“So is this place groovy or what?
Michael’s excitement could not be contained in the slightest as he opened the front door into the Sound Loft and beckoned Kim, Aeris and Calvin to follow him inside.
Inside, Rob stood by the tower windows that overlooked the city skyline. He held the rainbow Warwick bass in his hands, as his fingers strummed on its strings ever so slightly.
It has been only a week since he’d acquired it from Semi-Sound, but memories of his original chrome orange bass guitar still persisted in his mind.
The strings remained unfamiliar to him, and the neck was long and somewhat heavy. But despite it all, he knew he would have to make due.
Rob sighed as he continued to practice scales. His old bass was all but a memory now.
So focused on his new instrument, he almost didn’t hear Aeris when she addressed him as the four entered the living room where he was practicing.
“Oh, you must be Mr. Kay.” she said, the Texas twang strong in her voice.
The bass player looked up, tipping his cap up as he examined Michael’s new friends. He’d just about forgotten they were coming today.
“Nobody else.” he replied. Always one to analyze first impressions, Rob noted that this girl was clearly used to being polite to strangers, whether or not it was by choice.
Kim chose to keep silent as she sat down on the coffee-colored couch, while Calvin was already making himself comfortable, content to ignore everyone as he scrolled through his phone and propped his feet up on the loveseat.
Aeris flashed her best smile as she took a seat next to Kim. “It’s very nice to finally meet you. Michael’s told us a lot about you.”
“That’s a an understatement.” Calvin began, still not looking away from his phone. “He literally won’t shu-”
Kim was quick with her reaction, kicking him hard in the knee with the bottom of her combat boot He shut up just a second later.
Of course, all of this just flew over Michael’s head. He was far too excited to finally have everyone at Rob’s place to pay attention to such details. He pointed ecstatically at his three guests as he introduced them in order.
“Aeris, Kim and Calvin. These are the three I’ve been training with for the last two months. See Rob, they’re totally real.” Michael exclaimed with self-assurance, only for Calvin to recover from Kim’s threat and add in his two cents.
“You mean like those super real Japanese assassins that apparently you somehow beat?” the blonde boy said with a laugh.
This time, Kim went for the personal approach as opposed to the physical one.
“I distinctly recall that Afroboy here bopped you pretty hard the last time you two tangoed, so I wouldn’t talk if I were you. Or better yet, just don’t talk at all.” she announced with a low snicker, much to Calvin’s annoyance.
“Sounds like you all get along like perfect bandmates already.” Rob finally interjected, taking a seat in the spare chair across from the four teens. His tone became more serious now, as he began to remember everything Michael had told him about his exploits in this past week.
“More importantly, you four really need to think about where you show off those song effects. You’re lucky that you didn’t hit any bystanders, let alone attract Zero Beat’s attention.”
Aeris replied in her most polite tone as she hoped to somewhat lighten the situation. “Well, it was Kim’s suggestion. We just sort of followed along.”
“I just happened to be in the neighborhood.” Calvin added. “My schedule’s usually very packed.”
Kim just groaned in response at his stupidity, but luckily it was inconsequential to Rob.
“My point is,” Rob explained, as Michael just remained silent for once. “The last thing you four need right now is to wave a big red flag at Zero Beat. And I’d really prefer if the old neighborhood stays as quiet as possible until the whole Semi-Sound incident blows over.”
Rob stood up, strumming on his bass again as he listened to the sound echo in his ears. Though his connection was quite weak, he knew it would grow in time. It might be years from now until he even had a semblance of what once was, but at least he could go up a flight of stairs again without dying of exhaustion.
“You need to train, then use the sound studio. But I’ll warn you now, I’m not going to be happy if I find it caved in from a poorly-timed Sentonal.” he further explained, not once diverting his gaze as he delicately played chords on his new bass.
In response, Calvin finally looked up from his phone, Kim raised an eyebrow of surprise at Rob’s offer, while Aeris just smiled with gratitude.
Michael’s face glowed at the sound of his words. “Seriously!? But what about Colleen? I mean, she knows where to find this place.”
Rob put his bass down now, reaching into his jacket pocket as he spoke. “I already spoke to her about last week’s mess. Officially, we got mugged pretty bad, and thankfully she bought it. She still hates my guts, but at least she isn’t ready to ground you forever now.”
Finally, he found what he was looking for. He opened his palm in front of Michael, revealing a small silver key with a tiny record keychain on the end.
“And she might know where my place is, but it’s not like she has a key.”
Kim leaned back as she crossed her arms, counting the seconds it took until Michael finally realized what was being presented to him. Calvin just snickered to himself only for Aeris to glare, a disappointed look in her eyes as she shushed him.
“You’re giving me a key to your pad?” Michael asked in a low voice, losing track of everyone around him as his mind struggled to believe it.
Rob simply clasped his nephew’s hand as he handed him the key, looking him straight in the eyes as he spoke. “Consider it a gift. But you say one word of it to Colleen, and I change the locks before you can say Funkadelic.”
The bass player addressed Kim, Calvin and Aeris now, his tone unchanging. “And that goes for all of you. Please don’t make me regret this.”
Kim said nothing, but Calvin couldn’t resist taking advantage of the situation.
“No worries, Rob. You won’t even know we were here.” he remarked, only for Aeris to quickly interject in her most polite tone of voice.
“What he means to say is that we’ll be here when Michael wants us to be. This is a very nice place, Mr. Kay.”
Rob laughed at her perfect politeness. “Please, just Rob is fine. I’m not a dinosaur yet.”
He stretched his neck, beginning to feel the malaise of being stuck in the apartment all afternoon. Then his stomach grumbled, and a thought lit up in his mind.
“Anybody up for pizza? There’s a pretty good place around the corner. My treat.” Rob offered as he fixed his baseball cap.
Calvin leaned forward now, his attention finally diverted. “Well, if you insist.”
Kim just shook her head, but even she couldn’t stonewall forever. “I’ll eat anything at this point.”
Rob said no more, leaving his bass on its stand as he made his way out of the living room.
She wouldn’t have been able to tell from underneath his cap, but Rob made particular note of Kim’s appearance as he passed her. Her messy brown hair, green eyes and sharp nose were a dead giveaway to the same little girl and her stuffed duck that he remembered first meeting some nine years ago.
And though Kim wouldn’t spout of word of it, especially with Michael and the others around, she knew that Rob looked familiar for a reason.
They shared an unspoken moment before he was gone, Rob closing the door to the Sound Loft quietly behind him as he left the four teenagers to themselves.
Michael’s mood practically exploded once his uncle left, having only been barely able to control his composure this whole time.
“Can you guys freaking believe all this?! He gave me a key! This is like our secret training hangout pad now!” Michael sang, spinning on one foot as he danced in happiness.
Calvin was already back to typing on his phone, not looking up for a moment as he replied. “I don’t know, Mike. This place might be a little too retro for me.”
He tipped his head towards some of the 70’s style wallpaper and funk music memorabilia in particular. “I mean, didn’t like half of these musicians disappear into obscurity?”
“You’re welcome to disappear anytime.” Kim recommended, voice brimming with sarcasm. “I promise that you won’t be missed.”
Even as Calvin and Kim continued their bickering, Aeris tried her best to ignore them and give Michael his moment.
“This is very nice of your uncle to trust us with all this. It’s a little sudden, actually.” the blonde girl noted, playing with one of her lightning-bolt shaped earrings in uncertainty.
“At least we won’t have to be stuck out in the cold.” Kim added, and Michael smiled as he remembered the most important thing he was planned on bringing up today.
“It is pretty cool, right? Anyway, there’s something else I wanted to run by everyone. I figure we’ve been together as fri-…”
Michael stopped himself mid-speech, realizing for once that perhaps was assuming too much already. His words shifted only a moment later.
“…as Music Masters, for about two months now. I got to thinking, maybe we could have a cool codename or something.”
“Yeah, and matching costumes while you’re at it.” Calvin chuckled, clearly not taking any of this seriously.
Aeris simply ignored him again as she gave her full attention to Michael. “What did you have in mind?”
Kim leaned back into the couch, trying to get more comfortable as she allowed the smallest smile of satisfaction to form onto her face.
“Yeah, Afroboy. Let’s have it.” the punk rock girl commented, more amused than anything at whatever ridiculous nonsense Michael might come up with.
Michael grinned to his three guests as the words began to coalesce in his mind. Behind his back, he held a familiar photo in between his fingers. It was the same photo of Rob at the Supper Club that Michael had found by accident in the bathroom all those weeks ago.
The afro-headed teen held nothing back as he finally allowed the words to slip out of his mouth.
“I was thinking that we could be…”
His voice hesitated for a moment. Then he looked at Kim, Aeris and Calvin around him, everything so comfortable and serene in the Sound Loft, and all felt right in his world.
“…the Audio Knights.”
“So how was the States? I trust you both enjoyed your time abroad?” a gravelly voice asked both Nami and Arashi Nagataki in formal Japanese.
Arashi didn’t know how to immediately answer as the Fourth Beat addressed them from her lofty speaker throne above. Instead he remained silent as he expected her to go on with the details of her report.
Behind him, Nami was similarly quiet as neither of them could really be sure of exactly what would transpire today.
It had been a week since they’d returned to Tokyo, and it was on this fateful day that Zero Beat had requested they return to Minato to be debriefed on the Rob Prototype situation.
Thanks to Helia’s protege and his song effect, Arashi would live another day, with only a slight scar on his stomach to remind him of almost being killed by a musical instrument.
But his wound was the last thing on his mind, and even on their way here, Arashi’s remained paranoid of the possibility that each person they’d waited by on the train to Minato could be one of God Symphony’s associates. When they’d finally gotten off at their stop, he almost jumped in out his skin beside Nami. He continued to see shadowy men approaching them from the corner of his eye even by the time they were in front of the EMI Music building.
The Fourth Beat continued once she realized Arashi had nothing to say, though her tone was not threatening in the slightest.
“My apologies, but there’s little for us to debrief you on. Zero Beat thanks you for your services. See my receptionist on the way out, and she’ll provide you info on your retainer.”
She clasped her long finger-nailed hands together as she stared down at both of them through her glasses.
“I just wanted to thank you personally. I was correct to put my trust in the both of you.”
At first, Arashi could only think that this was clearly a set-up. He didn’t move, but his mind calculated each entrance around them and just how easily they could be ambushed by any number of Music Msters.
With all the stress building throughout their last week back in Japan, it seemed that he was unable to hide his panic for once. The Fourth Beat was quick to reassure him with her next statement.
“You’ll find that your request has been fulfilled. God Symphony is in full understanding of the situation, whether they agree with it or not.”
It was at this point that Nami’s voice lit up with happiness at the sound of the Fourth Beat’s words, her fingers digging into Arashi’s shoulder as she just about jumped with joy.
Meanwhile, he could only widen his eyes under his sunglasses with confusion. His next words came out before he could even stop himself.
“I’m not understanding. You’re aware that the bass player is still at large? Was he captured after the fact? I assure you, we have no idea where he went after his nephew intervened.” the elder Nagataki admitted, but the Fourth Beat seemed uninterested in pursuing the subject further.
“I read the report, and you destroyed a twenty-year old Synkronized instrument. It seems American Zero Beat prefers to handle things from here, but they remain grateful nevertheless. Consider this a job well done, and let’s leave it at that.”
She continued, perhaps in order to hammer the point home.
“As I said, you’ll be on retainer for the time being. We’ll be in touch once something comes across my desk. For now, please, enjoy yourselves today. From what I’ve read, I imagine your ordeal was far more exhausting than either of you care to admit.”
Her words couldn’t have rang truer for the Nagataki siblings. The weight of the world seemed to relax on them both once they’d stepped back into Japan.
Arashi wanted to say something further, still not ready to believe everything was okay just like that, when Nami whispered in his ear to stop him.
“Let’s just go, Nii-san. You promised we’d make it to Shori-Platinum on time today.”
With that, her brother finally took the Fourth Beat’s advice and decided to just let things be.
After settling their retainer situation, both Nagataki siblings made their way up through the Symphon and back into the grand main lobby of EMI Music. Even as the doorman watched them leave, Arashi’s vision darted back and forth, still expecting to see suit-wearing Yakuza waiting for them outside.
Instead, they were greeted with dozens of people on the crosswalk. Minato bustled with life all around them, and though Nami had been talking most of this time, it was only now that Arashi finally allowed her to tune in.
“…so I was thinking that since they’re going to be paying us from now on, we should really get serious. We need some sort of team name. Something that sounds scary, makes the losers wet their pants.” she went on, excitement growing in her voice.
Arashi said nothing as he listened to her and simultaneously absorbed the ambiance around them.
Perhaps the stress had affected his memory, but he’d forgotten that he was tuned in to music through one earbud. He’d done it all by reflex, but rather than turn it off, Arashi let the music keep playing.
He couldn’t remember the last time he actually paid attention to a song like this.
This particular song was soothing to him, despite its heavy guitar and low-throated singing. There was something clearly comforting in its tonality and mood.
Nami continued as she remained unaware of the warmth growing in her brother’s mind.
“Anyway, we could be something like Nagataki X! Sort of sounds like that old cartoon we used to watch together, right?”
It was now that Nami’s enhanced hearing focused in on the music playing in her brother’s ears, and her eyes widened as she finally looked at his face.
“Nii-san, are you…crying?” she asked with genuine worry.
Sure enough, a single tear was visible below Arashi’s sunglasses. After all this time, his calm demeanor had finally broken once the reality of the situation finally dawned upon him.
He debated lying to his sister, and telling her there was just something in his eye.
Instead, Arashi turned to face her, taking off his sunglasses in the process to reveal tears wetting both of his eyes.
Nami had been lied to countless times now, and if the world was going to give him this precious moment, he would let her have the truth for once.
“Today has just been such a good day, Nami. I couldn’t help it.”
He only so slightly wiped his eyes before putting his sunglasses back on.
All he could see now through the darkened lens were commuters and tourists alike. God Symphony was nowhere in sight.
“Let’s not miss the next train. You want to win tonight, don’t you?”
Nami nodded excitedly, and Arashi just took her by the hand as they walked across the street together.
And when the song ended in Arashi’s ears, he just clicked rewind.
RETURN OF THE SPACE COWBOY: