Ricky had finished locking up the store up for the night, and yet he was still wracked with nerves.
Those lights he didn’t shut off manually were simply shorted out from years of disrepair, and on the outside, Semi-Sound looked as good as closed.
In the back of the used guitar section, he waited behind the counter, brown skin taut on his face, and eyes bloodshot from severe lack of sleep.
He scratched his scraggly goatee as a nervous gesture. It wasn’t every day that he met an old friend like this, after all. Especially considering exactly who this old friend was.
Per the request texted to him, Semi-Sound was completely empty and all doors were locked, save for a single back door entrance hidden behind the alley coming off of 110th Street.
Business-wise, closing early like this on a Tuesday night wasn’t going to hurt Ricky very much.
Because ever since Audio Empire had sprouted up years ago, he’d been steadily losing more and more customers as time went on.
These days, only his loyalists and those interested in other dealings like this old friend came around anymore.
It was another few minutes before Ricky finally heard the creaking noise of the back door opening. Ricky’s heart bounced against his chest. He hadn’t seen this man in over six years, so on some level, he didn’t know what to expect.
Unfortunately, paranoid thoughts swarmed in his brain nevertheless.
He doesn’t know, Ricky thought.
The thought kept scratching at his mind as his guest entered slowly through the back of the store. His steps were heavy and methodical.
Ricky had to stop himself from biting his fingernails. This was the worst time for him to show such obvious weakness.
But a moment later, his old friend stepped into view.
“I see this place hasn’t changed a day. Even that lousy back door still sounds the same.” he pointed out in a calm, low tone of voice.
Ricky’s expression changed from one of anxiety to his best face of joy. He opened his arms wide and smiled through missing teeth.
“Rob, my man! You been gone way too long!” he exclaimed.
Their hug was brief, and on Ricky’s end, very forced. When it was over, he scanned his old friend from head to toe.
The years had been kind to Rob, though he still wore the same wide-brimmed, dark green baseball cap that Ricky remembered him wearing when he was just seventeen years of age.
There was but a hint of wrinkle starting to show on his face, but for a man in his late 30’s, he seemed as in good shape as ever.
Dressed in a nice shirt, black pants, and dependable sneakers, Rob’s bass guitar remained at home in the black case slung over his right shoulder.
The bass player stood silent for a few moments, hands in his pockets, and it was during that time that Ricky realized that’d he forgotten how much taller than him Rob had always been. Intimidation quickly began to set it.
So naturally, he belted out small talk like a cornered loan shark. “So I heard you were touring a bit in Europe for awhile. You play any big cities?”
Rob seemed content with looking up at the instruments on the racks above Ricky as they conversed.
“A few. You know me, I’ve never been one for the crowds. The low-key clubs are more my style.”
“Yeah man.” Ricky replied, oozing self-assurance now. “That’s why this place still stands. Low-key is my motto here. Won’t have none of that mainstream BS in my shop. Leave that crap at Audio Empire.”
Rob had seen literal gray mold growing on the walls when he’d come in through the back. The lights look like they had been raided, and truthfully, Semi-Sound’s selection of music and instruments was subpar at best. The store had certainly seen better days.
Ricky had always been a terrible liar. Fortunately for him, the state of the store wasn’t at all important to Rob right now.
“So what’s the news on the block?” Rob asked, shifting from relaxed to serious in an instant.
Ricky on the other hand, now seemed right at home dispensing information, lighting up a cig as he did so.
“Nothin’ too crazy. Zero Beat mostly stays out the old neighborhood.”
He inhaled for a moment, blowing smoke up in the air as his eyes widened from another thought.
“I heard one thing though. There was some trouble in that old skate park your friend Lex used to go to. Apparently, some First Beats got bopped by two fresh ones.”
“Doesn’t really sound like news to me.” Rob declared. “There’s always new Music Masters. And if they’re lucky, Zero Beat doesn’t find out about them.”
Ricky smiled through his teeth again. Years of heavy smoking and dental neglect showed most of them were either yellow or missing. “Ah, but you’ll like this part. Word on the street is that one of the freshies was using disco tunes. The kid had the whole nine-yards; tie-dye clothes, big afro, the works.”
At the sound of those words, Rob’s cool demeanor snapped.
Like a floodgate breaking, memories of his only nephew Michael broke into his mind space.
Rob was suddenly anxious, panicked even. “Who’s the kid? You got info on a name?”
Of course, Ricky always seemed to know more than he let on. And there was always a price to pay for information as far as he was concerned.
But for old times sakes, he just gave Rob what he wanted this time.
Maybe it was because in the grand scheme of things, none of it was going to matter for Rob soon enough.
“It was Mikey or something like that. Isn’t that your little nephew’s name? I feel like I seen him around in the old neighborhood once or twice.” he asked, his tone of voice was so subtly mocking.
That seemed to be enough for Rob. His panic from before seemed to vanish in an instant.
“Thanks. We’ll be in touch, Ricky.” Rob assured, stone-faced now.
Clearly, the previous air of camaraderie was all but gone.
Rob was already texting on his phone quickly with one hand as he left out the back door.
He made sure to check the alleyway before he got too ahead of himself.
Considering that Ricky had proven to be untrustworthy in the past, Rob certainly wasn’t taking any chances.
But being ambushed by Zero Beat or any of their hired Music Masters was the last thing Rob was worried about. He had his bass, and little did Zero Beat know that he was Synkronized with it too.
What truly scared Rob, was the mere thought that Michael was known in any fashion by Zero Beat. It was like everything Rob had done for the last ten years was falling apart in front of him.
He could already hear the angry echoes of Colleen’s voice in his head. He could practically feel her pushing him roughly and cursing him for ruining her life. And worst of all, he could still see the unaware smile on Michael’s face as he left for the last time, never to return.
It was all for their own good, to keep them out of Zero Beat’s eye, but that didn’t make any of it easier.
As one of the former Audio Knights, he’d had no other choice.
Even now, the memories still made him lose sleep from time to time.
Rob waited by the bus stop, the cold city air blowing his cap brim up, and his only solace being the music now playing in his ears.
He hoped to hear from Colleen soon, and now that he was sure Michael was the disco-using Music Master being talked about, the bass player was practically banking on Ricky getting the word out on Rob’s return.
If he’d been twenty years younger, he might have smirked at all the attention he was about to get.
In the 90’s club scene he frequented, Lex used to always call him Space Cowboy every time he needed a wingman. It was a dumb nickname that seemed to follow Rob all throughout his life.
But for once, he was going to embrace it. Today was going to mark the return of the space cowboy.
Because if that’s what Zero Beat needed to forget about Michael Kay, then quite the return it was going to be.
Some days later and more than half a world away, in the land of the rising sun, two people were locked in a fierce battle of technique.
Or locked head to head in a video game, to be more precise.
And in this particular game, loud cheering and colored neon lights were among some of the most distracting things to any aspiring player.
To just keep up with anything on Heavy difficulty would take a thick layer of sweat, high altitude oxygen training, and eventual numbness in the legs.
Yet still Nami made it look so incredibly easy. While she stepped to and fro with calculated grace, her male opponent could barely hold back his panting and frenzied stomps.
On nights like these, when Nami felt like showing off, the machines in this section of the Shori-Platinum arcade were practically surrounded with onlookers.
One of the arcade’s announcer girls was busy enthusiastically shout-casting the match, which only attracted more people in from the Akihabara street side to see what all the commotion was about.
Nami smiled to herself with satisfaction as she continued to dance, though it certainly wasn’t because of all the attention she was getting. Even the music itself was so inconsequential to her.
All she could focus on was the score on screen, where not even a multiplier of three or four could save her opponent from Nami’s staggering lead.
It was still thirty seconds before the end of the stage, yet as the tempo of the song rose, Nami seemed no closer to tiring. The crowd was silent now, and Nami made sure in this moment to shoot her opponent a mocking smirk.
Unfortunately for this bespectacled boy, that was the breaking point. At the ten second to zero mark, his feet crossed, and he tripped back as he missed all of the last twenty-six steps.
The song hit a crescendo, but like many of these trance hits, it was all over in the next few seconds. As the the game’s artificial voice displayed Nami’s victory, the crowd went wild.
She flipped her long, blue-black hair back, stepping off the dance pad as Japanese children, teens and adults alike screamed adorations. As always, Nami ignored them all, much more concerned on her win than she was in anything as simply as recognition.
As she muted the numerous fans in her mind, she counted each step she could have hit that much faster. Even a slight below perfection was still failure to her.
“Nami-san! Please sign this for me!”
Ignored was the heavyset teen who proudly held onto a huge pillow bearing an animated likeness of her.
“I want to dance like you so much, Nami-san! Please teach me!”
Ignored was the young pig-tailed grade schooler who looked at Nami with starstruck eyes.
“Nami-san! Our agency is hiring! Please come down! You would be hit overnight!”
Ignored were the two young, beautiful male idols who had asked her of the same request more than once in the past.
They all continued to remain perpetually ignored, as Nami felt the slight rumble in her stomach.
Even she couldn’t withstand the pang of hunger after over two hours of breaking challengers at her best game.
As she nearly approached the entrance to the arcade however, a nicely dressed, older man with glasses seemed to stand right in her way.
“You’re very good.” he remarked, though it seemed he was going to be ignored just as easily. Nami gave him no response as she checked the online leader-boards.
She was still at the top, with a good four thousand point lead over second place in all Heavy difficulty songs. Giddiness came over her. There was no feeling like being the best.
But this man had been observing Nami for awhile now, and he’d quickly figured out how she operated. He wasn’t going to be ignored this time.
“But you could be better. You were a little slow, here and there.” he pointed out so casually, before a few close onlookers gasped at his words.
Nami stopped checking her phone in that instant. She turned as quick as a viper, her tone just as accusing.
“Idiot. What do you know?”
He smiled, satisfied now that he had her attention. “You think you’re perfect. They think you’re perfect. But we both know that you’re just a big koi in a very small pond.”
Nami stood right up against him now as if challenging him. He had a good foot and half height advantage on her, and now she was close enough that he was able to breathe in her appearance once again.
Nami’s long blue-black hair flowed and curved out right down to her waist. She was dressed in a white shoulder-less top, a magenta short skirt, and knee-high Gogo boots.
She blinked her long eyelashes and narrowed her sharp green eyes at the sight of this critic. Nami held back her grimace though, lest he notice the gap between her front teeth; the only thing Nami remained sensitive about.
“What are you getting at? I don’t like my time being wasted.” she pestered.
“We’re just very interested in you. So much untapped potential. You belong in a bigger stage than this.”
“And what agency are you with?” she now demanded to know.
But the older man seemed content with implying he knew much more about her than he let on.
“I’m with a…different kind of agency. The kind of agency that knows what you do with your music when no one’s looking.”
Nami’s eyes widened, and this was enough to break her uncaring persona. This man was far from finished however.
“But don’t worry. I’m not here to oust you. In fact, how about we discuss it all over dinner? Doesn’t that sound agreeable?”
Now that he played his hand, it seemed that Nami actually thought about going with him.
Though people would talk over a teenager like her out with a man clearly into his 50’s, this could be a serious opportunity for her in the making.
Being better than the best? Now that was something she was interested in.
“Don’t look so surprised.” he continued. “You can dance well, and you look good doing it. I wonder, can you sing too? My agency is always interested in a diverse set of exceptional skills.”
He waited eagerly now for a response. And Nami was just about ready to answer, when next to the older Japanese man, a face she really didn’t want to see at this perfect moment pushed his way through.
He was cold in both expression and tone, face somewhat obscured by tangled blue-black hair.
“Excuse me. She has another engagement.”
He didn’t even look the older man in the eye, instead opting to grab Nami by the arm and literally pull her along and out of the arcade.
Somewhat taken aback, the older man still didn’t move an inch. He doubted this would be the last time he saw Nami Nagataki, after all. He would always be just a shadow’s length away as long as the Ensemble needed.
As her brother led her away, Nami struggled, but as always Arashi’s grip was much stronger.
“Hey! Let go of me! I was talking!” she protested, but he ignored her as he led them towards the same ramen shop that Nami often went to after long nights at Shori-Platinum.
Her older brother remained silent as they entered the shop. He nodded at the cook who regularly served Nami’s favorite shio bowl, and they sat down at a booth.
Despite the gesture though, Nami’s arms remained crossed as she refused to look at him, clearly annoyed.
Her brother’s expression, on the other hand, seemed unknown underneath his thick sunglasses.
He clasped both hands together on the table as he spoke.
“Do you understand how much time you waste at that place?”
Nami didn’t respond. She pouted as she continued to stare out the window, her attention caught by street lights.
“Nami.” he repeated, just a hint of anger in his voice now. “Can you be serious, for once?”
Now he had her attention. She practically shouted back in response.
“I am serious! Do you know how many of those losers show up, thinking they can beat me? I never count! It never matters how many there are! Because I always win!”
As they argued, a waiter came by and silently brought her order. She stared down at the pool of salty, juicy ramen, but even the aroma wasn’t enough to calm her down.
“I just don’t want to see you waste your talent on a game. And that man from before? He’s just interested in using you. Do you really want to end up singing childish songs and posing for otaku?” he asked her, more sincerely now.
Nami finally seemed to relent to her hunger, her chopsticks inching towards a piece of cooked egg. She took a quick bite, replying with her mouth full.
“For your information, he wasn’t with an idol agency. But he knew about me. About what we are.”
Arashi’s eyebrows narrowed with sudden concern. “I’ll look into it. For now, I need you to stay out of Shori-Platinum for a little while.”
She almost spit out her food. “What!? That’s not fair! I didn’t do anything! He was following me!”
“Nami!” he cut her off, voice now louder and sterner. “I need you to listen to me. There’s a big opportunity for us on the horizon. One that will finally get God Symphony off our backs for good.”
He pulled out his phone, scrolling for a moment as he searched for the image in question. Nami just noisily slurped up noodles as she waited for her brother to find what he was looking for. It took a lot for him to have any sort of emotional outburst, considering how much Nami seemed to test his patience on a constant basis.
A moment later, and he put his phone right in front of Nami’s face. She blinked, focusing on the image in question.
“I don’t get it. Who’s he?” she asked, which seemed to only frustrate her brother as he sighed.
“He’s a Trackmaster wanted by Zero Beat. And he’s been wanted since 1993, to be exact.”
Nami blinked as she processed information. Then, she understood.
“Wait. You don’t mean…?”
In his most serious gesture of the night, his free hand went for his sunglasses.
Finally revealing his eyes, anyone could see that these two were obviously brother and sister. Arashi’s face had similar fair looks, though he seemed immune to the concept of smiling or frowning.
“I do. Tomorrow, we’re going to Minato to meet with Zero Beat. One way or another, we’re going to bring him in.” he declared, pulling his phone away.
Arashi scanned the image one more time, noting the person in question. A man in his late 30’s, he seemed unassuming, his face hidden under a dark green cap. The picture captured him right in the moment, looking from side to side on a city street corner. On his back, he held what Arashi presumed was a case for his guitar.
“You really think they’re going to pay for us to go to overseas for some American?” Nami pointed out, before picking up her bowl and finishing off the rest of her soup.
“He’s not just some American. He calls himself Rob Prototype.” Arashi explained, trying to absorb any information he could from the image in front of him.
“And apparently, he’s a bass player.”