For once, Michael Kay’s mind wasn’t going in a million directions.
In this brief moment, he wasn’t distracted or daydreaming.
Because for the first time in a long time, he had but a singular thought in his head.
His eyes stared straight forward, still absorbing the physical presence of his uncle in front of him. His mind wanted to scream at him that this was all some sort of crazy hallucination, but Colleen’s clear awareness of Rob’s existence told him otherwise.
There had been silence for a good thirty seconds now as Michael remained stunned. Finally, Colleen made a statement in an attempt to ease the mood.
“Mike…I didn’t expect you home this late.”
Her younger brother ignored the words though, taking cautious steps forward.
Arms spread out, he looked up at his uncle with awestruck eyes. They were almost face to face now, Michael having grown almost a good two feet since Rob had last seen him when he was seven.
“This is real, right?” the afro-headed teen asked, his voice cracking slightly.
Rob just nodded, and Colleen seemed at a loss now with what to say.
Michael’s face formed into a wide grin, and he began to laugh. He relaxed right into Rob’s arms, continuing to laugh as they hugged.
Only moments later, and now Michael was laughing so hard that tears were beginning to well up in his eyes. Elation filled him up like air in a balloon.
Colleen just looked to one side, nervously rubbing her forearm as she debated on how she really felt about this whole situation.
“You have no idea how much stuff I have to tell you, Rob. But it’s really good to have you back.” Michael exclaimed, wiping away stray tears, a toothy smile still pasted on his face.
Rob looked down at his nephew as he snugly set his cap back onto his head. He’d always felt so uncomfortable without it on.
“Well that makes two of us. I like the new hair, by the way.” he complimented.
Rob looked towards Colleen, and they seemed to communicate with nothing more than a glance. He could easily sense the veritable mix of emotions coming from her, but it seemed the moment to pursue them was not now.
“We’ll talk about this later.” Colleen simply declared, subtle annoyance in her voice before she grabbed her jacket and went for the door.
“And that means you too, Michael. You can’t just be coming home this late like it’s nothing.”
With that, Colleen shut the door tight behind her, presumably off to another early morning shift.
Michael blinked, momentarily worried about later consequences from his sister. Then he remembered Rob right next to him, and any hint of worry melted away.
“Man, what’s her problem?” Michael said so casually, as he plopped down on the couch, resting his head back for the moment.
Rob set down his guitar case nearby as he took to the couch opposite to his nephew. As Michael sat up, he noted the hardened calluses on his uncle’s fingers; an obvious result of years of constant bass-playing.
“She’s pretty angry with me.” Rob replied, his voice low.
He didn’t want to admit it, but there were still a great many things about Rob that Michael just didn’t know.
“Because you’ve been gone all this time?” Michael pointed out, inquiry written all over his face.
Rob pulled his cap down further to hide his eyes. It was an old habit dragged over from his younger years. “Of course, And before you even ask, I can’t tell you why I left. It’s beyond what my niece thinks. And we all know she hates being left out of anything.”
Michael’s mind perked up. With Colleen gone, and Rob right here in front of him, it seemed this was the prime time. His left hand went for his music player, while his right went to place both headphones in his ears.
Rob was relatively silent as Michael took but a few seconds before he was Harmonized with Canned Heat. With most of the lights besides the kitchen one off, the orange-red heat gave the living room an atmosphere of fiery warmth.
“Is this why you left?” Rob’s nephew asked, displaying Canned Heat’s power emanating from his right hand. The glow bounced off Rob’s face, and he tilted his gaze upward.
“How much do you know about all this, Mike?” Rob asked seriously. He was already trying to gauge exactly how much information Michael might be able to handle.
“A lot, actually.” Michael began, grinning just a little bit as he deactivated Canned Heat. “I met this girl named Kim. I’m pretty sure we’re friends now, and she’s been training me to be proper Music Master. That’s why I came home so late tonight. It takes awhile to get back from Central Park.”
Rob leaned back. His tone remained serious.
“You’re training in Central Park? With your song effects?”
“Yeah, I mean, we’ve been doing it for like almost two months now. But you see, I knew it; you’re a Music Master too. You’ve been one this whole time.” Michael pointed out.
Rob took off his cap, seemingly unsure of what to say now. He debated texting Ricky, because at this point it was obvious how Zero Beat had caught onto his nephew so quickly.
“That’s all just one part of it. It’s part of the reason I’ve been away. But you can’t be treating all this so lightly. You have to be more aware, Michael. There are people who monitor all of this. People who monitor us.” Rob nevertheless explained, though his words seemed to hit Michael in just the wrong way.
Perhaps it was a bit of exhaustion, or perhaps it was emotions pent up from all the time past.
But whatever it was, lecturing was the last thing Michael Kay wanted to hear right now. Especially from the uncle who’d dropped out of his life for the last ten years now, only to show up out of nowhere like this.
“What, like Zero Beat? I’ll have you know that me and Kim kicked their asses. And what do you know anyway? Colleen doesn’t have a clue about all this Music Master stuff, and it’s bad enough that she gets on my case as it is.” he shot back, accusation heavy in his tone of voice.
Rob, as always, remained calm. “You don’t know what Zero Beat is capable of. But how could you? You’re just a kid, and I just want you to be safe.”
Michael, for the first time in weeks, frowned. He stood up, growling back at Rob.
“I will be safe. That’s why I’ve been training all this time with Kim, with Aeris and Calvin. I’ve got friends to back me up, and this kid can handle himself.”
Michael shook his head, the anger welling up inside him. “So this is what you come back for? To tell me how much of a disappointment I am? Thanks a bunch, Rob.”
He went towards his door, as Rob stood up, trying to keep his cool. “Mike, I didn’t mean it like that. If anything happened to you, I wo-“
Michael swiveled around, frustration in his voice as he cut him off. The boy’s words echoed every ounce of pain from having lost Rob after all these years.
“Nothing’s going to happen to me! Because I’m better now! Thanks to Kim, I’m a real Music Master now!”
Tears were beginning to form in his eyes, but Michael willed everything into holding them back.
He opened his door, one last declaration on the edge of his tongue.
“And the best part of it all? I didn’t need you around to do any of it.”
Rob could say no more. Michael shut his door hard, his Bee Gees poster flapping back and forth slightly as silence suddenly filled the apartment.
The bass player tried his best to relax back on the couch. He took off his cap, running his fingers through his short hair.
If Michael had any idea of the things that had transpired since he and Kim had faced Helia and Renaldo, the boy would have a panic attack. If he knew that he had been marked for death by Zero Beat, and that Rob’s reappearance was the only thing keeping them distracted, then maybe he might understand.
But Rob was used to keeping things on a need-to-know basis by now. He glanced at this phone. It had been two days since he’d seen Ricky at Semi-Sound, but perhaps it was time to pay him a visit again.
He wouldn’t shed a single tear, but Colleen and Michael’s anger towards him would affect him nonetheless.
There would be no sleep for Rob Prototype tonight.
Michael Kay stood by uneasily as he watched Kim launch punches with peerless strength. Each hard smack could have easily been a bruise delivered. Fortunately, the only thing taking a beating today was the speed bag at the gym in Clinton-Collins High.
“Sounds like you screwed up to me.” Kim pointed out with little tact, as Michael seemed reluctant to elaborate.
“Hey, I was a little annoyed. All the lecturing really gets to me, you know? I don’t know, I kind of just snapped.” he nevertheless said in his defense. She responded by punching the bag a few more times.
Kim’s expression never seemed to change as she laid down blow after decisive blow. It was almost like she was focusing on something beyond what Michael could fathom.
“The point is that Rob’s up and gone again. And it’s all my fault.” Michael admitted, any hint of happiness in his voice dropping in an instant.
“Well, it is your fault.” Kim told him, cracking the knuckles on one hand as she allowed herself a rest from all the punching. “But I doubt he’s just going to leave because you yelled at him. Do you know how many times I got mad at my older brother? I could scream his ear off and I’d never get rid of him.”
For a moment, that piqued Michael’s interest. “You’ve got a brother?”
Kim’s slip was only momentary though. She resumed her disaffected stare. “That’s besides the point. You’re just overreacting as usual. He probably had errands or something to do. Just think about all the places he might be, if you really want to find him.”
Dozens of names and locations zoomed through Michael’s head in the next few moments. He almost stopped at Audio Empire, but then he remembered Rob’s specific distaste for how mainstream the store was becoming over the years. A single name of a store he had vague memories of as a child popped into his mind.
“Semi-Sound. He mentioned his friend Ricky, who works at the Semi-Sound guitar shop off 110th Street.” Michael said out loud, as Kim had already grabbed a towel and was about finished with her workout for the day.
It was a wonder how Michael knew that, considering that he hadn’t spoken to Rob since his rant last night.
Michael took a quick glance at his phone. After last night’s training excursion, he’d slept late into the afternoon, and it was now three o’clock. Rob was up and gone by the time he woke up, and Colleen must have stayed late at work.
The cogs worked through in his mind. If he left now, he’d be able to make it to Semi-Sound before five, and maybe catch Rob and apologize. That’s if he was even there in the first place, of course.
“Better get on that then, Afroboy.” Kim advised as if reading his mind, rather playfully.
Michael nodded, grateful enough that she seemed willing to listen, unlike Aeris who was always too busy at the record store, or Calvin, who seemed to still be having phone issues.
She rubbed her wrists as she watched him leave the gym. Thoughts of Seth waded into the back of her mind.
Michael didn’t know it yet, but he was lucky to have someone like Rob still in his life.
And though she would never say it out loud, there was no way Kim was just going to stand by and let him throw that away.
“I’m gonna be honest with both of you right now. You both stick out like a hot minute. Ain’t no way anyone’s gonna miss you.”
Though it wasn’t their first language, Ricky’s observation did not at all go over the Nagataki siblings’ heads.
“It is, how you say, A-OK.” Nami replied, clearly a little full of herself.
Since they’d landed at JFK, everything was a new experience and a new sight to see. To Nami, what the USA was in Japan and what the USA actually was turned out to be two completely different things. For one, it seemed beyond unkempt.
Though they certainly weren’t masters at it, Arashi had taken the liberty to teach his sister English since before their teens. Both Nagataki siblings could do little to hide their easily apparent accents, though.
But despite the language, her brother’s tone was as cold as always.
“How we stick out doesn’t matter, because he will not see us coming.”
Ricky scrolled through his phone as he sat behind the counter, clearly a bit happy himself. This had become the payday he’d always been waiting for, and he didn’t have to do anything beyond shooting a few text messages.
“Well, my man’s on his way. No problem if I disappear for a few, right? Zero Beat did say the store’s covered for damages, but I don’t want to find out if that includes me or not.” Ricky asked, clearly looking for any excuse now to minimize his involvement.
Arashi nodded, now debating exactly where they would ambush from in this spacious place for maximum efficiency. The store wasn’t very well-organized, and visibility was varied on the basement and other floors because of that.
“That would be for the best.” the elder Nagataki told him.
Waiting for her brother’s command, Nami looked up at the instruments above, somewhat curious. She’d been curious about just about everything since they landed, having almost driven her brother crazy with incessant questions about the United States.
It had taken everything in his power to force Nami to focus on the mission, and that he might reward her with a night out to what arcades this country had to offer, however few.
“I think there is little to worry about. With both of us, it will be easy. I like easy. But this store is very dirty.” she commented, checking the soles of her Gogo boots to make sure she didn’t step in anything on the way here.
“I think that is just this country as a whole. But this is the time for focus. We need to be fast with this.” Arashi reminded her, as Ricky already had his jacket on, ready to depart for the time being.
Nami grinned through her gap. “Fast is the easy part.”
“Well, good luck to you two. Try to not to rough up Rob too bad.” Ricky said with a chuckle, fixing the shoulders on his jacket as he got himself ready. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t look any less like a bum.
And Arashi had noted the man’s every nervous tick.
Ricky, for all his joking, had little faith that the Nagataki siblings were going to actually succeed.
If anything, he hoped to take the money and never look back. Rob would never suspect a thing.
A few minutes later, and Ricky was gone, the only sign of him being his copious second-hand smoke. The store was closed up and shuttered. The only way in was the same back entrance Rob had used just two days ago.
There were two sides where he might have little visibility coming in. But Arashi knew they had to be quick with their song effects.
He’d react the instant he could hear them, without a doubt.
“This will be a nice little vacation, Nii-san. I cannot wait to beat all the American losers.” Nami quipped, but their brother had no other thought in mind but the bass player that would soon be coming their way.
Trackmaster or not, it was two versus one. If Nami listened, as she had promised, then success was within reach.
As long as there was no outside interference, then Rob Prototype would be as good as finished.