“That’s prestigious shit, kid. Don’t fib.”

A dagger of frustration impaled her, right in the heart. Nobody was downplaying everything she’d achieved. Not even her own father. Especially her own father. “Hop on that kit upstairs and I’ll show you skill versus crap.”

William’s attention did not leave her. “I asked you to watch that attitude, girl.”

“Sure, I’ll shut up and let you—”

“Nicole Rayleigh Haught, that’s enough, god damn it!” Slamming his fork down, bearing his crooked teeth buried under inches of red facial hair. “You go to a good school. Congratulations. You’re in a fancy band and a rock ‘n roll band. Cool. You got an inflated ego. You got the drug addition to match the shit career you’ve chosen—”

“I’m sober!”

“Keep playin’ in a jobless field. See how long you stay prestigious. How long you’ll go before you’re beggin’ your cousin Johnny for money.”

Her cousin seemed less enthusiastic than before, more awkward now. This was an awkward thing.

Nicole didn’t notice. Didn’t care. Only her father. The square-off they were having, despite her want to avoid it. “Johnny Fuck Up will never hear from the NFL. Same way you never did.”

Picked his fork back up. Eyes stuck on the TV. “I’m done with this.”

Nicole leaned in front of him, in front of his precious TV and his dream never lived. “Just admit you don’t give a shit and we’ll both be done with this, Bill.”

Fork dropped. Dinner forgotten. William leaned close to his daughter. Serious. Furious. “I have never, and will never, give a shit about your rock star ambition. I think it makes you lazy. I think it makes you naïve. I think it’s a waste of time, and I think—no, I know you are goin’ to fail. You need to stop the drums and grow up. It’s time for you to stop ruinin’ your life and quit, Nicole, that’s what I fuckin’ think.”

“Great. Cool. Exactly what I fucking thought.” Nicole got up and left. William did not stop her.

Outside, stuffing her bag back into her car, she looked back on the house. The white, prison-colored bricks. Her sister’s window. 

And promptly stormed back in.

Not to say anything. To grab her drumset, piece by piece, and shove the whole kit into her tiny car. Trip by trip, until the bass pedal and the final pair of sticks were jimmied into the backseat. Here, at the very last possible chance, William emerged from the house to stop her. After he took a long, hard think to consider whether or not he wanted his only daughter to leave.

“You’ve had your tantrum,” he said. “Now get back inside. You’re makin’ a clown of yourself.”

She didn’t say a word.

“Nicole, I am talkin’ to you.”

Nothing. She pushed on the car door until it finally shut, every part of her instrument wedged inside like a perfect Tetris puzzle.

“Rayleigh!”

Then, she spoke. “Don’t act like you give a shit now. Look how long it took you to get outside!”

“This is Christmas dinner. We are havin’ a family get together. Now is not the time for this.”

“There will be more Christmases. Right?”

William was silent. Watching, as his last daughter stormed past him and onto the driver’s side of the car. She did not get in. Not yet. She stared at him, her fist grasping at the open door behind her left side.

“I’m going to be the best drummer that school has ever seen. I don’t need you, and I don’t give a shit what you think. I don’t. I sincerely don’t. I’m good at this. No, I’m great at this. I work my ass off, every single fucking day, and you have never given a shit. The only thing you do, Dad, is lose your kids, rolling in your own self-pity. Have a nice fucking Christmas.”

-

Save me

I’m trapped in a fire world

Where the ending’s all the same as every other

We’re only here to die

-

In a fit of irony, the last thing Waverly was expecting to see at Nicole’s apartment was Nicole. Home from her trip exactly two weeks early. No calls, no texts. Used to be, Nicole would text if she was so much as one minute early. Never mind ending a whole trip by fourteen days. 

Clearly Nicole wasn’t expecting Waverly, Jeremy, Robin, or Levi. Dolls was just as surprised as Waverly. Or maybe it was the fact she was hauling an entire drum kit up the stairs, trip by trip, abandoning her usually friendly nature and greeting absolutely no one, before disappearing into her room. Waverly was swift to disappear with her. Concerned.

Seven pairs of non-red, worn drumsticks, wood chipping right off them, sprawled across the floor of her bedroom. A dusty old red drumset that made Waverly feel to sneeze. Nicole, slapping the whole thing together like she was on a time limit.

“Nicole?” Waverly shut the door. Apartment went silent. “Is everything alright?”

Waverly asked the question too much. Nicole gave her a reason to ask it too much. So she ignored it. Kept trying to force her snare on a stand that didn’t seem to share a single intent of cooperating.

She pinched her finger adjusting the height and cursed. Waverly pounced. Ignoring Nicole’s protests as she pushed the poor snare from her grip and completely grabbed her by the shoulders.

“I need you to calm down, okay?”

Waverly could see it, in her eyes. Anger. Hurt. Soaking in it for an entire, eighteen-hour drive. 

“Please breathe, Nicole.”

And she did. But she did not look at Waverly. Simply too embarrassing. She was a grown woman, throwing a tantrum. But Waverly did not give a single shit about that. Because she wasn’t even the slightest hint of a shallow person. Absolutely nothing like Nicole’s parents.

Her parents. Nicole felt tense again.

-

“So, you’re home early.”

“Only by a little bit.” Belly flop. It delivered like a belly flop.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Yes.”

Waverly blinked. That was easy. The entire ride back to the homestead, Nicole hadn’t said a word.

It was her plan to catch a ride with Willa, who was stuck late at the station. It was Christmas Eve. The Earps were having a family dinner. Waverly couldn’t rightly decide quite yet, stuck in her own dilemma, if it was appropriate to invite Nicole. She wasn’t quite sure what was happening, after all. Would she even want to stay, or did she want some space? What she certainly wasn’t expecting was getting the answer so easy.

“My parents are assholes,” was Nicole’s grand explanation. “Well, I should say my dad is. Mom wasn’t even there. Business trip.”

Waverly reached for Nicole’s hand. Nicole, grabbing it gently. “On Christmas?”

“Work is important. Every year for the past five years.”

“Well, what happened with your dad, sweetheart?”

“He made it very clear he doesn’t care about any of this. I can’t be a cop, I can’t be a musician. I don’t what what he wants me to do. Anyway, I got mad and I left. No use spending two weeks hearing about how I should quit, right?”

Waverly looked so deeply pained for her. If she didn't have a support system like Wynonna, she would've quit a long time ago. Nicole squeezed her hand. Felt a strong need to give Waverly everything in the world, because damn was having someone who cared refreshing.

“Anyway, um, I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“We’re having dinner. Stay.”

For once in her life, Nicole pushed away her fear of imposing. Tonight she’d be selfish. Tonight she just wanted to be near Waverly.

It was exactly what she got. Holding hands under the dinner table, sitting together, watching a movie. Falling asleep together, on the couch, wrapped under the same hoard of blankets.

There was one moment of separation. Shortly after dinner, while Waverly cleaned up and her sisters argued about which movie to watch. Waverly then left to change into warmer pajamas. Ward and Nicole alone by the cleaned dinner table.

“It was your parents, wasn’t it?”

Nicole looked at him.

“They’re afraid to have a musician, is that it? It’s too 'risky' a career.”

Nicole shook her head in renewed frustration. She spared no second to be amazed at his guessing skills. “That’s exactly it.”

“See, that’s just it; you will make it. You’re one of them.”

What the hell was in his drink tonight? Dissolved happy pills?

“You’re one of the people who actually gives a shit. You’re not like Hardy. You’re not like Xavier. You’re an actual fucking musician, who gives a shit.”

“I thought you liked Dolls?”

“Dolls follows orders, but his heart’s not really in it. And Hardy—come on, let’s be honest. I only brought that dumbass in to piss you both off. Just look how great the winter show was.”

Looks like Dolls was right on that one. There was another question, here. “Do you hate him because he was wrong to Waverly?”

“Waverly’s a grown woman, Haught. I don’t give a shit who dates her. I don’t give a shit what you want from her. Marry her, fuck her, dump her, do whatever you want. Just don’t mess up her career.”

Because treating her like shit won’t have a lasting impact on her career. Was he even listening to himself? That was his daughter!

“A part of me wants to force Hardy out. He doesn’t have what it takes. Maybe for a country group’s standards, but not here. Not real music. See, this is what I do, Haught. I push people. I weed out the losers. I identify the greats. And I unlock their fullest potential. I yell, because coddling and babysitting gets you nowhere. I mean, that’s how you train a fucking dog, right? ‘Good boy’! Right? No, I make artists, here. I make the greats. And you, Nicole? You’re one of the greats. Don’t let your pops tell you otherwise. The music world needs you in it.”

Nicole was frozen in place.

She was one of the greats, as declared by the king maker himself.

Her dad was so very, very wrong.

-

Long after the movie, long after Wynonna, Waverly, and Nicole all fell asleep in the living room, Willa cornered her father in his home office. He tried to shoo her away. Didn’t work. She was in full deputy mode. Full interrogation mode.

“Have a nice chat with Haught?”

The pen in his hand was set aside. Back in the holder, everything on the desk neatly tucked away where they individually belonged. “Am I not allowed to talk with my own students?”

“I know what you’re doing.”

“And what’s that, exactly?” His head tilted. Perfectly, innocently confused.

“I know about the lawsuits. I know how you’ve managed to quietly curb each and every last one of them.”

“You’re not a detective, Willa—”

“We both know how Barnes died. We both know he didn’t own a car. We both know his parting note. ‘I’ll never be good enough. I don’t see a reason to keep lying to the world’. We both know he had a history of anxious episodes that started suspiciously recent.”

“What’s your point, Willa? Other than threatening me? You think you’re scaring me, is that it?”

“I’m warning you about your teaching ‘style’. I’m warning you, of the observations I’ve made on Nicole. She's lost weight. Her clear lack of energy. What about the fact she came home two weeks early from her trip, without telling anyone?”

“Get out of my office, Willa. Waste of t—”

“You better watch how you treat Nicole. I’m not letting this happen again.”

“Oh, thank God. Batman’s in town.”

Willa stepped forward, leaned on the desk, close to her father. “If anything happens to Nicole, you’ll destroy Waverly.”

“Waverly is a mature girl. She can move past a breakup.”

“How’s her new song coming since the last one?”

The last time Waverly wrote a song, she was with Champ. Then she broke them up. She was only now getting her confidence back, with Nicole.

Ward was silent.

Willa was satisfied. “One day you’ll get what’s coming to you. For now, if I were you, I’d watch my ass. You can only push a person so far.”

-

On Christmas day, before the big event the Earps and their Haught were to attend, a school-wide dinner event, Waverly, with Wynonna, disappeared for a solid hour. Returning with a box. For Nicole.

A box, filled to the brim with red pairs of sticks. In the privacy of her room, Waverly smiled at Nicole.

“Never stop playing. You’re incredible.”

In that moment, alone, just the two of them, Nicole cried.

She made a silent vow to keep Waverly’s wish. She would never stop.

The best. Nicole would be the best.

Chapter Text

“Wynonna Earp, both your beloved host and the one, sole person you have to thank for keeping talent in this town. Alternatively: the Twitter troll with a lot to say about my sister has been identified. That’s right, folks, I found the creep! So you can thank me, when you go to the finals of the Music Expo tonight, for Tucker Gardner getting kicked out from competing on grounds of harassment. Don’t feel too bad for Lake Whisper; Tucker was a shitty bassist. I’d like to wish all the bands good luck. Whoever wins—don’t forget us in the long run. Just kidding. Blow this town and leave, man.”

-

She hypnotized the crowd into a dead silence.

Hundreds of onlookers, mesmerized.

Ambrose “Fish” Dickenson charmed the crowd with his Elvis covers. Robin Jett fascinated them with a Colin Stetson-inspired original. Champ’s group accidentally started a mosh pit. And Waverly . . .

There was simply nothing else like it. 

Nicole could not fathom it, the raw talent Waverly Earp held in her voice.

Her voice, traveling over a soft guitar line by her own hands, echoing throughout the town. The streets. The prairies. There stood buildings, here from the day the first settler dragged their boots in the sand, that’d never withstood such a feat. Emotion, striking into the hearts of the toughest stone walls watching below them. Every pair of eyes, in awe of the woman who shined under the glow of stage lights. Under the glow of the heavens; she was an angel.

 

What a mess I leave,

To follow

 

Oh fuck.

Nicole missed her cue.

Oh, fuck!

 

In the darkness I will meet my creators  

 

Rosita was giving her the death glare. The guitar was doing a huge crescendo. Rosita followed on the keys. No drums, no cymbal crashes building the tension like everyone else. 

It was too late. She couldn’t start in the middle of the damn section. Everyone would know she missed it. It was too obvious. No matter how angrily Rosita glared.

She added her tom hits at the end of the phrase.

 

They will all agree, that I’m a suffocator

 

Tom hits. They fit. Maybe it could work.

 

Suffocator.

 

Impact hits.

 

Suffocator.

 

Hit, hit.

Okay. No weird faces. Besides Rosita’s. Most importantly: Waverly did not waver.

She recaptured the audience, in the silence of the next phrase, just as she did before. As a magician doing a trick. And doing it like it was nothing.

 

Oh, love

I’m sorry if I smothered you

I’m sorry if I smothered you

I sometimes wish I’d stayed inside

My mother

Never to come out

 

There was no applause when the song ended.

There was pause. Thought.

And once the thoughts settled, the feelings and emotions brought on by the power of a single voice, there was thunderous cheering.

Maybe they weren’t dead.

The proof came minutes later. They weren’t dead. They won. They won the competition!

-

Ward did not waste a single opportunity. The second Nicole was alone, packing her kit away in her car, he pounced. Cornering her, while she was without help.

“What the fuck what that bullshit, Haught?”

She wasn’t expecting her girlfriend’s father and own music professor to sneak up on her in the middle of the night. Foolishly. She cursed and dropped her entire cymbal bag. It just barely missed her foot.

“Ward! What the hell!”

He shoved her against the car door. “No, what the fuck, Haught. What the fuck were you doing on that stage? Sabotaging my fucking daughter? Huh? What the fuck were you thinking, you weasel? Her god damn career is on the line and you’re in motherfucking fantasy land! You really think you’re getting away with that?”

Clutching the car door for support, Nicole bravely declared, “We won.”

“Oh, congratulations, Haught, you’ve won your first fucking trophy. If you ever put my daughter’s career in jeopardy again, I swear to god Him-fucking-self I will fuck yours so hard you’ll never so much as get a job as a fucking fry cook! Do you understand me, you illiterate fuck?”

Shaken, not by the cold, Nicole nodded. “Yes, sir.”

He left without another word.

If Levi and Fish hadn’t been nearby, watching , Nicole might not’ve pulled herself together so quick. But Levi didn’t seem concerned for the right reasons. 

“Don’t tell anyone we made out,” he asked of her, his hair a mess and one hand still gripping onto Fish. Nicole stood taller. 

“Don’t tell Waverly about . . . that.”

He nodded, before making to leave. “Deal.”

Fish watched him walk, lost in a happy trance. “I’m telling everyone we made out.”

-

Turns out, Ward was completely incorrect.

When Nicole returned to the bar, she was met with celebration. Reborn. Wasn’t because of the win, as that celebration had calmed nearly an hour ago. 

Waverly took her aside, and explained, with great glee, “Constance Clootie just approached me.”

Constance Clootie, the big-name producer who worked in the big city.

“She wants me to stop by her studio tomorrow. For a trial basis. But if she likes me enough . . .”

Nicole engulfed her in a giant hug. Waverly Earp caught the eye of the biggest name in the crowd. Waverly Earp was finally, after decades of hard work, about to get what she deserved.

And Nicole’s stupid mistake didn’t blow the entire night. Or her entire career.

“Waverly, that’s incredible! Congratulations!”

Nicole saw Ward off in a corner, staring at her. No less furious. No less merciless. It was by some miracle Constance didn’t notice, or by some miracle she didn’t care. It didn’t matter to him. All night, he stared.

Plotting.

She needed to watch her back. 

-

“Purgatory Haunted—blah, blah, blah. In case you live under a rock: last night’s winner was none other than Ocean Blue. The talented one, if you need a summary. We at Haunted HAM would like to formally congratulate Waverly Earp on her killer vocals, and invite the rest of the groups who performed to SUCK IT!”

-

The songs on the town radio went from happy and upbeat and total victory lap all weekend to a sudden, depressive slump. Couldn’t be about Waverly. She would’ve told Nicole if something happened. In fact, by all counts, the first session with Constance went a lot better than Waverly and her buzzing nerves expected.

Nicole didn’t find out until Monday morning, as she made to leave for the day’s morning jazz rehearsal.

Xavier Dolls was leaving Purgatory. Dropping out.

Quitting top jazz.

Leaving her alone, with Champ Hardy.

And at the full mercy of Ward Earp.

The morning of the first rehearsal back, Dolls told Nicole everything. He was quitting to pursue criminology at a college in the big city. For now, he’d stick around for a few weeks. Let himself breathe. Let himself think. But, for certain, and highest on his list, he was quitting Ward Earp’s school and Ward Earp’s bands and Ward Earp’s mind tricks.

“I can’t believe you’re quitting,” she said. It was all she could manage to say. “After everything—”

“Can you honestly say it’s worth it, Nicole? I mean, really. Do you even enjoy this anymore? Do you actually like playing music anymore? I don’t!”

Of course she loved this. Music was everything. Music was all she had. She gave up her family for this—it had to be everything. 

“Honestly, I’m more worried about you, with your depression—”

Nicole made for the door. “I can handle myself.”

She left without another word.

Just another asshole with no faith in her.

-

Dolls’s weakness was everyone else’s misery. Alternatively: Ward was pissed  Furious. He spent the first ten minutes of rehearsal talking down on him. Calling him a quitter and a loser. Robin and Jeremy were visibly bothered by it. But bit their tongues. 

On the other hand, Nicole completely agreed. He was a quitter. He was a weakling. He was not one of the greats. He was not worth her concern. He had no care for this, and thus she had no care for him.

Champ was next. She’d be the last standing, the last and only one who gave a shit and had the guts to keep playing. Had the skill.

Just as predicted, Champ could not play the Latin piece Dolls left behind. Too slow. Too uncoordinated. Nicole found herself smiling with glee as Ward, in his typical nature, tore into Champ as deep as he possibly could.

Drummers swapped. Nicole, sitting at the kit with a straightened back and a stern expression. Not showing the glee she felt inside, the need to turn on Champ and show him how this was—

“Fuck!”

Nicole dared to eye Ward with a look that said I’m right, what’s the problem?

He eyed her back, with a look that hoped to remind her who was in charge. “Can you not read, Haught, has that been your problem all along? Can you even fucking read music? Huh? Play the right section, you illiterate—”

“We’re at bar thirty.” She dared talk back to Ward Earp. At the piano, Jeremy  silently prayed for her. “Maybe you can’t conduct a band.”

Ward laughed. He laughed, and with it every soul in the room hid in the deepest crevice they could, scattering before the bomb blew. “You’re feeling brave today, Haught.” He turned back to the band. “Okay, bar thirty. For Professor Haught.”

He cut them off at thirty-one.

“Is that what you wanted? How’s the band sound? Do you want my podium, too? My degree?”

“I want you to teach the band and stop acting so stuck-up.”

A trumpet laughed. Ward glared at them, and immediately they were smart enough to shut up. “You are on thin fucking ice, Haught. Your ego can only keep you so warm when you fall through.”

He was upset to find there was no reason to get back at Nicole. Not for the Expo, and not now. She didn’t slip up. She didn’t play anything funny for fills. Dynamics were perfect volume. It was only until Champ so stupidly began to choke on a protein shake she messed up. Until he coughed and gagged next to her, unable to turn her pages because he was too dumb to properly swallow a drink. She tried turning the page herself, swatting at it with her left hand, but the damn thing fell. Then she finally messed up.

And Ward pounced. Immediately, Nicole defended herself. “He didn’t turn my page!”

Ward did not like that answer. “Chetri doesn’t have anyone turning his pages. Neither does Dickenson. Or anyone else in this fucking band. Are you honestly trying to tell me you need a sheet of paper to tell you how to play a song? You don’t know the fucking song, is that what you’re saying? You’ve never played it before today?”

“I need it for the cues.”

“Memorize it! I don’t give a shit what you need it for!”

He made her put the pages away. That’s when chaos invited itself to bounce around and have a dandy ol’ rave.

While trying to remember the song and overall keep up with unison band cues, Nicole began to slow the tempo. Completely focused on something else. Ward stopped the band.

“What, you don’t know the fucking tempo now? Did you really need the paper to tell you what the tempo was? I wasn’t aware you could fucking read tempo!”

Nicole gripped her sticks tighter. “Why wouldn’t I be able to read tempo?”

“Because you never play in fucking time! Jesus Christ! She’s got short-term memory loss, too! Champ, get on the kit.”

Nicole did not move. “No, I earned this part! The only reason you’re mad is because this fucking idiot can’t turn pages!”

“Get off my fucking kit, Haught, so I can lend my part to Hardy.”

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

“No. I work my ass off for you, every single day. All he does is bum around and—”

“Some people have to work harder than others. That’s just how it is, you self-obsessed, entitled little prick. I don’t give a shit how hard anybody works, I care how well they can play the fucking part, which, since you have a fucking memory problem like the moron you are, you can’t seem to fucking remember! You can’t seem to remember your place , either!”

Nicole shook her head. “Fuck this.”

She grabbed her sticks, yanked Champ’s borrowed pair away, and left.

Returning the next morning, to find she had automatically forfeited her parts by doing so. It was a miracle Ward didn’t kicked her out altogether. 

It ended with another show with Champ getting all the high regards and her, turning pages to songs she was perfectly capable of playing. Songs she would play far better than a guy so insecure he made everybody call him “Champ”.

During the show, Ward upped the tempo. Staring at Nicole, the entire run, as Champ followed along with ease. She turned the pages, but Champ never looked at them.

She knew what Ward was doing. He was challenging her.

She accepted.

-

[11:30 AM] Sooo not up for lunch today, babe?

[1:10 PM] Hey, I stopped by your theory class to bring you lunch but you’re not there? I knew Wynonna was a bad influence on you!

[3:45 PM] [kiss emoji]

[7:07 PM] Hope you’re okay, babe. [heart emoji]

[9:07 PM] Nicole, I’m coming over. You’re worrying me.

-

The Drum Battle, with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

Figure Eights, with Max Roach and Buddy Rich.

Max Roach’s greatest hits. Gene Krupa’s greatest hits. Dave Weckl. Jo Jones. Buddy Rich. Elvin Jones. Every possible great drummer she could find, various songs and albums blasting in her ear as chaos.

The Greatest Drummer That Ever Lived.

She was chaos.

Swing. Shuffle. Bossa nova. Latin. Any and every variation, she played. Faster and faster, until her hands went completely numb and she wasn’t quite sure what it was she was doing anymore.

No, she did know. She was attaining greatness.

By now, her pale snare head was littered with black spots. Red chippings of wood, stuck in the rims of all the drums. Clear tom heads, with small indents in them. Her bass pedal beat a permanent mark into the drum before it. Her brain, activating its deepest engraved muscle memory as she pushed and pushed against the metronome screeching in her ears. It never seemed to line up.

No matter how she tried, no matter how long she practiced, now matter how long she sat in this fucking chair before this fucking kit, she could hear it echoing after every stroke of the stick; she was too slow.

There were few, minute-long breaks in between, where she switched her phone from annoying beeps she could never match to incredible songs she’d never be able to play. Incredible songs she’d never make, herself.

Because she wasn’t great.

At the kit, the thought of it hit her. The thought of it seared into her mind no different from a cattle prod, as she missed each and every downbeat of the god damned metronome. Every. Single. Fucking. Downbeat. Too slow. Close, but not quite. She could never seem to get the hits in time. She could never do a great job.

Nicole released the stick in her left hand and punched clean through the snare head. Once, twice, three times until the damn thing finally snapped right through. The stick in her right hand was thrown.

Apparently just in time for her alarm to go off. Tonight she had the esteemed honor of filling in Dolls’s super important triangle part for the concert he quit. A long roll over several bars, in just one song. Everything else was covered. After all this time, she still wasn’t good enough to play anything beyond an auxiliary part; all of Dolls’s big solo pieces were taken by someone else, promptly. Probably someone who deserved it.

She washed the sweat from her skin, let the shower head massage into her bones. All that time she wasted, all the classes she skipped today—she hadn’t gotten even the slightest better. She felt a need to throw one of her cymbals, too.

Midway through replacing the snare head with the extra she was lucky to have, there was a knocking at the door. Not a good time. Nicole ignored it.

Knocked again. Ignored, again. Knocked louder, again . And again. And again. And agai—Nicole rushed the door. She was on her way out anyway. Probably her annoying neighbor. The apartment complex wasn’t stupid. They knew musicians were most of their tenants—there was absolutely no rule about noise. In fact, there was a warning to people who didn’t like it, there was going to be noise. Everywhere.

But there was that one asshole, of course, who knew everything in the world and controlled everything in the world and showed up at Nicole’s doorstep every possible opportunity he could. Same guy who revved his sports car at ungodly hours in the morning for his night shift.

“Stop knocking on my door, you fucking ass—hole.”

Waverly. Looking spooked. There was a small chance it had to do with the unexpected outburst. Small.

“Oh, Wave, I’m sorry.” Nicole’s shoulders dropped. “I’m also now realizing I forgot to tell you I have to leave in an hour.”

The original plan was to leave right now, before traffic, get to the school early, and sneak in another practice session before she needed to actually be on stage for the concert. Luckily it was in-house, not somewhere else. Less practice time lost.

Nicole invited her in anyway. Waverly was worth her practice time. “I really don’t want to cut our date down, but I also really don’t want to cancel it.”

Waverly didn’t start up the stairs. “Are you sure? I can always—”

“No. Stay.”

She could make up the time tomorrow. One more day of skipping class, then she’d never do it again. Just one more.

Ascending the stairs, Waverly joked, “Neighbor giving you sass?”

Just the thought of the guy made Nicole burst into a fury. “Yes. The complex doesn’t take noise complaints, so he’s doing them in person.”

“Is he the sports car guy? That would be ironic.” Nicole didn’t seem to hear, the way she didn’t react. To be fair, she was all the way in the kitchen, making tea for them. Waverly repeated, a little louder, “Is he the guy with the sports car?”

Because she was walking back, Nicole heard. “Yep. Same asshole. Hypocrite.”

“What a jerk.”

Waverly’s smiled faded away, the longer she look at Nicole. The more she noticed . Nicole rubbed her eyes with one hand, barely sipping the tea with the other. Fingers on the handle of the mug, tapping. Impatiently?

“So, um, missed you at lunch today.” Waverly’s voice seemed to knock Nicole out of some sort of a trance. “You okay? You look exhausted, too.”

That question again. Of course she was okay. Other than the fact she couldn’t play her own instrument properly. Other than the fact Champ Hardy, someone Ward didn't even like, was considered a better standard than her right now. “I’m fine.”

Waverly did not look convinced. “Well, o-okay. I just, I worry about you, you know. Especially when you don’t show up to classes. And you look like you haven’t eaten all day.”

“I guess I felt a little sick this morning. I feel better now, though. Maybe I’m just allergic to Champ.”

Got a good laugh out of Waverly. Got her out of detective mode. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were.”

“So, uh, how’s the stuff with, um, Constance? Are you a certified superstar yet?”

“Nope. Still a trial basis. But get this . . .”

She could start playing with mutes. Not to win over ol’ grumpy next door, but for the resistance. Help build up more muscle. It’s what she used to do in high school, for marching band. More resistance, more effort, more muscle again. Faster play speed. Why hadn’t she thought of that before? What the hell took so long? All the time wast—

A hand touching hers jolted her back to reality. Waverly. Nicole sighed. “I’m sorry, Wave, I totally zoned out.”

“That’s okay. It’s not—”

Phone alarm went off. The second one she set when they ascended the stairs. “I’m sorry, Wave, I gotta go.”

“Um, that-that’s okay. I’ll see you after the concert?”

“Yeah. I’ll pick up something. Or we can go out. Or something.”

She grabbed Waverly’s mug for her. Waverly expecting a kiss with it, but Nicole just kept moving. Not even after they parted, in the parking lot of the school.

It was okay, though. Just pre-show jitters, right? Just stress?

-

It wasn’t stress. It was passion. 

Nicole always wanted to do this. Sit on a big stage, an entire orchestra surrounding her, capturing the audience and sending their emotions a place nowhere else could. She wanted to record for movie soundtracks; epic action movies, thrillers, tragedies. She wanted to make something. As she sat backstage, watching the other percussionists on a song Dolls didn’t play to begin with, she felt it. The passion. The need to create something.

The song was “Olympiada”, by Samuel Hazo. The type of song that would play in a movie about an Olympian. Or hell, even the Hunger Games . It was victorious. It was disciplined.

It was passionate.

It was a cruel reminder of why she was here. And why, she feared, her days were numbered. This was a song made for the greats. This was a song that played in the background of champions, the background of legends. Winners. Greats.

It was not the song that would play for her. She had miles to go and only seemed to gain in the negatives.

She was destined to be that jobless, home-bound loser. 

As she sat backstage, consumed in the energy of the song, consumed in her own feelings, she felt herself cry. Actually, genuinely cry.

She had to do this. She had to reach this level. There was nothing else. She needed to be great, because there was nothing else. She couldn’t do it again. She couldn’t be a loser, getting nowhere in life. She could be a nothing no longer. She had to be something. Something, something that would get her father to give a shit. Her mother to look in her direction, preferably in person. Something to make her sister proud. Something to reach Waverly’s level, so as to not drag her down.

Nicole needed to be a winner.

-

The car ride back to the homestead was so quiet, Waverly feared she did something wrong. Did she overstep? Was inviting herself to the apartment a bad thing? Nicole always answered her phone. Maybe, for once, she just needed space.

Suffocator.

Was she prying?

It was more of the same, all night long. Nicole’s attention, never hitting the mark. She was just . . . far away. Tapping her fingers, all throughout dinner, all throughout the drive, against the steering wheel. Even when she walked Waverly inside for the evening, there was tapping. For a short walk.

And Nicole’s eyes. She looked tired. So miserably, miserably tired.

It led Waverly to approach her father where he sat in the living room, watching a documentary about music history. Wynonna, across the way, listening to music and notating what to play on the radio. Sharing it, with Willa. Music and work, everywhere.

She stepped completely in front of the TV. In front of her father. Ward was not pleased. She simply did not care. “I know it’s been difficult since Dolls quit, but I think you’re pushing Nicole too hard.”

Ward’s head tilted. Innocent. “Excuse me?”

“She skipped all her classes today. She hasn’t been sleeping. Hasn’t been eating. She’s been putting every second of thought she has into your band, dad, and I think you need to ease up! She’s miserable! She’s not taking care of herself!”

“Waverly, do not interfere with my students. No matter how intimate you may be. That aside, she’s a grown woman. If she thinks this is a problem, she can talk to me about it.”

That’s when it hit Waverly: Nicole was an addict. She wasn’t going to stop.

“Just . . . consider what you’re doing. Please. That’s all I’m asking you.”

The second she left the room, Wynonna following to check up on her, Willa was eyeing Ward. Knowingly; their previous conversation on the subject just days ago. Ward was quick on the defense. 

“I’ve been doing this for decades. I don’t need everyone’s opinion on how to do my job, and I sure as hell do not need baseless accusations from my own daughters.”

Willa shook her head. She simply did not care. “You know Nicole has depression, right?”

Ward rolled his eyes. “That seems a little dramatic.”

“It’s the truth.”

“Just what the hell does a rookie cop know?”

“I know. I’m more than a rookie cop. What do you think she spent two years doing? Her sister died, you know. I doubt that helped.”

She stood from her spot in the corner, making to stand directly in front of Ward’s TV again.

“This is not going to end well for anybody involved. I’m warning you again—”

“Get out of my face, you worthless, loud-mouthed wannabe detective. Go solve the case of the Hamburgler, why don’t you?”

Willa nodded. Walked off. “That girl’s going to destroy your career. The same way you’re bound to destroy your daughter’s.”

Ward turned the volume up.

-

“Purgatory Haunted HAM! Remember the time I got Tucker Gardner in trouble? Oh, god I’m awesome. Here’s some music or whatever. And no, I will not accept requests that ask for ‘literally anything but sad love songs’. Fuck all of you. My fr—my something more is leaving. Let a girl mourn. Thanks, now I’m bummed out again. Happy? Are you happy? Here’s more sadness. Losers.”

-

Two down in one month.

Champ Hardy quit. Dropped out to pursue a life of glory on the rodeo circuit.

Nicole Haught was the only drummer in the top jazz band at the top arts school in the country.

“Before we get started, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate Haught on being the last drummer standing. I can’t imagine what would possess the others to quit, can you?”

Why did it feel like this? Why did it feel wrong ? This was supposed to be the moment she longed for. All the songs, for her. All the credits, to her. Instead she felt . . .

Not empty.

Scared.

Why was her heart pounding?

The way Ward smiled at her did not help. He was proud, and, for whatever reason, she felt unsettled. The best music professor around, proud of her. And here she was, uneasy. Unappreciative.

For some reason, Nicole felt like she lost.

Like she was the only fool left standing in a field of mines.

“ ‘The Light’, from the top.”

Another Robert Svane song. Another fast Robert Svane song, with ups and downs in dynamics and overall feel. Tempo started fast, got faster, slowed for a longer section, original fast tempo again for a while, until ending on a gentle ballad. It spread feelings of pure and utter chaos before returning to a sane-sounding pattern again. As Robert put it, “an angel falling from heaven and finding their way back up”.

Nicole could not focus. She was just so anxious. Not really sure where it was coming from. Sure, she had problems with anxiety before, and she sure as hell felt it in this very room on several occasions, but this was . . . this was alarming. Growing overwhelming, frankly. 

She finally had everything she wanted out of this damned band and she was anxious.

She noticed Jeremy eyeing her with caution and glared at him until he looked away. Fish, the same.

Why wasn’t she happy?

Band cut off. Nicole was the last one to silence her instrument; the last to quit playing, as instructed.

“Haught, hop off your victory lap a moment and stop playing so god damn loud. This isn’t the solo career you’re destined to screw your image on.”

Nicole exhaled. Her chest felt to collapse. “Sorry.”

And Ward stopped in his tracks, to add with sarcasm, “That’s alright, dear.” Rolling his eyes. “Pickup to bar fifty, here we go.”

Stopped at fifty-one. Nicole couldn’t play. All of a sudden she forgot how.

“Earth to Nicole, we’re playing music here! Hello! Fuck you.”

On the count off, Nicole shook her head to clear it. Didn’t work much, but just barely enough to restart a portion of her brain. (What the hell was this?)

Bar fifty-two, they stopped again. She was genuinely surprised to find Ward in a calm voice over the usual outburst or throwing of objects.

At his podium, he exhaled. Head resting in his hands. “Do you even give a shit about this, Nicole? I mean, really.”

And there, Nicole fell dead serious. “I care about this more than any asshole in this room.”

“Then why do you insist on making us all miserable? Is that it? Do you like being miserable, you pathetic little twerp? Is that why you drink your life away? Look at you, wide-eyed like a fucking addict.” He shook his head.

“Start the song back.”

“My band, my rules. Get a degree and we’ll talk.”

Nicole glared at him. Biting her tongue before she stirred the fire any further.

“What’s the matter, Haught? Feeling sad? Feeling a little blue? Not going to defend yourself today? You can run home. I have no shortage of drummers. Go ahead, run home and waste another two years of your life sitting on your ass like a bum.”

Nicole sat up. How—Did he know about—

Ward addressed the entire band. “Take a look, gang. Imagine, wasting two entire years of your life because you feel a little sad. Wallowing in your own misery, like a fucking drug. Did it feel good, Haught, being so pathetic? Because, really, you are fucking pathetic . You even sent my own daughter after me, asking me to be a little nicer to you. You oversensitive loser, you asked my daughter—”

“I didn’t ask her anything!”

“You are a weak-willed—”

“I did not ask Waverly—”

“—entitled little son of a bitch, you know that? No wonder Mommy and Daddy don’t make the effort. It’s no fucking mystery to me they won’t look in your direction unless it’s entirely by accident. Even then I bet they bleach out their eyes, just to be sure—”

Nicole left the room.

And drove for the homestead.

-

When Nicole charged out of her car and for the porch, Waverly was already waiting. Apparently surprised Nicole would show up on her property.

“Why the hell did you tell, him Waverly?” Nicole, stomping over to the porch to meet Waverly. Not entirely in her face, but with her tone and volume, she might as well have been. “Why the hell did you tell your dad about me?”

Waverly’s expression had gone from glee to terror in the same speed it took Nicole to charge up the steps. Glee; Nicole arrived unannounced at the homestead. Terror; she was here to fight. “I—I didn’t—What are you talking about?”

“I trusted you with personal information and you spread it to your dad, Waverly? Are you serious? My teacher? The head of the music department!”

Waverly took a step forward. Closer, into Nicole’s space. A warning. “I need you to lower your voice. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“My depression, Waverly. It’s not a sad story for you to tell at dinner time, and I sure as hell don’t need you defending me from Ward in rehearsals.”

“I—”

“I know you told him to go easy on me. I’m not a child, Waverly, I can watch my own back, and I can take a little tough teaching. I don’t need—”

“Nicole, listen to yourself! Look in a mirror—you’re not okay! Look at you! You haven’t been sleeping, you don’t eat, you’ve lost weight, I think—no, I know— you’re obsessed with your drumming—”

“I’m not obsessed. This is my career. This is my life, Waverly, not everyone has it made. Not everyone—”

“Nicole, I need you to calm down. You have a problem. Okay? This is the alcohol problem, in a different form—”

“Oh, don’t worry, he told everyone that, too.”

“Nicole—”

“We’re different, Waverly. From day one you’ve had it made. You have the voice, you have a father with all the connections, you have a personal advertising system locked in with the town radio, and you have the perfect fucking sob story to stop everyone in their tracks.”

Waverly’s next words, as her eyes welled with tears, were quieter than a whisper. “Nicole, don’t.”

“Waverly Earp, the fucking orphan with a missing—”

Suddenly, the front door burst open, quickly and strongly enough to smack into Nicole. But it wasn’t the door that made her stop dead in her tracks.

It was the gun.

It was Peacemaker, down from the mantle, held firmly in Wynonna’s hands, that made her stop.

“Wynonna—”

“Shut up, Waverly. Get inside.” Wynonna eyed her until she obeyed. Closed the door behind her. Pushed the gun into Nicole’s chest, pushing her all the way off the porch and back into her car. “When you feel sorry for yourself, Haught, you do that in your own privacy. You don’t take it out on my sister. Ever. Now get the fuck off my property.”

Wynonna watched, as Nicole’s beaten up old car and beaten up old emotions backed out of the driveway and drove off, into town.

She turned to find Waverly, watching in the window.

Crying.

Chapter Text

“Purgatory Haunted HAM. Nicole Haught is a scumbag. Here’s some music.”

-

It was down to she and Robin. Champ’s group had gotten fourth, no thanks to a sudden lacking on the drums. Fish took third. It was down to Waverly and Robin, left waiting in agonizing suspense. 

Waverly burst into tears when her band’s name was called. 

Now she was here, approaching the end of her trial with Constance, who already seemed on board with a full time gig. 

At first. 

Right now, stepping for the end, Waverly only seemed to be trotting backwards more and more each day.

All these years of work, and Waverly had no new songs to show for it. Finals of the Expo, she had no choice but to redo an old one she was lucky hadn’t been played at a previous Expo before; against the rules. 

Waverly was stuck.

Constance wanted to keep her aboard for a full-length album. They were eight whole songs short, and no matter how she tried, the only thing Waverly could force out of herself was more frustration. Constance didn’t want to do an EP. Didn’t want to do most of the songs Waverly already had, just the ones the majority of Purgatory knew from old Expos. She wanted a whole album to showcase what she hoped was her newest and potentially biggest client. Money was no object to her. She wanted to invest. But time—time was a limited resource. 

Today she used some of that investment to bring in a writer friend. He brainstormed with Waverly, though Waverly’s brain was more a storm than anything creative or cooperative of late. It was Nicole’s fault. Stupid, wonderful, rude, beautiful Nicole.

Waverly wondered if she was okay.

She couldn’t bring herself to sing the new song. End of the session, end of the day, everyone’s minds ready for rest, she abruptly stopped singing. It was wrong with her. 

Over the intercom, Constance expressed her concerns, not very well buried under a blanket of frustration. “Waverly, what’s the matter?”

Waverly did not answer. She looked over the sheet in front of her once more. Then twice.

“Let’s start back from the top. Whenever you’re ready.”

Waverly nodded, but she never started.

“Waverly?”

She looked at Constance. At her co-writer, who looked only mildly offended. She could change that.

“I don’t know about this song, Constance.”

The co-writer gasped, like it was the single most offensive thing in the world. She might as well punch him in the face!

Waverly tried her best to spare his feelings for the sake of expressing her own. “It’s not . . . me. I don’t do pop, I don’t do busy electronics with no acoustics, and I don’t do songs about sex. I mean, how many times can you say ‘pussy’ in one song?”

The co-writer gathered his things and made to leave. “As many times as you want! It’s the song!”

With a final, offended gasp, he was gone. Constance sighed. “You know what, Waverly? Let’s wrap this up for today. I’ll see you when I get back in town.”

“Oh, I—Okay. I’ll, um—Have a nice trip, Constance.”

There was a forced smile on the woman’s face before she, too, left.

Waverly screamed in the empty sound booth until her frustration was satisfied.

Meeting Wynonna outside, seeing her older sister and biggest fan’s wide and proud grin—she wanted to run back inside and scream again. She was going to lose this deal. She could feel it. And all the hard work Wynonna put in to support her would be for nothing.

All over a stupid breakup.

With a stupidly wonderful woman.

“Why the long face, superstar?”

Good lord, Waverly was not prepared for this, to completely let Wynonna down. She sighed. Then sighed again, to buy time. “I don’t think it’s going well.”

“It’s okay to be nervous, Wave.”

“It’s not the nerves. It’s the songs.”

At the next stoplight, Wynonna looked at her little sister. “It’s okay to miss her. Even if she is a scumbag.”

“I’ve heard rumors about Dad, Wynonna. Bad rumors, about his teaching. How he’s been yelling and screaming and throwing things at people. With Nicole—I’m starting to think they might be true.”

Wynonna made some sort of grunting noise. Like she agreed.

“They can’t be true. They wouldn’t let him keep teaching—”

“He’s in charge, Wave. He brings a lot of great PR to the school. Money. They’ll cover his crazy ass, from every possible angle.”

Waverly turned to her. “Is that why Dolls dropped out?”

Wynonna’s eyes flicked back to the road. “I don’t know a ‘Dolls’. Never heard heard a name like that—what is a ‘Dolls’, anyhow?”

“Wynonna.”

“Great butt, though. Great face, too. Great stamina—I don’t know where the hell that rumor started. And just a great—”

“Wynonna.”

A loud exhale morphed into a groan. “He may have—let’s see . . . indicated there was some weirdness happening with Ward.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Didn’t ask. Too busy getting busy.”

“Gross!”

Wynonna shrugged. Smiled

“I am sorry, though. I know you liked him. He kept you from chasing people you shouldn't.”

“Hey, I got a radio show out of the last guy I slept with.” Wynonna laughed. “Stay away from Doc Holliday, in exchange for a radio show—sucker! Stupid Kate. Because the last show she invested in went so well.”

“Well, she did it for Doc, didn’t she? He’s always wanted to spread music. A radio seems perfect.”

“That’s what makes Doc a better teacher than Dad. He wants you to listen to music. Ward wants you to listen to Ward. Ward and only Ward.”

“Do you think if I asked Nicole—”

“No!”

Wynonna reached over and slapped the phone out of Waverly’s hands. It smacked against the door handle and cracked like an egg. Like the giant case on it didn’t exist at all. Wynonna just stared at it. Someone behind them honked at the stop sign she was overstaying. 

“God, new phones are about as sensitive as they come. What are they, artists?”

“Wynonna, my phone!”

“Oh, it’ll be fine. Look, Haught made her choice. That’s it. She’s done. She talked down on you, and now she’s done. It’s what she gets for being an asshole, Waverly.”

Waverly was quiet, as was her voice. “I really liked her, Wynonna.”

“I know, baby girl. I did, too.”

“But if the rumors about Dad are true, then—” The way Wynonna looked at her made her stop. “I know it in my heart she did not consciously mean to say any of that. Or do any of that.”

“She still did it, though.”

“She could’ve been having a mental breakdown, for all we know! And you pointing a gun at her doesn’t help.”

“It got her to shut up though, didn’t it? Real quick.”

“That’s not the point. Something is very, very wrong with Nicole, Wynonna.”

“Yeah, she’s an asshole.”

“She’s an addict . And if what Dad’s doing is true . . .”

Waverly couldn’t bring herself to finish that sentence.

When Wynonna wasn’t looking, she sent a text.

Unknown to her, Nicole had broken her phone much worse earlier that evening.

-

She was off again. The metronome, mocking her with every perfect click, You’ll never be good enough. You’ll never keep up.

It should’ve been an easy song. It was played by Champ Hardy. A quitter. A fourth place loser. A lazy fool who did nothing but whine and whine about how hard everything was and showed time and time again how he didn’t want to put in the effort—always with the borrowed sticks.

But no matter how Nicole tried, no matter how many times she played and replayed the same god damn song, she could not play his first Expo cover. She could not do double pedals, and today her hands refused to work. Cramping up and only seeming to go slower and slower with each and every run of the song.

The same song, over and over. This is the anti, anticosmic overload . . .

The same eighth note patterns— eighth notes, the most basic of all—on both hands. Every time, every damn time, she failed it. She could play a song at 300 beats per minute. Why not at 200? Why the hell was this so hard? Champ could do it! She was better than Champ Hardy!

Phone went off. Nicole cursed, because the ringer was on. And cursed again, because it was Shae with an absolute waste of time of a message.

You’ve been a no call no show 8 times and 8 times I’ve covered for you. You’re about to get fired, Nicole! Come into work! You’re not too late tonight if you leave now!

With a roll of her eyes, Nicole resumed her playing.

Come on, Haught. I know you’re at home with your kit.

Nicole ignored it. Resumed playing the basic song she couldn’t seem to nail right now. If her hands would stop—

I can’t keep covering for you. Our manager’s not an idiot.

—cramping up and ruining everything, she’d be set. They needed to get used to the strain. This was her career. This was her life. As sole drums, they needed to buck up.

First the anxiety and now the hands. Why did the universe insist on stepping on her toes? In the way of her destiny? Her first big step in becoming something great?

The phone rang again. Nicole finally chucked the stupid, chirping thing across the room and against her dresser.

No more interruptions. No more excuses. This was a basic enough song for Champ to do, and thus she needed to outdo it. She was better than Champ. She was better than all of them.

She was better than Ward Earp could ever think she was.

Or her father and his absence of faith, for that matter. 

-

I hope you’re doing alright, Nicole. No one’s heard from you.

“You’re like a sad puppy, Waves, and I hate seeing it.”

Waverly had a minor in dance. At their favorite café, she looked to fellow dancer Chrissy Nedley. Good friend of hers. Good friend who, by now, knew everything about the breakup and was fully prepared to nuke Nicole’s apartment at Waverly’s signal. Probably right next to Wynonna.

Waverly stirred a spoon, passively, in her tea. “I hate feeling like a sad puppy.”

“Is there anything I can do? I’ll go to that vegan restaurant with you, if you’d like. And you know I hate that place.”

Waverly tapped the spoon against her mug. Untouched. “No, you've done enough. Like the super friend you are.”

Chrissy was unmoved by the gesture. “I’m sorry, Waves. You really liked her.”

She tapped the spoon two final times before setting it aside. One hand grasped the side of the mug, but she made no move to drink it. Warm. Like Nicole. Stupid, dumb, lovely Nicole. “At least I can’t get anymore bad news, right?”

Like a bad omen or an even worse jinx, her phone buzzed. An email, from Constance Clootie herself.

 

Waverly,

We at Stone Records think you are an extremely talented individual. Therefore it pains me to inform you we will be terminating our trial basis. I think we jumped into this partnership too soon. Keep going in your career. Keep working. Perhaps one day down the line—

 

Waverly put the phone aside and groaned into her hands. Her friend, across from her, growing larger and larger with concern.

“Was it Nicole?”

Waverly did not remove her head from her hands. Shaking it side to side and groaning.

“No. Constance?”

Head bobbing, up and down.

“What did she say?”

Head shaking, side to side.

“Oh, Wave, I’m sorry.”

“There was a week I literally almost died, and this week is still worse than that one.”

Chrissy signaled the waitress. Something with sprinkles. Stat.

Ward’s reaction, later in the evening, was much more severe. With cursing. Lots of cursing. He even called Constance to yell at her and warn of the mistakes she was making. Constance told him to go to hell and hung up.

As he screamed and screamed across the house into his cell phone, Wynonna properly comforted Waverly in their shared bedroom.

“With or without a label, you’re still insanely talented, Waverly. Don’t forget that.”

Waverly was face down in a pillow. Mumbling gibberish Wynonna could only hope to decipher as a put-down. She patted her little sister’s back sympathetically.

“Maybe she was jealous. Maybe you’re so talented, she’s scared .”

Mumbling. Probably a disagreement.

“Guess there was a reason Willa had a bad feeling about Constance,” Wynonna sighed. “You know, her weird gut feeling she thinks the world revolves around. Her terrible gut that has a twenty percent pass rate? She thought Constance was snooty. Thought she was a total asshole when they talked.”

Waverly’s head unearthed itself for a moment. “They talked? About what?”

Wynonna’s brow raised. “I didn’t tell you?”

Shake of the head.

“Huh. Well, Willa was escorting—No, I don’t like that word, it’s too suggestive. Willa was guarding Constance at finals from Purgatory drunkards. General hooligans and aggressive hooligans—you know, everybody . She mentioned to Constance you were one of the finalists. She told her the whole story. Everything. How you started when you were four, how all your music teachers outside Dad thought your ear was too strong—everything.”

“Huh. That was nice of her.”

“Too bad Constance is a brainless idiot. Turned down basically all of your songs. Bet we’ll see some generic crap as her next big artist. Another song about college parties and sex! Yay!”

Ward burst into the room. Red with rage. Phone clutched tightly in his hand.

“I’ve said all I could to that bitch,” he said. “Won’t change her mind.”

Waverly sat, eyeing him. “It’s fine, Dad. Really—”

“It’s not fine. She’s sabotaging your fucking career! You know what—”

He left the room, mumbling more curses and dialing more numbers.

In the kitchen, as the phone rang for the millionth time, Willa‘s words echoed in his mind. About Nicole being a bad omen for his career. And, indirectly, for Waverly’s career. Because without him, Waverly had no career  

Nicole broke up with Waverly, and a few days later Waverly loses her label. A few days later, Constance is telling her she isn’t ready. Isn’t mature enough for a career.

Well, the answer was stupidly obvious, then. This was Nicole’s fault. Nicole brought Waverly down. Nicole put her in a bad head space.

Nicole ruined Waverly’s career.

-

The calluses were getting worse.

Nicole was not expecting them. She’d been playing for about ten years now, and hadn’t seen them since she was a rookie. Must’ve been because of those damn gap years. If she hadn’t stopped playing, she’d be ahead. Not behind and behind and behind and clawing to keep up in a constant loop she couldn’t seem to break.

This week Ward was doing sectionals. One last effort to clean their songs before the next performance. A big festival, against other schools, hosted at the academy. Ward’s favorite chance to show off how great his players were. The few in the fall and winter, they left the competition absolutely crushed. It’s what they deserved. They weren’t great. They weren’t even good .

The thought made Nicole return to the kit, from where she soaked her bleeding fingers in her bathroom sink. All mistakes this performance were hers. The drums sounded off at any point—her fault. Any song that lacked, was her fault. Not Champ’s. Not Dolls’s. Hers. All hers. This was her spot. Her chance to make art .

Backstage, the night of the performance, she did not associate herself with any other member of the band. No conversation. No silly pre-show rituals. Focus. She had to focus. Unlike them, she actually gave a shit about tonight. Every night. Every note she played, she played with every ounce of her person.

No music on her stand. She had the concert memorized, like the great musician she was. She knew them all by heart, because, by now, they were all a piece of her. The first, a Latin piece by none other than Robert Svane, entitled—

Wait, no. The band was playing something entirely different. Did they cut the solo in the beginning? It was supposed to be Jeremy on piano.

She jumped right into a Latin beat. Then stopped. This was a swing tune. Did they change the entire order without telling her?

By the time Nicole finally fell into a proper rhythm, a proper swing-style beat, the band began doing cues. She missed the first two before guessing. There was one more, one more completely unison band hit, before the melody changed again. As did the tempo.

It was a ballad section, one she races right in to. Wire brushes were best suited to be used here, but she didn’t have them readily available. She wasn’t expecting to use the damn brushes tonight. Playing with sticks was too loud. Too aggressive. It sounded out of place. She could see the audience members, cringing.

And Ward, smiling like the devil.

Then she understood. 

Ward planned this.

The entire song was ruined by drums tripping over herself trying to catch up. Trying to make her clearly improvised part fit in.

After the last note fell, Nicole buried her head in her hands. Embarrassed.

She was snapped back to reality when Ward’s hushed voice approached her. “I told you not to mess with my daughter’s career, you fucking weasel. She lost her label. Now I’m making sure no one in this town will pick your talentless ass up, either. You’re done, Nicole.”

There was no sound, as Ward walked back to the front of the stage. Addressing the audience. Apologizing for the drummer and her “misjudgment”.

Nicole could not bring herself to move, as Ward promised the song was a Robert Svane original and was a thousand times better than the piece she butchered.

“There are exceptionally talented young artists these days, but, statistically, there’s always the one bad apple. The one with their eyes on the dream and not the work.”

A laughter followed. Laughter. Stuck-up assholes going along with Ward’s incorrect claim.

“The soloists you heard tonight are workers. Sometimes they work too hard, if you ask me.”

Laughter.

Nicole worked harder than any single person in this room. She gave up everything for this band. What she kept, she poured right back in.

She lost her father.

She lost her friends. Her job.

She lost her Waverly.

She lost her passion.

And here they all were, laughing about it. Here Ward was, laughing about it.

Nicole stood from the kit and left the stage. She was done. This was done. Everything she had was done.

“Huh. Guess she couldn’t handle it.”

Nicole stopped.

Turned around.

Ran onto the stage and tackled Ward Earp to the ground, for everyone to see, and physically attacked him the most she could before hands were prying her off.

“Fuck you, Ward!” she screamed, as she was dragged away. “Fuck you!”

-

Ward had no plans to press charges. Proudly claiming he was the bigger person, and allowing Nicole to return home. Because home is exactly where she wanted to be right now. Dolls was away in the big city again, interviewing for new jobs. Because all Nicole wanted to do tonight was sit alone on the couch, where she could eye her stupid drum kit all night and act like everything was okay, act like absolutely nothing wrong was—

Nicole fell to her knees.

Slamming a car door was never a fantastic idea. There’s risk of knocking the window off its track, risk of knocking her zip-tied rear view mirror right off, and, most importantly, as she was now realizing, there was a huge risk of slamming it right on her fingers.

Cursing in every word imaginable, while feeling every awful feeling imaginable, Nicole crossed upstairs and into the kitchen. Sometimes Dolls got weird chest pains and kept ibuprofen around.

But she never took it. She got lost, on the empty glass on the counter. A glass bottle. Smelling of old alcohol.

Smelling of relief.

Nicole returned to her car. And drove.

-

“Your host Wynonna Earp here with a complaint: Valentine's Day is a hoax. Stop asking me to play love songs before I strang— Lovingly wrap my fingers around— God! I’m not allowed to say anything! Have some rock ‘n roll junk, who cares. Ugh!”

-

No matter how many times a pen is pressed into the same spot, it will not bother to draw. Or become self-aware and write the damn song for Waverly, instead of letting her sit here in frustration. What a horribly rude pen.

All she could think of was Nicole. Not even in an inspiring, career-making hit single kind of way. As soon as Wynonna came home, Waverly was hitching a ride to Nicole’s. Something was wrong. She could feel it.

“Something’s wrong with Nicole.”

Willa, with proof. Score one for the gut, and zero for ex-centered anxiety.

“I just drove her home from Shorty’s.”

Waverly broke out of her slump and sat upright. “What? What was she doing at Shorty’s? Was she dr—”

“She was drinking.”

Waverly was making to stand now. “Is she at the station? Are you going to call her parents, because I doubt that’ll make things—”

“I’ll pull some strings with Nedley. She won’t be charged. Didn’t even make it to the station. Not for the drunken disorderly, and not for assaulting an officer.” Pointing at herself. “She got a couple good hits in, but I grew up with Wynonna.”

“Wynonna does hit hard for someone who’s never eaten a vegetable in her life,” Waverly considered.

“Just make sure someone’s checking on her. I don’t like this. I know you’re not together anymore, and it’s not your resp—”

“I don’t like it either,” Waverly agreed. Didn’t matter if they were together, didn’t matter if Nicole hated her guts, and it didn’t matter if a small/pretty good portion of Waverly hated Nicole’s guts, too. She was still a person. A person with a big problem that was manifesting like a plague.

A moment of silence befell them. Waverly and Willa were never what could be considered great or even decent at conversation. Willa just had a natural vibe of standoffish. Like she was perpetually mad at Waverly, for a reason Waverly could never hope to guess and sure as hell would never bother to inquire about.

So, as any normal human, she changed the subject. “I heard you put in a good word for me with Constance. Thank you. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

Willa actually looked genuinely sad about that fact. “She doesn’t know what she’s missing. She just made the biggest mistake of her life.”

Waverly sighed. “I hope so. I just don’t—”

“Hey, Officer Dumbass, where’s your phone?”

Of course Wynonna would interrupt the first and probably only heart to heart Waverly had with Willa. Of course!

Willa eyed the intruder, in a way most threatening. So in a normal Willa way. “I don’t know?”

“We have a disabled sister, you need to know where your phone is at all times.”

“Hey,” Waverly piped up, “I’m not helpless.”

“Remember that one time you fell?”

Wynonna’s glare made her stand down. “I was nine,” she mumbled.

Wynonna turned back to Willa, waving the phone about. “It was in my pickup and I answered it without thinking. It’s about Ward and you need to get to the school.”

Willa grabbed the phone and made to leave in one swift motion. “Why couldn’t you open with that, you idiot?”

“Your face is an idiot! Don’t leave your phone sitting around—She’s gone. Come on, Wave, let’s go crash a crime scene.”

“Oh cool, that’s on my bucket list.”

Probably not as funny as it was in her head. Nicole, drinking alcohol, and Ward, getting hurt at the school? Not a coincidence.

At the scene, some bystanders seemed to think so, too.

So far, the public knew only two things: there was a shooter who surrendered, and Ward was the single victim. Willa was finding out more. Despite how badly everyone on the force was trying to get her to leave. Personal feelings and all that.

Behind where the Earp sisters stood in the growing crowd, Waverly overheard, “You think it was Haught?”

Immediately, she jerked around. “Why would it be Haught?”

The two guys looked a little starstruck. One of them said something about wanting her autograph.

“Focus. Why on earth would it be Nicole?”

“You didn’t hear?” A third to the pair was inserting himself. A lot less heart eyes over Waverly. “She did a shit job on stage and attacked Earp. She tackled him in front of everybody! It happened this morning.”

Waverly felt like some sort of ill-informed idiot. The entire day passed and she was only now finding out about this. What else? Did Nicole go blonde without her noticing, too?

There was no time right now. Nedley was gathering all the Earps and walking them completely off scene.

It was bad news.

One of Ward’s former students entered the school, armed, and shot him in his own office. 

Ward Earp was dead.

By Champ Hardy’s hand.

Nedley forced the Earps home to absorb this information.

But Waverly didn’t want to go home. Home was the opposite of the healing and quiet Nedley wished upon her. Home meant more worry.

She convinced Wynonna to drop her at Nicole’s apartment.

There was only so much she was willing to lose at once.

-

“Nicole? Nicole, are you in there?”

Wynonna parked on the street. Just in case. Close by, just in case.

“Nicole, please open up.”

More knocking. More silence.

Wynonna ejected herself from her car and pounded on the door, yelling, at the top of her lungs, “Haught, open the fucking door, you moron!”

She was swiftly sent away.

After she picked the lock, anyhow. Waverly saw no use for carrying a key anymore.

Waverly felt like sprinting. Yelling, too, but she was silent. Slow, to ascend the stairs she was so familiar with. Stairs she used to love seeing and love climbing, despite her natural opposition to stairs. Wasn’t like both her legs were very bendy.

“Nicole?” she called her name, softly. “Nicole, are you home?”

Dolls wasn’t here, Waverly was piecing together. Another detail she was not informed of. 

Kitchen light was on, but dim. TV off. Not a single drumstick stirred. Nobody asleep on the couch, either. Or sitting in dramatic, silent contemplation with dark lightning and a single candle.

Turning into Nicole’s room, Waverly gasped before holding her breath entirely.

Nicole, sitting on the floor, leaned against the foot of her bed, in clear view of her drumset, clutching a knife. Staring silently at the ground below her boots.

The knife wasn’t red. Not yet. Waverly approached cautiously, though now more than ever she felt like sprinting.

“I’m going to take that knife from you, okay?”

The white-knuckled death grip Nicole had on the weapon loosened, completely surrendering it to Waverly. Her left hand completely relaxing and moving away, into her lap. Her right looked as though she fed it to a shredder. Waverly hid the knife somewhere in Dolls’s room before hurrying back.

She kneeled next to Nicole and inspected everywhere for anything. She felt herself breathe again; Nicole hadn’t gone through with anything.

For a solid twenty minutes, Waverly settled next to Nicole and held her. Complete, somber silence. When minute twenty-one hit them, the silence, like a curse, was broken. Only because Waverly had a selfish need to hear Nicole’s voice. 

“I should’ve known this was happening.”

Nicole shook her head in disagreement. 

“Here I thought he was hard on me, when all along he's been abusing his students far worse.”

Nicole grasped the hands that held her. Caressing them, in her loose grip. Waverly pulled her closer. 

“I’m sorry, Nicole. I’m so sorry. I feel like I just let this happen to you. I was right there the whole time and I did nothing.”

Nicole shook her head again. Disagreeing. 

“You gave that band everything you had. All the way until it drove you over the edge—I let that happen.”

Another shake of the head. There was a short pause before Waverly spoke again.  

“I was supposed to go with Aunt Gus. Ward didn’t want me; I wasn’t his. Then he learned I could sing, and suddenly taking in the disabled little girl he wasn’t even responsible for was a huge interest to him. All the therapies, all the medical bills—my voice was all he wanted. It’s what he does to people. He bleeds them of everything they have and keeps demanding more and more. And I don’t even have a record deal to show for it. I blew my big chance.”

Suddenly Nicole was sitting up. Looking at Waverly with reddened eyes. Waverly missed those eyes. “You’ve got it all wrong, Waverly. This is my fault. All of it. You were having your own problems and I didn’t help. I was too busy chasing this. You even tried to stop me, but I didn’t care.”

Nicole paused. 

“Because I’m an addict.” She exhaled with it. A big truth, revealed. A scary admission, admitted. “And I destroyed everything. I lost my job, I told my dad to fuck off, and I said some—”

Nicole paused when she looked at Waverly. Like she couldn’t bear to repeat it. 

“I said some stupid shit I can’t take back. I didn’t mean it. But that doesn’t erase the fact it happened and the fact those words were in my head to begin with and I—God, I’m so sorry, Waverly. And I’m sorry it probably screwed everything up with Constance and I hate that she cut you and I hate that you can’t find your song because you are destined to be one of the greats, Waverly. It was you all along. Not me, and not anyone else.”

Waverly was quiet. “But I haven’t written in so long. What if I’m done?”

Nicole shook her head. “ I’m done, Waverly. You’re just beginning. This is just a strange lull, and nothing else.”

The expression on Waverly’s face was not one of convinced belief. Then she looked to Nicole. “What are you going to do next? I heard about the performance.”

Nicole sighed. Then laughed. “I don’t really care about music right now. I don’t. All the harm I’ve been trying to fix in my life—It’s all been undone. I’m not even sure I love it anymore. Maybe some day I’ll get that feeling back, but . . . I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry.”

Nicole smiled at Waverly, her eyes sadder than before. “No, I’m sorry.”

Then, in a flash, Waverly was pulling Nicole close for the longest embrace of either of their lives. Inhaling healing breaths from one another. Feeling one another. Waverly felt a gigantic sigh from Nicole. Like she was purging all her stress, all her insecurities mixed in a lab of lies by Waverly’s own father.

When they finally broke, Waverly caressed Nicole’s face. Looking deep into her eyes. “Did you eat tonight?”

“No.”

“Okay. You go take a shower, alright? Go cool down. I’ll order us some food.”

Nicole almost grinned. 

Waverly was staying.

-

The kitchen garbage was loaded with energy drinks, unfinished leftovers, and multiple pairs of broken red sticks. The broken red sticks Waverly had gotten for Nicole. She couldn’t help but feel a little responsible. Or a lot responsible. She bought those red sticks. She encouraged this madness. She brought upon this madness, to someone she loved deeply. 

Good god, she loved Nicole. And if she found Nicole—

Waverly rushed to the home’s nearest junk drawer and dug a notepad from the mess.

Nicole returned to freshly delivered food and a woman with a crazed look on her face, scribbling away like a madwoman on a poor, defenseless paper.

And finally, fully, smiled, for the first time in what felt like an eternity  

Waverly Earp had found her song.

 

She’s roses in the fall,

Roses in the winter,

The roses in my bouquet.

She’s the red in my beating heart,

Red roses,

She’s my love.

She’s my heart.

-

Waverly woke, in a panic, to find Nicole was not in bed. She scrambled to grab and apply her leg while also running into the hallway, tripping over herself, terrified—

There was nothing wrong. 

Nicole was sat around the corner, packing her drum kit away. Cymbals in a bag. Drums in cases. Sticks, back in the box they were received. 

Nicole was done . Done with the chaos. Done with the destruction. 

Only, she did not look proud. Not in the way Waverly felt. She looked sad, like she’d lost. 

-

Some time later, with Dolls still away, pursuing his new life, there was a knock at the apartment at a truly ungodly hour. On a damned Saturday. It was Nicole’s plan to ignore it, and Waverly’s the same, but this guest was persistent. Demanding. So Nicole dragged her tired ass out of bed and yanked the door open.

Suits. Three stone-faced people, fully dressed in suits with shiny, squeaky shoes, were staring back at her. Was she about to get arrested?

“Nicole Haught?”

She full on gulped. “Uh, yeah?”

The woman leading the group dropped her stern look for a much nicer smile. Much less threatening. Nicole felt a little safer. “We were sent by your roommate, Mister Xavier Dolls, regarding your school professor, Ward Earp.”

“Former,” Nicole clarified. She was expelled, of course, for attacking a teacher on stage. The letter wasn’t as devastating as she anticipated. More like . . . freeing. 

The woman nodded. “We’re aware you were expelled from the academy this past Monday. We were wondering if you had a moment this morning to talk about Ward Earp? What he was like before his death?”

Nicole couldn’t believe he was dead. Further, she could not believe it was Champ Hardy killed him. Champ Hardy killed someone. She couldn’t blame him for being frustrated. But killing someone? Looking at them and actually, permanently taking their life away? It was a mad idea.

But who was she to talk? She almost took her own life.

The woman sensed her hestitance. Probably knew her close relation to the Earp family, as well. “We have several ongoing and re-opened cases against Ward’s actions as an educator. Accusations of abuse, verbal and physical, as well as violence. We’ve heard Xavier’s part of the story. Will you tell us yours?”

This would destroy the Earp reputation. The school. Purgatory.

No, Waverly was an Earp. She couldn’t.

“I—I can’t. I can’t do that. I’m sorry.”

The woman tried not to look too disappointed. Her colleagues failed in that department. “We understand. But if you change your mind, here.”

Business card.

When Nicole shut the door and turned around, she found Waverly. Glaring at her from the top of the stairs. 

“You need to tell them everything, Nicole.”

“But what about—”

“No. You have to. You're not hurting us. If I’m going to make a name for myself, there’s no way I’ll have it tied to him. I know Willa feels the same. I know Wynonna does, too.”

Nicole had a hesitant look on her face. There was more to this. Venturing back into that awful experience—did she really want to relive that?

Waverly wasn’t dumb. She picked up on that expression. “I know it’s scary. But think of all the people he’s hurt. Think of all the people he’s crushed. All the names, dragged through the dirt. I know it’s hard, but please , Nicole. Please tell your story. Please don’t hide it.”

The door was yanked back open, and one, pajama-ed person ran out from it. Chasing three lawyers as they entered their car, to return home and continue the longest case of their lives.

“Wait!”

Chapter Text

“My name is Nicole Haught. Freshman. Drummer.” She paused, for a full minute. “Alcoholic.”

Former students, stretching back decades all the way to people who were students now, all gathered in one session. A group therapy dedicated to people whose lives were affected negatively by Professor Ward Earp’s unwise words.

It was a mix between people actually present in the room and people attending via Skype. Those who still lived in Purgatory weren’t too much older than Nicole. They were recent or current students. To her surprise, one of those people was Robin Jett. Someone she thought was completely confident and had everything in order. She’d never considered the damage Ward was doing to other people in that room. Just herself.

This was the very first session Nicole attended, and already she felt two tons lift off her chest. She felt less alone. Less like she was being sensitive about the whole ordeal.

More like she was going to get better.

When it ended, carpooling back home, she thanked Dolls for inviting her in the first place. And then wished him luck, because this was his absolute last day in town. He stayed for today’s session. 

The send-off party was last night. Notably, everyone but Wynonna Earp was there. Dolls tried not to be upset about that fact.

Right now, in this private moment outside their apartment, Dolls’s SUV packed up with the rest of his things, Nicole hugged Dolls.

“Keep in touch, alright?” she asked of him. “I want to update everyone on my super cool cop friend.”

With a parting pat on the back, Dolls smiled. “You got it, Haught.”

“Thanks again. Today—I really needed that.”

He smiled again. “You got it, Haught. Take care of yourself, alright? Keep me posted, too.”

Nicole nodded. “You got it, Xavier.” She paused. Wynonna’s truck was pulling up?

The second Dolls walked over to the driver door, the town’s radio personality popped right out and wrapped him in a giant hug. Nicole took it as her cue to go back inside. But she couldn’t help but hear a lot of apologizing.

She watched, from the window, as Xavier Dolls’s SUV left the driveway for the final time. Off to a new life and a new career.

One that would bring him happiness.

-

Her father was present, for the entire, civilized disagreement.

“My client’s depression is pre-existing, prior to enrollment at the academy. That is true. However, if you properly read over this report from an office visit to her therapist just two days ago, you’ll see the anxiety disorder has only just recently begun to sprout. She did not have these episodes one year ago.”

Disagreement— is that really relevant?

“As you can see from the clear, bright red cast, as well as this x-ray report, my client has three broken fingers. She reports slamming her car door into them after returning from the on-stage incident in question. It was done during a mental episode. She, as well as several bar patrons and Officer Willa Earp, can confirm, the same night, she broke her two-year sobriety in the same fit. Due to the alcohol, she caused disturbances at the bar as well as assaulting Officer Willa Earp. The officer has no plans to press charges.”

One of the opposing lawyers groaned, “But she can turn around and sue the officer’s father?”

Nicole’s lawyer did not lose her step. Continuing, like she was never interrupted. “She, in no way, played any part to Hardy James’s murder of Professor Earp. They were not close colleagues. My client states she did not know of Mister James’s plans to do so, nor could she have guessed or prevented it.”

Further explanations Nicole’s only ties to Champ were that of classmates. Opposing lawyers were convinced attacking Ward in the same day was a coup. Well, she has a history of violence—you just admitted so! Their objections were debunked. 

“My client, as well as her roommate, Xavier Dolls, and her close friend, Waverly Earp, can confirm she has not touched her instrument or attempted to touch her instrument since the night referenced. She has kept it packed away since she was expelled.”

It was asked how trustworthy Waverly was in this case, considering their romantic connection. Nicole’s lawyer told them they were no longer together, strictly friends. Though Nicole wasn’t entirely sure about that status, herself.

“My client can confirm her romantic affair with Waverly Earp in no way gained her special treatment by Professor Ward Earp, nor did it gain her negative treatment. My client claims Professor Earp’s teaching style was standard with most of his students. This is in perfect alignment with every other open claim against the professor.”

There was a lot of backstage whispering between the opposing party. Nicole’s own lawyer gave her reassurances, but a part of her still felt uneasy. The opposing team was hired by the academy. The big man Moody himself, to protect his own ass. They were trying to settle. If Nicole’s lawyer hadn’t reminded them of her findings, things would’ve gone a lot worse. They were not willing to do much in Nicole’s favor. If this weren’t a high-profile case, with the entire town watching, they surely would’ve told her and all the accusers to go right to hell.

They were in emergency mode. Nicole was the face of these cases. Attacking Ward on stage was a huge deal. if they could get her to back down . . .

They were nicer when they returned. Some of them actually smiled, and Nicole found it deeply unsettling.

“We are prepared to offer Miss Haught three hundred thousand dollars. This does not include reinstatement to the academy, as well as free schooling, free cost of living, and free meals. We can offer to purchase her a new drum kit as a gesture of good faith. She simply needs to sign here.”

The spotlight was on Nicole. Her own lawyer, waiting for her to make the call. Her own father, who’d arrived this morning to attend, waiting for her to make the call. A team of professional silencers, waiting for her to make the call.

But Waverly told Nicole to tell her story. 

Please don’t hide it.

Think of all the people he’s crushed. All the names, dragged through the dirt.

Nicole stood up to declare, “I quit this school. I will see you in court.”

-

Nicole’s attempt to completely avoid her father, leaving the academy, was foiled. He was fast for his age, stopping her right in her tracks just before the parking lot.

“I wanna talk to you,” he said. Nicole tried to push past him. Foiled again.

“Why are you even here? Last time I checked, you weren’t interested in this part of my life. Or my life at all.”

“I’ve made terrible mistakes, kid.” William looked the saddest Nicole had ever seen him. On par with when her sister died. “I haven’t been there for you. I wasn’t there when Hayley—I wasn’t there. And I’m not here now, for my only daughter.”

She wasn’t letting herself fall for anything. “Don’t worry about it.”

Yet again, William stopped her from leaving. “You’re not gonna like this,” he persisted, “but I want you to come home. I want you to come home and recover, Nicole. I want you to get better. I saw you on that stage. I was there, in the audience. That ain’t you.”

Of course. The first performance he ever goes to, just happened to be that one.

The entire pitch was difficult to process. Going home was never the best thing for her. It’s what Nicole told him, right there. But, as she said it, the realization Purgatory hadn’t been kind to her either hit. There was only one aspect of kindness from Purgatory. But she screwed that relationship up.

Her final excuse, mostly for herself: “I’m trying to make a life here.” Waverly was here. But then again, they weren’t exactly dating right now, were they? Because she screwed that relationship up.

“You ain’t goin’ to school, you ain’t workin’, and you got no roommate to pick up the slack.” William managed to say so in a nice manner, not the rude one it probably deserved to be said in. “Just come home, Nicole. Come on and clear your head. You can focus on gettin’ better with the therapy without rent creepin’ on you. Or work stress. Come home.”

She couldn’t. Going home was taking a huge step back. Home was where she used to be; that jobless nobody loser who drank all day and thought nothing other than pity on herself. She had no purpose at home. No purpose other than misery.

But here in Purgatory was more of the same. No job. Disgraced at school. Sobriety broken. Strangers’ pities, when they passed by the one who tackled Ward Earp on stage. No matter where she went, she was at risk for falling into old habits.

William was absolutely right. But Waverly . . .

As if he could read his daughter’s mind, William added, “Purgatory will always be here. Right now you just need a break from it.”

But Waverly . . .

No. Waverly would want her to get better.

She needed to get better, if she wanted to go anywhere with Waverly.

Genuinely, Nicole promised to consider.

-

William wasn’t returning to his crappy Purgatory hotel tonight, and he wasn’t using a ride service. His daughter was taking him to the spare bedroom in her apartment. The apartment she lived in while attending the school he didn’t agree with. She wanted him to stay with her. She wanted them to get better.

At the apartment, she was surprised to find Waverly, waiting for her with dinner. Waverly was surprised to find William Haught, in the flesh.

“Dad, this is my—Um, this is Waverly.” What the hell were they right now? Friends? Something more? Friends, with something to never be tried again? Nicole had no idea how to ask that question.

She found, after her father had gone to bed and left the two be, it was extremely difficult not to think about.

“You’re a little quiet tonight. How are you feeling?” Handing Nicole a warm cup of tea, and asking, a little quieter, “How do you feel with your dad here?”

“He wants me to go home. And I’m actually thinking about it.”

Waverly tried not to look absolutely devastated by that.

“I’m not running away from what happened here, I’m just—I need a break. I need to start over. I mean, this was supposed to be my restart. But—I need to start again. I don’t feel like I can stand on my own feet right now.”

Of course Waverly was understanding about it, no matter how deeply the thought of Nicole leaving cut. “It’s not a bad idea.” 

Such a sentence left a bad taste in her mouth. She wanted to be selfish and keep Nicole all to herself. 

“Your mental health is important, especially right now. And I completely understand needing to take time off from life.” Waverly pointed to her leg.

“I’ll miss you, Waverly. Like crazy.”

Waverly pulled her into a giant hug. “I’ll miss you, too, Nicole.”

-

She waited until the casket lowered and the crowd cleared before speaking to him, in the earth below. She waited, to tell him everything. To thank him.

Because now she understood. Now, she got it.

“I understand what I really want in life now, Professor. I want to be happy. I want to be healthy. I want to take care of myself, and I want to take care of my family. I want to pursue things, whether or not I’m good at them. I don’t plan on caring how others perceive my skill. I only care how happy I am at what I’m doing. I am great, and I always have been. I’m great, because I’m walking away from this misery and won’t continue to try and crush my peers to stay on top. I understand how to care for myself, and what to do when things get too far. I understand how to go to people for help. So thank you for that. Those are the real lessons you taught me.”

She left his spot in the earth for the small group gathering elsewhere. Ever since word got out about Ward’s techniques, his number of allies seemed to shrink more by the day. The attendance at his own funeral was pathetic, plainly. Mostly, the people who attended were here to support his daughters. The only reason his daughters were here was out of respect. Respect being something they didn’t quite have for him; Wynonna questioned why they bothered to attend in the first place.

Wynonna, off in the corner, keeping an eye on her sister, was approached by her business partner. Partner who also happened to be her sponsor and her manager, as well as the one who gave her the radio show in the first place.

“I managed to palm your friend,” Kate Elder said to her, an umbrella towering over her shoulder and providing protection from the morning sunlight. “I can see Nicole Haught will have a bright future, so long as she continues to avoid the fears of failure that drag her down.”

Wynonna was not impressed. “I’m not paying for the palm reading. Nice try, though.”

Kate deadpanned. “I wasn’t asking you to. But now I want to ask you to.”

“No.”

“I’ll just take it out of your pay. Consider it compensation for sleeping with my husband.”

“I didn’t order it! And, just—for the record, what kind of a sucker gives her husband’s side piece a freakin’ radio show? You are so bad at management. And bossy. So, so bossy.”

“There’s only so much you can say on a public radio before I get in trouble.”

“I slept with your husband, woman, I’m not exactly a saint.”

-

Asking Willa for another favor, after everything she did for Nicole’s stupid, drunken ass was a miserable gesture. The fact she granted it to Nicole made her feel even more lousy. She owed Willa, big time.

Through Willa’s prying and Sheriff Nedley’s connections, Nicole managed to meet with Champ. Once she discussed something with the warden of his prison.

“I wasn’t expecting you to visit me, Haught,” he said through the protective glass. Nicole shrugged.

“And I wasn’t expecting—Um, I wanted to tell you about something. Everyone else is on board, but it’s up to you whether or not you actually want to do it.”

Champ gestured for her to go on.

“I’m asking you to take this seriously: there is a group therapy for people Ward has abused. I joined it. I already feel—”

“I’ll do it.”

There was something in Champ’s eyes. Not regret. He didn’t regret what he did. He hated that he did it. He hated being here. He hated being angry and hurt, and most of all he hated the fact killing Ward didn’t take the pain away.

“Okay, then,” Nicole said, kind enough to smile in a reassuring fashion to him. “We meet every Friday. Ten o’ clock. We already set you up a Skype account.”

He nodded. And thanked her.

Nicole smiled at him again. “Take care, Champ.”

-

“I promise it won’t be forever.”

Waverly clung to Nicole no different than koala. Like she was attempting to keep her here as long as possible. Not that Nicole minded. “I know,” she said, her voice muffled into Nicole’s chest, “But I’m going to miss you.”

When they finally parted, it was slow. “I’ll miss you, too. A lot.”

“Take care of yourself, okay?”

“I will. Tell Willa I said thanks, again?”

“I will.” Waverly hugged her again. “I’m proud of you, Nicole.”

“Thank you for believing in me.”

Waverly looked up at her. Looking, into her eyes. “Always.”

Behind them, someone was making a disgusted noise at the loudest volume they could possibly manage. Neither had to turn around to figure it was Wynonna.

“You guys are so gross,” she said. “Just plain fucking disgusting. Get a room!”

“I’ll miss you, too, Wynonna.” Nicole laughed. “There’s nobody like you back home. The radio hosts aren’t nearly as great, either.”

“Of course they’re not,” Wynonna crossed her arms, taking Nicole’s compliments like they were common facts. “They’re not me.”

“Thank you for not shooting me.”

Something in Wynonna seemed to soften. “Thank you for taking care of Waverly. You know, before you yelled at her. Not that part.”

“Good luck with your show. Keep the good work up.”

Again, Wynonna took it like a fact. “I will keep the good work up. It’s what those ghosts deserve.”

One more set of hugs, and Nicole was in her trailer-hitched car. Leaving Purgatory for good.

-

“We at Purgatory Haunted HAM want to wish Nicole Haught safe travels. Make it home alright, it’s a long drive. We’ll miss you, Haught.”

-

It was two years before Nicole Haught returned to Purgatory.

Her first destination was nowhere near town. Nowhere near the school. It was directly on the Earp homestead’s front porch, with a bouquet of flowers clutched in her hands.

The first person to answer the door was Wynonna Earp. “Answer” being a generous term—she immediately went wide-eyed, slammed the door, and audibly called for Waverly before stomping away somewhere else in the house.

When the door opened again, Nicole was too distracted to think about it. She held the flowers so tightly she nearly destroyed the stems.

Waverly Earp looked more beautiful than she remembered.

“Oh my god,” Waverly Earp said, both of her hands covering half of her beautiful face, “it’s—This can’t be real.”

Never had Nicole been knocked speechless by a woman in a messy bun and sweatpants. Never.

“I didn’t know you were back in town!”

Nicole’s smile just wouldn’t fade. She had no complaints. “You’re graduating today. Of course I’m here.” Graduating a full year early, no less. Wynonna was the one who reached out and arranged the whole thing.

“I’m so happy you’re here. And you brought flowers! They’re beautiful!”

Flowers she was positively crushing in nervous excitement, trying her best to stay cool. “I work in a flower shop now. I have expert taste. Of course they’re beautiful.”

They spent three hours of nonstop talking, catching up. Nicole told Waverly about her successful therapy sessions back home. Curbing a growing anxiety disorder before it could manifest. Her new job at the flower shop, where she’d seen more than enough interesting things and met people about as odd as Wynonna Earp herself.

Re-establishing a relationship with her parents.

Waverly won the Music Expo once more, and last year was beaten out by Robin in a vote that took and extended amount of time to call. Robin had joked they would be unstoppable if they were to combine groups. Then Levi left to join Fish’s group, their relationship blossoming more than ever before—no fights in two years—and the possibility presented itself. This year, Robin, Jeremy, Waverly, and Rosita planned to enter their combined group for the first time. Shae left altogether to pursue other opportunities. The new group managed to find the perfect contrast between Waverly’s indie genre and Robin’s jazz influence. Their songwriting sessions went for hours. Usually popping out songs hitting the eight minute mark. Their new songs very much had the feel of old jazz songs. Waverly didn’t mind.

Independently, excluding her collaborations with Robin, Waverly wrote a total of thirty-two songs in the span of two years. She turned down offers from six separate producers, every time saying she was focusing on her own self-improvement. Her own confidence, as a writer and as a musician. Her own confidence in her own career, now that her father wasn’t here to overshadow it with his own master plans.

“I actually wrote this one the night of—Well, when Ward was—You know.”

Nicole held Waverly’s notebook like it was a sacred treasure. The folded up slip of paper clearly taken from a smaller notepad. “ ‘Red Roses’, huh? I knew you liked roses.”

Waverly grabbed the bouquet from where she’d set it aside, inhaling its sweet scent. “Mmm, I do.”

Nicole was silent. In awe, of the song Waverly clearly wrote with her in mind as the subject.

“So, um, I don’t know how long you’re in town, but I’ve been working with Robert Svane lately. He’s been in town more since Ward’s passing. I typically go to the studio tomorrow, if you want to see it.”

“I would love that. And one day, when you’re famous, I can tell everyone I was there when the magic started.” Smiling, evil. “And exploit the hell out of it.”

Waverly laughed. “That’s terrible.”

-

Waverly Earp built enough confidence, over the course of two years, to face the rest of her childhood fears; she got her driver’s license and drove Nicole to the studio herself. (And she was not a bad driver, at that.)

According to Waverly, Robert Svane—who was technically her cousin this entire time, a detail hidden by Ward so as to keep Waverly’s career in his own hands—had to thank Champ Hardy for the sudden, frequent visits to town. Visits that eventually turned into residency. He didn’t leave the academy to pursue his many soundtrack deals. He loved that school. He loved teaching. He left, because working with Ward Earp and watching no one punish the man for his terrible actions was misery . The only reason he suggested Doc Holliday take his position was because he remembered Doc Holliday for being a no bullshit type of man; he was hoping Doc would be the one to finally get Ward caught and fired. Unfortunately Ward’s influence was too strong, even for the many reports Doc filed against him.

Nicole remembered that day Ward went “poaching” Doc’s students. His silence. He wasn’t afraid of Ward. He was afraid for his students.

Robert managed to get himself re-hired at the academy, using his influence to bring the school’s reputation back up. He made sure Doc was the department head, not him. Doc was tough, not scary.

Inside the studio, a place designed by a mastermind who really only could’ve belonged in an artsy town like Purgatory, Robert Svane remembered Nicole. Not as the student who tackled Ward on stage. As the drummer who turned his empty drum charts marked with improv ticks into art.

Today, Nicole could see Waverly piece together, they wouldn’t be working on her originals. They were recording them. Because yesterday, Waverly officially graduated. The one reason she refused to start her career. She wasn’t ready for Constance. She wanted to be ready, now.

She was ready, now.

“If you want to,” Robert clarified. “Hop in the booth, if you want to.”

Waverly looked to Nicole for support. Nicole offered encouragement.

Right here, in front of Nicole’s lucky eyes, Waverly Earp recorded the first official song of her career. Her real career, not a failed attempt with Constance Clootie.

Again, Nicole was in awe. She’d so stupidly forgotten how amazing Waverly’s voice was. How talented it was.

“That’s perfect, Waverly,” Robert said at the end of the one take. “Marvelous! I see why you graduated so early.”

Nicole was too amazed to speak.

“We can get the rest of the band in here later. Rosita can do the drums, right?”

“I think—”

“Wait,” Nicole interrupted, sitting up. Suddenly back on this earth. “Waverly, you don’t have a drummer?”

She shrugged, like it was nothing. “Not since you.”

“But you do jazz.”

“Technically, yeah. We’ve worked around it. Sometimes we’ll use a pre-recorded track or Rosita will play part of a drum kit live.”

It was like she was keeping the spot open for Nicole all these years.

No, that was a selfish thought to have.

But . . . why exactly was that slot open?

Robert asked, taking her from her thoughts, “Do you still play? It would be an honor to hear you. If you’re alright with that.”

Waverly was pulling that concerned face again. One where she feared this was too much for Nicole. The whole three hour talk yesterday, she hadn’t said a thing about music. Not even the types she was listening to. Not a peep about the academy, either. And now Waverly had invited her to a recording studio to meet the man who wrote the songs she—

Nicole was entering the booth before Waverly’s concern could do anything about it. “I do still play, every once in a while. I’m trying to get back into it, one step at a time.”

Waverly did not leave the booth. Looking at her, the same. Nicole shot her a reassuring smile.

Waverly did not leave the booth. She did not stop looking at Nicole, as she approached the drum kit waiting behind the mic stand.

Because Nicole approached it with care, like it was an old friend she’d parted with for decades.

Her hand caressing the hi-hat as she adjusted it, as if it were a gentle animal she loved generously. Tapping each drum with care, careful not to hit them hard enough to shatter them.

Waverly watched Nicole play, from right inside the booth, adding on to the part she and Robert discussed briefly. A wire brush part for the very song Waverly wrote the night she almost lost Nicole forever. Painting a borrowed pair against the snare drum, setting an easy tone for the easy song Waverly’s vocals created. All cymbal hits were quiet, to match.

Waverly was quiet, as she stared at Nicole.

Nicole, playing her instrument like she genuinely loved what she was doing. Not because she was trying to prove herself to anyone. Not trying to get a teacher off her back. Not trying to get her father’s attention. Not trying to prove to herself she wasn’t a loser.

Nicole, playing her instrument like she’d found her passion again.

She played, with a small grin on her face.

-

They had dinner at the McCready property. Nicole had never really met Waverly’s Aunt Gus or Uncle Curtis, just heard stories about them. Something always came up. The way Waverly described them, they always seemed busy. And now, sitting in their home for dinner, she could see they were busy people.

Curtis, outside finishing up his daily ranch chores, trying to force his whiny radio host niece to help out a little bit. Gus, preparing a giant meal for a giant group, her kitchen belching smoke in every possible direction. Smelled good.

Present at dinner were the three Earp sisters, Kate Elder, Doc Holliday, Robert Svane, and the home’s two owners. Including Nicole, it was nine people total. The typical group, by the looks of it, the exception of Waverly’s missing bandmates.

“You’re glowing and you look so happy,” Wynonna said to Nicole. “It’s gross.”

Gus kicked her under the table. Willa glared. Wynonna rolled her eyes at the both of them.

“So, Nicole,” Robert said, finishing off hard liquor like it was nothing, an effective contrast to his quiet and sensitive nature, “what plans are in your radar for the future?”

Waverly stopped eating. What was he doing?

Nicole shrugged. “I’m not sure, to be honest. Right now I’m just working. I haven’t really thought about going back to school. Not really sure what I’d go for. Maybe I’ll travel?”

“How do you like it in Purgatory? Personally, I have no idea how I managed to stay away.”

Waverly was full on staring at Robert now. Was he really trying to recruit Nicole, right now? At dinner? While they were eating corn!

“I definitely miss it,” Nicole admitted. “Not the cold, though, I didn’t miss that.” Suddenly, she smiled at Wynonna. “I missed the radio for sure.”

Her grumpy frown died. “Hell yeah.”

Waverly piped up, before this conversation could try to go any further. And to avoid it derailing into some talk about the town radio. “Robert, what are you doing, asking her all these very suspicious questions?” 

Nicole didn’t think they were suspicious. Well, maybe the town one. Combined with the—maybe it was suspicious. All Robert did was smile and look to Kate and Doc. What, were they looking to adopt Nicole? Wasn’t she a little too old for that?

“We’ve been thinking about selling our shares and opening our own recording studio,” Kate explained. “Doc and I want to open and sponsor a new label.”

Waverly immediately looked to her manager. Wynonna was smiling. Already talked the details over, then. Waverly wondered if she invested, too.

“Wynonna found us a nice building, for cheap. Robert will be working closely with you. We want to sign you first, Waverly. What do you think?”

Quickly, Robert added, “Your entire band this time, not just you. And Nicole is invited, of course. A drummer’s input would be appreciated.”

Waverly was too shocked at the offer to check in with Nicole. She tried, but all she could do was stare silently.

Nicole seemed a little more collected. A little more together. Meaning she was going to turn it down—

“I’m in.” Nicole was smiling. “I’m in.”

-

The Earps didn’t want Nicole staying in one of the crappy Purgatory hotels. She was the hero of Purgatory, after all, who’d gotten their father’s name rightfully dragged through the mud. Made the academy a safer place for everyone. In her borrowed corner of the house, she made a call.

On the other end of the line, all the way back home, her father answered, “You doin’ alright, kid?”

“Hey, dad. Um, yeah, I—listen, um, I just got a job offer. And I’m considering it.”

On the other end of the line, all the way back home, her father laughed with pride and joy. “That’s great! What’s the job?”

“Wynonna’s manager is opening a new label. Waverly’s on board. They need a drummer.”

William was quiet. Not in a disapproving way. That way hadn’t been present for a while now. “Is it what you want to do? Are you ready for a thing like that?”

“I don’t know if I’m ready. But I know it’s what I want. It’s what I’ve always wanted. And you know I started playing again—”

“You know what? Call in a few days at the shop. You haven’t taken off since you started. Try this label thing out for a bit, see if you’re okay with it. See if it’s a good fit. Just don’t go pushin’ yourself, okay?”

Nicole nodded. “Okay. Thank you, Dad.”

“Any time, sweetheart. Keep me posted, alright?”

“You got it.”

It was Nicole’s plan to go find Waverly across the house, but Waverly was already, awkwardly, standing around the corner. A little embarrassed. She did not intend to eavesdrop on the entire, private conversation.

“I only heard the last bit,” she clarified. Nicole laughed.

“He talks loud, and I put him on speaker. You would’ve heard from town.”

The two were quiet a moment. Something in Waverly shifting, as she took a moment to really look at Nicole.

“You look so happy, Nicole. And healthy. You seem like you’re in a really good place.”

Nicole smiled like she was really, truly proud of herself. Or just happy Waverly noticed. “You do, too. And more confident, Miss Licensed Driver. The whole energy of the house, Wave, it’s totally different.”

Waverly shrugged. “There’s no one to bring everyone down. No one hides in their room because they’re ‘working’. No one’s stressed for no reason. Everyone’s just happy.”

“Is that why you’ve written thirty-two songs? Which, again, holy crap.”

“It’s different without him here. No one hovers over me and tries to control my every choice, or trick me into choosing something I wouldn’t normally. I can actually explore my creativity instead of focusing on producing ‘perfection’, whatever that is.” She exhaled. “I can allow myself to take bigger risks than I’ve ever taken before. I do feel more confident. And, for the first time, I can feel love in this home. I’ve never felt love here before. It’s home. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, it does.”

Nicole being someone who came from a similar home, where everyone was stressed about the fact they were stressed. A home where everyone was focused on something that wasn’t each other. A place where strangers posed as family and did their own separate thing. A home where there was no love, just a place to sleep and a place to eat when not at work. A corner to crawl in and drink.

What Waverly was explaining did make sense, because Nicole watched her own version of it unfold, too. For the better. For the sake of a happy family who loved each other.

-

For the first time, Nicole experienced what it was like to play in a group and truly, completely enjoy it. She did not need to worry about disappointing the singer’s father. Failing in the vision of her own father. Disappointing and failing herself.

Over and over again, for a month now. And then two. Three.

She was staying. A ranch hand helping out Curtis during the day, when she wasn’t with the band at the studio.

Nearing the end of month three, Nicole finally convinced the Earps to let her move out from their incredibly kind hospitality. Back into her old complex, right across from her old apartment. Rooming with her old friend, Shae Pressman. The first thing Nicole did after taking the studio job was find and apologize to Shae. Then thank her, for trying to save her job at the bookstore. The only reason Shae hadn’t stayed with the band, playing bass, was because of the store. Turns out the manager knew a guy who needed help putting together a book: a beginner’s guide to bass guitar. The guy was a musician, but not a bass player. He was trying to make books for every single instrument, happily collaborating with any expert he could find. And now, a year after that offer, it was getting ready to launch. Shae’s first post-college project.

Now, Shae’s current project was trying to settle the, alleged, serious tension lingering between Waverly and Nicole. She denied it, but she had a certain radio host hint very strongly at the fact the fall fair was back in town. She also might’ve hunted down Chrissy Nedley to pressure Waverly, as well.

Her reason, when Nicole formally accused her: “You really like her, Nicole. And she really likes you. When was the last time you watched a rom com?”

It was a thought Nicole blew off. They already tried the dating thing. Then she moved away and they barely spoke for two years. And don’t forget the part where she ambushed and yelled at Waverly on her own property for trying to help! Can’t forget that!

Then she began to notice things.

Lingering touches. Prolonged stares. Losing sleep, thinking about a pretty girl like she was back in high school.

It was driving her insane.

So, as any normal human, Nicole blurted the question out in the middle of a session, while it was just the two of them finishing up for the day.

Waverly said yes in a very loud voice. Into the microphone.

But this first date was completely different. They already had a history. They were both very different people than they were before. Different, mature, better versions of those kids from two years ago.

Nicole was at least hoping to win another prize at the games. Another panda, maybe, but came up with nothing. She lost at every single game.

“Don’t be grumpy,” Waverly laughed. Nicole kept her pout.

“These games are rigged,” she grumbled. Pout still holding.

“Maybe just the one panda is a special thing on its own.”

“Maybe the stupid panda is cursed.”

“Maybe Mister Dalmatian is—”

Waverly slipped in a mud patch. Nicole was quick to catch her, right by her arms.

“I got you,” Nicole said, laughing a little. “I got you.”

Holding Waverly, who was looking right up at her. Something in her eyes.

She leaned upward and kissed Nicole for the first time in two years. 

Love. Love was in her eyes.

“I missed you,” she whispered against Nicole’s lips, caring none for the crowd pushing past them, going about their own lives and their own loves. “I missed you so much.”

Nicole held her close, kissing her again. Smiling, feeling herself slip onto the verge of tears. “I missed you, too.”

Two weeks later, Nicole drove back home to retrieve the rest of her belongings. Her drum kit, for one. Her sticks, for second. Waverly went with her.

Waverly stepped into her old home, to find two present and responsible parents, eager to meet her. Nobody looked at their phone. Nobody watched TV. Nobody did anything work related. They were present, enjoying a nice dinner as a family. A picture of Hayley Haught in the living room, smiling back at a complete group of people, genuinely enjoying their time together.

-

“Don’t forget to pick up the debut album of Purgatory’s very own Ocean Blue. Or download it. I don’t care. Just buy it. Here at the Purgatory Haunted HAM, we guarantee satisfaction. Also, you guys have heard my sister sing before, just buy a freakin’ copy. You have until I get back. That’s right, folks, for the first time, I’m taking a break from the town radio. Just for one week. I’m visiting a friend in the big city. A very special friend. A something more kind of friend. Don’t get into too much trouble, Purgatory. For now, this is Wynonna Earp, signing off.”

-

Waverly poked her head out from backstage, careful to not let the monster of a crowd below see her. Startled out of her skin, when Nicole tapped on her shoulder.

“They’re chanting your name,” she said, grinning wider than she’d ever grinned before. Unfortunately Waverly was too deep in nerves to be taken by the sweetness of it.

“Did you ask? How many are out there?”

“I really don’t want to freak you out.”

“I’m freaking out not knowing.”

Suddenly, Nicole’s smile grew wider, if possible. “There are 140,000 people out there, Waverly.”

Waverly smacked her arm. “Oh my god! Why would you tell me that! Now I’m freaking out!”

Nicole steadied her shoulders. Kept her from peeking out into the crowd again. “Hey. They’re all here for you. They love you, Waverly.”

Waverly was still frowning. “They’re here for you, too.”

Nicole didn’t buy that. “Yeah, but mostly for you. They’re mostly here for the very pretty singer.”

Waverly didn’t buy that. “How many drumsticks did you sign tonight?”

“Thirty-two, so far. All of them were red-orange.”

The worry seemed to escape Waverly, if only for a minute. “Any chance I could get my hands on an official pair of Nicole Haught Vic Firths?”

Nicole was happy to play along. “I don’t know. They’re a rare find.”

“Can I get a discount, at least?”

“Fat chance.”

“You won’t give your own wife a discount? You gave Dolls a free pair!”

“They’re in high demand, Waverly! And Dolls is head of our security team. He has my social security number.”

“So do I! I knew it—being a rockstar has gone to your head.”

“Could it be . . . the sticks are cursed?”

The most Waverly could do, before the two were called to enter the stage, was smack Nicole’s arm.

The stage was a crowded affair, as well. Extra room, for Waverly to work the stage, though she wasn’t much of a traveling singer. A grand setup of multiple keyboards, for Jeremy. More space, for Robin and his saxophone to occupy. He was the showman. The position of bass player was open for now, as former player Rosita Bustillos moved on to formal compositions. Robert Svane as her mentor. It’s what she always wanted to do. 

Throughout their long career and long lives together, Waverly and Nicole weren’t quite sure what to do or where to put their many accolades. Awards, from countless different organizations for countless different things. One room in their home was dedicated to it, complete with newspaper and magazine clippings, photos—both professionally done and silly ones with fans—hanging wherever they could fit on the wall, and memorabilia.

Perhaps the most prized possession, one not understood by most guests, was the display box sitting in the middle of the room. A picture of the studio they opened together sitting above it. Waverly’s degree from the academy. A book, next to the box, of jazz songs from Robert Svane.

In the box, in the center of it all, was a stuffed panda.