It was a blessing in disguise that Aeris had decided to show up early tonight. Because judging from her attitude the other day, Kim probably would have chewed Michael Kay out like no tomorrow once they were alone together for even a second.
Michael counted himself so incredibly lucky as he spotted her sitting on a park bench. He waved with excitement as he approached.
“I hope you weren’t waiting here too long. I try to be early because Kim says she’ll make me do push ups if I’m late.” he remarked. Aeris just raised an eyebrow as she chuckled in response.
Michael grinned. “Nah, I’m just kidding. She’s not that crazy.”
In truth, he actually wasn’t sure what the consequence for being late was. He was probably better off not knowing.
Aeris stood up from the bench, her usual checkered blazer replaced with a much heavier dark blue winter jacket. She shivered a bit from the cold.
“Sorry, not really used to this weather. Where’s your friend Kim by the way?” she asked innocently, hands now stuffed in her pockets.
Michael looked around, now wondering the same thing. “I’m not really sure. I was expecting her to be waiting for me here. You know, because I disobeyed direct orders or whatever.”
The blonde’s gaze switched to rock formation up above. Her tone of voice seemed so pleasant.
“Maybe something came up. We might as well use the time without her while we have it. You did say you wanted to show me your songs, right?”
Michael perked up. “Yeah, totally!”
Together, Michael and Aeris made their way up the rock formation. To Michael, it was a bit of a surprise nobody really hung around Central Park on nights like this. He could only guess that the recent drop in temperature this early in September was probably the cause for the emptiness.
Once they made it to the summit, Aeris took a moment to look out at the view. She smiled to herself.
“There’s kind of timeless quality about this city, you know. It’s so different than countryside. I seen that stuff all the time, so it gets old. But all these lights and this noise, I don’t know, it’s got its charm.”
“You said you were from Texas right? I wouldn’t know what that’s like. I haven’t been a step out of this city my whole life.” Michael replied, stretching for a moment before reaching for his headphones.
He was just about to put them in when he noticed the expression of calm on Aeris’s face. In that brief moment she looked so at peace with the world. It was then that an idea he hadn’t realized before popped into his head.
“Hey.” he began, coming up right behind her. “Why don’t you show me one of your songs? I mean, I don’t even know what kind of music you like.”
Aeris looked down, clearly uncomfortable now. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. You wouldn’t like my music very much.”
Michael’s expression became dour. “Who cares if I like it or not? I’m barely a week in as a Music Master. The more stuff I can see, the better. Kim says it’ll help me prepare for the unexpected anyway.”
He smiled again, sitting down on the rocky ground with legs crossed. Leaning back, it was clear to Aeris he wasn’t taking no for an answer.
“Just before Kim gets here at least. I get the feeling your music’s gonna blow us all away.”
Not saying a word, Aeris reached for the small light blue music player in her left pocket. She stared down at the device, a hint of longing in her eyes. Inside this tiny player were uncountable musical memories of her childhood. Just one song was enough to make her remember a picaresque sunny afternoon, and the taste of her grandmother’s crisp, perfectly squeezed lemonade.
But in the same fashion, it made her remember the first time she ever used a song effect. She remembered the sound of glass shattering and the burning, most horrible pain she had ever felt in her entire life. She might have allowed a tear to escape from the mere thought if not for Michael’s presence.
Completely unaware of course, Michael just continued to wait patiently, and on some level Aeris didn’t want to disappoint.
Aeris couldn’t keep making excuses forever.
She’d gotten better, and she certainly wasn’t a child anymore. She had to stop being so panicked like this. She had to have control.
“Okay.” Aeris sighed, finally relenting to both Michael, and more importantly, herself.
Michael grinned as wide as ever, clapping his hands together loudly.
“One song though. And only one.” she further clarified.
With that, Aeris pulled her sky blue headphones from her jacket pocket. She gazed at them for a moment in her black glove-covered palm. To most people, they were just an instrument used to listen to music. But to her, they were conduits to a very dangerous power.
Her song of choice was already in mind as she put in her headphones and scrolled through her music player. Michael just silently looked on with excitement.
Exhaling, Aeris found what she was looking for and pressed play.
Unlike with Kim, the music wasn’t easily apparent in the air. It took Aeris more than two seconds to Harmonize, though she could only assume it was just nerves since she hadn’t done it in so long.
Then, as Michael bit his nails in anticipation, he heard the opening drums clang into the air.
It was something so mellow compared to Kim’s rough punk rock or Michael’s own wild disco. Aeris smiled wide to herself as she brought her arms to her side. It took another moment, but Michael’s eyes widened as cold blue lightning began to dance from her fingertips. She looked at it with satisfaction, opening her palm as it surged and dove between her fingers.
Finally, the lightning relaxed to her will, content with arcing itself just above her forearm.
Michael simply clapped with contentment. “Talk about selling yourself short. That’s so cool!”
He got up, intending to walk closer to get a better look, when Aeris spoke suddenly.
“Hey, watch it! You have no idea how much this stuff hurts.” she warned him, and luckily, he was smart enough to stop in his tracks.
Relief washed over her where there was but a moment of panic. “Sorry, but I’m jumpy for your own good. You do want to keep your crazy hair after all, right?”
Michael laughed in response. “Uh, duh! I couldn’t imagine my life otherwise.”
“No surprise there. Anyway, check this out.” she said, now crouching down so that she could easily put her hand just above the rock itself. Aeris focused her senses, and as Michael watched, he could see the lightning from her palm begin to violently arc into the rock face below. It was but mere seconds before it turned black and scorched.
Michael gulped as he surveyed the damage. “Yikes. I’d hate to think what that could do to a person.”
“Me too. I still have trouble controlling it even now.” Aeris replied, pausing the song and watching as the lightning dissipated into nothingness. “I know your friend Kim is nasty about it, but she has a point about this Music Master stuff. It’s super dangerous. You have to understand that, Michael. Those songs that normal people get to listen to without worrying about a thing? For us, they can kill someone.”
“I know, I know.” Michael acknowledged, now just a little bit tired of hearing the same lecture yet again. “That’s why we’re meeting up here on Fridays. So that kind of thing doesn’t happen. At least, that’s what Kim says.”
Michael looked around again, and then towards the rocks they came up from. Reminded of her again, he could see no sign of Kim Ramone anywhere. Focusing his hearing, he couldn’t even pick up the sound of any music she might be listening to.
“So does she usually take this long?” Aeris asked, her hands now back in the comfort of her warm jacket pockets.
“Maybe something really did come up.” Michael commented, though he couldn’t mask his uncertainty very well.
His heart rose up to his throat. “I sure hope something came up.”
There was something undeniably creepy about this whole situation. Even Calvin couldn’t lie to himself about it.
Nevertheless, he still smiled with satisfaction as he swiped through the pictures on his phone. There were a few of Michael and Kim, one of Michael using some heat-based song effect, and more than one of Aeris just sitting and waiting on the park bench.
His original intention had been to observe Michael and Kim once he had figured out that they were both Music Masters. Michael in particular seemed like an easy mark, much to Calvin’s delight.
Aeris, on the other hand, would be a little something for later. He smiled to himself as he admired her image on his phone. There was something entrancing about the pure innocence on her face.
Having been sitting by himself in heavy bushes this whole time, Calvin had been so distracted with his tailing of Michael’s small group and Aeris’s beauty that he almost forgot a crucial fact.
He looked up, his eyebrows raised as he suddenly wondered where Kim was in all this. She was pretty hard to miss after all, and she was the last person he wanted to have any sort of confrontation with.
Unfortunately for Calvin, it would be too late for him to notice that she was already much too close for comfort.
Just behind him, a long finger-nailed hand reached out through the brush in deathly silence. Once it felt mass, it closed quick and hard. Calvin yelped loudly as she pulled him back by the roots of his shaggy blond hair.
He noisily tumbled out of his bushy hiding place, rolling to one side and wincing as he felt a scratch on the right side of his cheek. Shaking himself, Calvin looked up and was met with sight of a none too happy Kim Ramone.
Not one to usually get scared easily, Calvin pulled out his best innocent bystander response.
“Hey, what gives? That’s the only place I can get Wi-Fi here!”
Kim didn’t even respond. She just gave him a cold, deadpan stare.
Realizing the act wasn’t working, Calvin quickly went from feigning annoyance to showing true fear. He tried to put up his hands as Kim raised her combat boot.
“Wait, wait, wai-”
All it took was one hard stomp, and Calvin was seeing stars.
So much for a good first impression.
After what felt like forever, Michael craned his neck quick as he spotted Kim finally making her way up the rock formation.
And much to both his and Aeris’s surprise, she was carrying someone he didn’t recognize on her shoulder.
“Looks like Christmas came early everyone!” Kim exclaimed with fake jubilation, as she tossed the one hundred sixty pound teen off her and onto his back. Both Michael and Aeris approached cautiously, though once they got close, it was clear that he was very much out for the count.
Aeris in particular leaned down and inspected his face. She brushed some of his hair aside, noting scratches and the large red mark that could have only come from the bottom of Kim’s boot.
Michael, of course, was immediately confused. “Uh, Kim…who’s this?”
She shrugged. “I have no idea. He’s got no school ID or anything on him. All I know is he’s been following us since last week. He could just be some creep, or he could be a First Beat. Either way, I’m not taking any chances.”
Whoever this stranger was, he was dressed quite nicely for a supposed teenager. His matching dress pants and suit jacket were both a dark, deep blue, contrasting with a black undershirt emblazoned with a bright yellow design. Michael’s gaze in particular wandered towards his shoes, which clearly stood out with their neon green color scheme.
“Don’t you think stepping on his face was a little excessive?” Aeris asked, but of course, Kim just laughed in response.
“Ha! I don’t think so. But if he tries anything funny once he comes to, then I’ll show him excessive.”
As if right on cue, Calvin began to stir. Aeris blinked, and as his eyes creaked open, he was met with the pleasant sight of her staring down at him. Even in the grogginess that accompanied being woken up from a knockout, he still had enough time for a one-liner.
“The things I’d do to wake up to that face more often.” he remarked with a light laugh. Blushing almost immediately, Aeris was quick to stand up and turn away. Kim remained completely unfazed however, proceeding to drop her boot hard on his right leg.
Calvin cried out, now remembering his situation. Instinctively, one of his free hands went for his music player, but Kim was quick to beat him to the punch.
“Don’t even bother.” she said flatly, patting her pocket where his music player was nestled while also displaying his neon red and green headphones in her hand.
“Make this easy for yourself. Tell Zero Beat to leave us the hell alone, and maybe I’ll think about sending you back to them with most of your teeth intact.”
A million thoughts ran through Calvin’s mind in a situation like this. It was nothing new though. He had been in tight spots before, against people much more willing to use deadly force than this Kim character.
And once Zero Beat was brought up, he knew in an instant he could use that to his advantage. Calvin held back his wincing as he put on his smoothest tone of voice.
“It’s never good to have Zero Beat after you, that’s for sure. Luckily, I don’t run with that crowd.”
“Then what crowd do you run with?” Aeris asked quickly, but Calvin did little more than smirk. “Why were you spying on us?”
Michael looked back and forth and both Kim and Aeris. Tensions were running a bit high now, and even if this guy was with Zero Beat, perhaps even Kim was going a little overboard. Michael crouched down, forearms resting on his legs as he hoped to be as non-threatening as possible.
Unfortunately for him, that’s exactly what Calvin was hoping for.
“Me? Spy? Why, I’m flattered.”
“Hey.” Michael interjected. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
Kim raised an eyebrow, but even still kept a modicum of pressure over Calvin’s leg.
“Okay, I’m not going to hurt you.” Michael corrected himself. “You know if you’re not with Zero Beat, maybe you can help us out. What’s their deal, anyway?”
Calvin just laughed. “What’s their deal? Seriously? You live under a rock or what?”
Kim applied pressure, clearly annoyed by the run around. “Hey, he’s not paid to be in the know. Just answer his questions before I lose my patience.”
“Okay, jeez.” Calvin replied. It was obvious charm wasn’t going to work on her. “You’ve got some award-winning personality there.”
Calvin sat up now, though Kim still didn’t seem ready to let up. Fixing his collar, he began to address Michael now. “Zero Beat, let’s just say, is kind of like the police. And you should know that nobody wants to piss off the police.”
He took a particular glance at Michael’s afro, smiling a little bit to himself. “Especially after Last Record, and what happened with Highlord Funk and DanceDown. A real tragedy, really.”
Of course, those choice words were all it took to grab Michael Kay’s attention. His mind instantly began to wander at the implication of those words.
It all sounded so fantastical, and of course, Michael’s mind wanted more. Calvin had him right where he wanted him.
“Anyway, I’m not with Zero Beat.” he insisted, shooting a sly glance at Aeris. “And as much as I’d like to stick around, I really have places to be. Let’s make this all water under the bridge, shall we?”
Kim seemed to debate just clocking him again. She couldn’t stand his smug grin or anything about the way he operated. But even she wasn’t so dense to think he had anything to do with Zero Beat at this point.
She threw Michael a look of acknowledgement, before finally letting up on his leg and allowing him freedom. In the back of her mind, she began to wonder if Michael’s presence was starting to turn her soft.
“You’re lucky Michael’s too dumb for his own good. I better not catch you sneaking around here again.” she threatened nevertheless, and Calvin clasped his hands together in his best apologetic tone.
“Oh, of course not. I wouldn’t dream of it.”
He turned to Aeris now, taking her by the hand and just ever so slightly lowering his tone. “I never got your name by the way. The name’s Calvin. It’s quite the pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Completely caught off guard, Aeris debated ripping her hand away. Unfortunately common courtesy got the better of her, and she answered as politely as usual. “Uh, I’m Aeris. Nice to meet you, I guess.”
Breaking his moment completely, Michael was quick to tap on their spy’s shoulder. “Hey, I know we might not see you again after this, so you want to trade numbers? I’m kind of curious about the Last Record stuff you were talking about. It sounds pretty cool.”
Calvin, of course, was annoyed at the interruption, but he feigned interest quite well. He turned to the afro-headed teen in an instant, but quickly realized he still didn’t have the phone which also doubled as his music player.
“Oh, would you mind?” motioning to Kim for his phone. She threw it back quite hard, though he still managed to catch it without too much damage to himself.
“And the headphones?”
She kept them looped in her fingers by her waist. “Yeah, sure. When you’re leaving you can have them.”
It took all of Calvin’s will to hold back a frustrated sigh. Instead, he turned his attention back to Michael, making small talk as he noted his digits. “You’re Michael, right? I definitely dig your style. Very retro.”
Michael made an static grin in response. “Hey thanks! I wish more people appreciated it, you know?”
Kim simply put a frustrated hand on her forehead, standing by a mostly silent Aeris. “I swear to you, Afroboy’s going to make me blow a gasket one day. It’s a wonder you could stand being here alone with him for even five minute.”
“You do know this is the first time you’ve really talked to me at all, right?” Aeris pointed out. “And he’s a little all over the place, but he means well. It could be worse, you know.”
Kim kept her hands in her pockets as she watched Michael continue to blab to Calvin, much to her displeasure. “Could it? Yeah, I find that hard to believe sometimes.”
Meanwhile, Calvin seemed to have Michael wrapped around his little finger.
“You know, it’s too bad we won’t be seeing you much after this. Kim jumps the gun way too much on people.” Michael commented, but Calvin’s response was so oddly assuring.
“I wouldn’t say that so soon, Mike. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get to see some of my song effects one day.”
He gave Aeris a playful wink. She just smiled awkwardly in response.
Unlike Michael, he was no moron. He knew she didn’t have the hots for him. But it was a start, at least.
Perhaps there was a silver lining to being face-stomped by Kim after all.