A piercing, soul-crushing glare had become Ollie’s trademark by this point.
It never faltered, even as he watched his afro-headed target from a lonely seat in the back, as the bus lurched slowly through city streets to an eventual destination.
And more than six months ago to this day, that gaze remained exactly the same.
Ollie remained characteristically silent as he opened the front door into the 5 Penthouse, his huge, charcoal black suitcase in his free hand.
He only had a few brief seconds to look over the massive living room and its furnishings, before a hard bump hit him in the shoulder.
“Coming through, coming through!” the wheezy voice of a spiky-haired white teenager shouted as he made his entrance.
He was dressed like a punk, sounded like one, and it didn’t take a genius to see how quickly he acted like one.
Grounded like a statue, Ollie didn’t move, but the newcomer seemed to have an urgent need to further address him anyway.
“So you’re Pop 5 too, huh? And just what’d they pick you for? Basketball, rapping, or all of the above?” Nathan asked, voice overflowing with sarcasm. Even when he barely knew someone, Nathan couldn’t resist.
But Ollie just said nothing, his eyes narrowing in the silence before he walked forward with his suitcase in hand.
Nathan chuckled loudly. “Not much of a talker, eh? Whatever.”
True to his nature, Ollie was not easily baited by such petty stereotypes. People might see him as some backstreet hoodlum, but he never much cared for worthless labels.
Concerning himself with his new home, he surveyed the living room in its entirety, as if marking spots in mind where there might be weak points or otherwise. It was nice enough, though he yet wondered if Zero Beat had truly spared no expense.
A few feet away from Ollie, Nathan had little luggage save for a small travel case with his various hair gels, cans of cologne, some clothes, and CD’s, among other things.
The rest, he knew, would be bought in the coming days once they finally got access to the bottomless expense accounts that came with being members of the Pop 5.
This was the culmination of over two years of work in order to be finally be recognized in the eyes of Zero Beat. Both Nathan and Ollie had gained the incredible honor of entering the ranks of the Pop 5, as had others before them in the decades since the onset of popular music in 1954.
They weren’t alone in all this, however, as soon entered a girl with a veritable trunk’s worth of things. She had three entire suitcases and two coats, all being carried by a large man who seemed very much to used to the situation. Tapping her finger on her bottom lip, she looked all around the living room as her assumed manservant stood as still as a soldier.
“Not bad. Not bad at all. But my room will need to be the same size. That’s non-negotiable.” she said, mostly to herself despite Ollie and Nathan’s presence. “Franz, we’ll grab the rest of my things from the car once I’ve decided which one is going to be my room.”
Franz nodded silently, diligently holding the two mink coats and all three huge, salmon-colored suitcases in his arms and over his shoulders.
“And who died and made you queen? We do this by order, which means I get first pick!” Nathan declared, smiling back her through somewhat crooked teeth.
Just ballparking the size of this place in his mind, Ollie knew that rooms were plentiful and an argument was unnecessary. Clearly, it seemed this kid just liked to rile things up.
Lily seemed to think over his words, until she was quick to shoot back her own snide expression. “Actually, going by your idiotic logic, he made it in here first.
Her attention turned towards Ollie, who had been noticeably silent this whole time. Scanning him up and done, Lily found her eyes wandering at the hints of a powerful physique even underneath his baggy hoodie.
He was quiet, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, the quiet types often proved to the most interesting. At least to Lily, as someone who liked to hear herself more than anyone else.
“I’ve heard of you.” she then said. “I heard you’re good. Good enough even to take people down while muted.”
Ollie seemed either hesitant to respond, or perhaps he didn’t feel the need to.
Feeling ignored for more than a second, Nathan just took his chance to wade right in.
“Wait, muted? Nah, that’s crazy. You fight without song effects, you might as well shoot yourself. I don’t believe it.”
Lily just ignored him, of course, her attention still focused on Ollie.
“Well, is it true?”
Even Franz seemed to move his eyes subtly with anticipation as all of them waited for Ollie’s response.
Finally, in a low, but still commanding voice, he spoke.
“Last time it was three at once. Amateurs. But the job got done, so it’s irrelevant.”
Nathan just laughed in response. “Yeah, suuuure, buddy. I’ll believe you when I believe that Highlord Funk is still alive and kicking.”
His snickering had to be one of the most infuriating sounds that Ollie had heard in this city thus far. But Ollie focused his thoughts away from it, however, knowing that he was above getting heckled over such things.
“Well,” Lily added slyly, clearly believing one of them over the other. “I’ll be waiting to see you in action. Should be fun.”
Ollie then spoke again, his thoughts clear as day.
“I’ll take a room later. When the two of you are done, meet me in the recording studio.”
Nathan, hands in pockets, seemed to have no restraint in his voice whatsoever.
“Yeah? For what?”
Ollie’s tone, in contrast, remained serious and controlled.
“I’m feeling the urge to make a demo. It’ll be our debut soon enough. It would be smart to prep material.”
For a group of singers called the Pop 5, having only three members meant they were clearly incomplete.
But upon hearing Nathan get on the mic for the first time, Ollie had quickly discerned that they might as well just call themselves the Pop 2.
What he called rapping sounded more appropriately like two rabid weasels being thrown live into a noisy meat grinder.
As both Ollie and Lily tried to sing in key, with large studio headphones wrapped around their ears, Nathan was next to them, throwing curses and jeers like sludge in the clear water of their attempted song.
Ollie could see the annoyance that grew on Lily’s face, but she just kept on singing in unison with him. They were recording their vocals set to a high trance beat; with Lily’s soprano contrasting nicely against Ollie’s bass.
Between it all, Nathan continued to throw out frantic words without abandon.
Finally, after another ten seconds, Ollie silently put his headphones down and stopped the twenty four track.
Nathan didn’t immeadietly notice, but when he did, there was instant protest.
“Hey, what the hell!? I was just getting started, man!”
As if somehow sensing the growing impatience behind his brooding, the normally chatty Lily said nothing.
Headphones around his neck, Ollie addressed Nathan openly and honestly.
“Nathan, am I correct?”
“No, I’m actually Tupac.” Nathan joked, but it bounced off of Ollie’s steel expression.
“I’ll speak to our superior, and arrange to have someone else redub your vocals. I’m sorry, but your pitch is completely off. We won’t be able to progress like this.” he told him matter-a-factly.
Nathan, of course, was anything but happy.
“Yeah, how about no? I’m Pop 5, which means I get to do my thing. I want to sing, then I’m gonna sing. Ain’t nobody, not you, not Zero Beat, telling me otherwise.”
Ollie’s faced showed no hint of dissatisfaction, but his voice said otherwise. “Is it really that beyond you to be reasonable?
This hit Nathan’s nerve, and he responded with quick and sudden violence.
Out of nowhere, Nathan slammed the expensive handheld microphone down hard onto the floor.
It shattered loudly into hundreds of shards, causing Lily in particular to audibly gasp.
“Hey, watch it! What are you crazy?” she said, now paranoid of getting foreign particles in her long, auburn locks.
“How’s that for reasonable?” Nathan told Ollie, a nasty grin now on his face.
Ollie just sighed, hands on his knees as he stayed in his sitting position on the recording stool.
Patience. Patience was a virtue, even with people like him.
But when Nathan wasn’t satisfied with that reaction, he began poking at the main studio microphone, causing painful bursts of sound to surge through their headphones in response.
“What are you trying to accomplish here, Nathan?” Ollie finally said, though still as calm as ever.
The spiky-haired boy just kept rummaging around, until finally he put his hands on Lily’s shoulders. She realized the invasion of her personal space in an instant, even as he leaned down and whispered in her ear.
“Where do you think he gets off, huh? Nobody’s cool forever. Something’s gotta make this guy mad.” Nathan asked, and Lily had to turn away to deflect the smell of his overused cologne.
“You wanna just ditch this recording stuff? We could go hang in my room for awhile. I guarantee it’ll be way more fun.”
His smile and intention was all too obvious. Lily wasn’t against being brazen, but right now, it was too much.
“Ugh, get off me!” Lily shouted, pushing him away in the next few seconds.
With that, Nathan’s expression scrunched up, and in anger, he kicked the stool from beneath her. She fell down hard, her arm sliding down against the plastic recording equipment and causing a long, thin slice in the process.
Now on the floor, Lily winced loudly as Ollie’s widened for the first time all night.
Nathan just laughed at her sudden, painful plight. “Oops. My bad.”
His reverberating laugh was like the cackling of a devil. And after seeing such unprovoked violence, Ollie could finally take no more.
He stepped forward within seconds, catching Nathan completely off-guard as his right hand locked quickly around the boy’s neck.
Lily just watched in wide-eyed silence, unaware of any pain as she saw Nathan struggle like a caged monkey as he knocked over stools trying to escape. Ollie was relentless though, pushing forward with unreal strength before pinning him hard against the wall.
He continued to apply pressure, and Nathan’s hacking just became more hoarse, before Ollie finally stopped.
His voice was now lined with anger, as he made himself loud and clear.
“I’m only going to tell you this once. If there’s anything that pisses me off, it’s you. It’s people like you.”
Nathan seemed to try and respond, but he could barely mouth words through the pain.
“You’re Pop 5, and that means when I say walk, you run. I don’t care who you screw with outside of your job, but you screw with our objectives, and I will not hesitate to remove you.”
Time almost stopped as Ollie finished his words. By this point, Nathan had given up using his precious energy to struggle further. The boy’s iron grip and instant reaction speed was evidence of his supposed feats as one of Zero Beat’s finest.
“I hope we’re clear. Let’s not have any issues if we can avoid them.” Ollie finished, watching as Lily had finally gotten back up.
With that, Ollie let go. Nathan choked out a breath, stooping over as he found himself on the verge of suffocating. He didn’t say a word further as Ollie’s eyes checked the cut on Lily’s arm.
“Doesn’t look too serious. You wait here. I’ll go and get you some first aid.” he said, before making his exit out of the recording booth.
Lily just stared at Nathan, shocked at the situation but relieved to see his once staggering bad attitude taken down so swiftly.
Her words struck quickly, much to boy’s aggravation.
“Maybe now you’ll believe everything they say about him. I know I do.”
He looked away, despite his every urge to smack her across the face.
If he did anything to her, who knows what Ollie would do to him next.
It was better to not find out.
“And here we are, Mr. Mercury! It’s got diamonds and walruses and bicycle races and everything!” Nathan announced, opening the door into the room that Paul Mercury would soon call home from now on.
Carrying his luggage; a backpack, a black guitar case, and a large grey suitcase, Paul’s weak limbs did little to assist him in actually getting it into the room.
When Paul finally set it down on the large bed, he eyed the lack of furniture and even the lack of wallpaper on the walls.
“Seems a bit…unfinished, doesn’t it? You sure this is the only one left in the ‘hole flat?” he asked, with clear uncertainty.
Nathan seemed confident with his gracious lie, however. “Last one. Hey, better than sleeping in a smaller room. We’re living like kings up here.”
He laughed, both at Paul’s clear confusion at any joke and at the fact that he was denying him his choice for no good reason.
But Paul just smiled back. It was the only response he could think of. In the five minutes that the red-haired teen had spent with Nathan Ackerman, he’d quickly figured out that the guy seemed to never run out of things to mock.
“I’m made up from here. Thanks for it.” Paul assured, and Nathan seemed all too ready to find his excuse out.
“Oh, good. This blows compared to my room.” he snickered, before waving without care as he left.
“Sleep tight, and welcome to the Pop 5.”
Nathan didn’t even bother to shut the door on his way out, but Paul was glad enough just to see him gone.
It had been a long flight from Merseyside, but Paul was confident it would all be worth it in the end.
Pure luck had allowed him a chance to show his skills at the guitar to an international talent scout who happened to be touring the British Isles. And Paul was even luckier in that same scout being a prominent member of Zero Beat.
It had taken more than two months to undergo numerous tests, interviews, and a final, personal meeting with the Fourth Beat of New York City himself, before Paul was finally accepted as a member of the most premier group of Music Masters in the United States, known worldwide as the Pop 5.
Paul reminisced on everything that had led him up to this point, as he slowly and neatly removed his clothing from the suitcase. The room was bare save for one small dresser, but that would change in the coming days.
After all, now that he was Pop 5, he never had to worry about money ever again.
He eyed the guitar case he had placed aside on the foot of the bed.
Tomorrow, he’d head to a local music store, Audio Empire, and pick up something truly worthy of playing. His ten-year old tan Rickenbacker had served him well, but he knew he’d need something impressive for their upcoming album.
A slight knock could be heard on the door behind him, and Paul turned quickly.
“You settling in alright?” asked the tall African-American boy now standing within his room. He wore a dark gold hoodie, and an orange and blue cap pulled backwards on his head.
This was Ollie, Paul remembered. He was their appointed leader, having been inducted as the first member of this decade’s Pop 5.
They’d spoken once online before Paul came stateside. From what Paul remembered, he didn’t had much to say.
“This place is huge. I mean, I expected it to be nice, but for Zero Beat to giz a place like this. It’s mighty sound.” Paul gushed, his normally quiet voice coming out of its shell for once.
Ollie didn’t smile once, but from his voice, it appeared that answer satisfied him. “Good to hear. I’ve heard impressive things. Those song effects of yours are a welcome addition.”
He scanned the likes of Paul’s clothes. They were all nice, perfectly pressed and without a stain, and in the process of being folded.
“I hear you can play. Guitar, was it?”
Paul nodded, a little more excitedly now. “Aye. I’ll be looking forward to playing on the album.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Ollie replied, before descending into the line of thought that been his head since he’d heard of Paul’s arrival.
“You’re with the Pop 5 now. I just want you to understand what that means. Our job, our duty to Zero Beat as Music Masters, it comes first. It comes before everything else.”
Paul stopped folding his clothes. He tried to decipher that cold, blank look on Ollie’s face. He searched for some hint of emotion, but it was like staring into a arid desert and wishing for a freshwater lake. It was nowhere to be found.
“I…I understand.” Paul told him, and Ollie then showed just the slightest hint of a smile now. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder in a small attempt to offset his worry.
“Good. We’re on the same page. That’s all I’m looking for.”
Paul smiled, somewhat relieved.
Still, he couldn’t shake off the coldness, the very aura that surrounded Ollie.
He’d heard stories about him. About him taking on Music Masters without even using a single song effect.
Paul wondered on how much blood was on the hand resting on his shoulder, and how many Music Masters had died struggling to the solitary beat of their own songs.
Paul looked back to his clothes, which remained unfolded.
Death was not a good line of thought, and neither was any fear of stepping out of line.
Perhaps keeping quiet among his new group of compatriots wouldn’t be such a crazy idea after all.
“I can’t believe this. This is utter nonsense.”
Lily’s complaining was loud enough that everyone on the first floor could hear it, even as she stood inside Denny Girelli’s room and spouted harsh words.
“You really think you can just waltz in here, and expect to be one of the Pop 5, just like that?” she pointed out, as Denny, who was in the process of unpacking her many outfits, remained somewhat dumbfounded.
“Um…yeah?” Denny replied, before going into her best impression of the Fourth Beat.
“You heard him. He said “My dear, welcome to the Pop 5.“ You’re a Music Master. You couldn’t have missed it.
Her growing annoyance became more and more obvious the longer Lily had chosen to heckle her like this. All she’d wanted to do since she got here was relax and listen to her beloved music.
“Maybe you’re the one missing things.” Lily began, her voice growing snide. “I heard that he likes blondes. You know, the dumb kind.”
Denny turned away to this, but her comeback was surprisingly fierce.
“Then maybe you should dye your hair, if you want his attention so bad. You already sound pretty dumb.”
Lily’s fingernails angrily dug into her palms, and she found herself just about to violently pull at Denny’s long ponytail. “Do you know who I am? Do you know how long I’ve been here? You…you’re just a lucky little fangirl who caught someone’s eye. If it wasn’t for that, you’d still be stuck in San Diego and obsessing over a dead idiot of a singer!”
Finally, that seemed to hit Denny’s nerves. It had been more than two years since the most horrible event of her life, and though she’d somehow recovered, those were still the kinds of insults she just couldn’t stand by and take.
Her hair, her looks, and her attention-deficit disorder were one thing.
Precious Michael Jackson, however, was another entirely.
“Oh, you are so shutting up right now!” Denny declared, turning to face Lily as lightning began to seemingly spark between their eyes.
The door to her room creaked. Paul Mercury stood silent, having seen and heard a good part of this before finally deciding to speak.
“Am I…am I interrupting, ladies?”
Lily shook her head. With Paul around, she suddenly found little point in pursuing this fight.
“No…I was just leaving this airhead to her daydreaming. You can have her from here.”
Almost rudely bumping Paul on the way out, Lily nevertheless took her leave.
Denny and Paul said nothing to each other at first. This would be their first time actually meeting each other in person.
In real life, it would be an understatement for Paul to say she was beautiful.
He’d found himself staring when they first saw her in the training complex underneath the Symphon, and he hadn’t been able to get her face out of his head for all of this last week.
Now, face to face with her, Paul didn’t know what to say.
Thankfully, Denny was able to quickly take the reins.
“So…you’re Paul, right? Like…Paul Mccartney?”
It took Paul a second, but he jolted himself out of his silence.
“Um…sure! You happen to be a fan?”
Denny nodded. “No, not really. But I like Say Say Say and The Girl Is Mine. He sings in those, right?”
“Yeah, he does.” Paul agreed. Denny listened more closely now, finally noticing his accent.
“Oh, are you a Limey? I was gonna see Michael in London in ’09, but it was way too much money. I hear you guys gotta have tea like three times a day or you keel over!” Denny exclaimed with genuine, though misguided, excitement.
Thankfully, Paul was more than a good sport as he chuckled at her words.
“Eh, not exactly. I’m from Liverpool, but this is all bein’ a sound change of pace. I’ll be missin’ home, but it’s nice to finally meet you for real, Denny.”
His face warmed at the sight of her smile. It was a pleasant glow that he could certainly get used to.
Out of everyone here, she was the only one who had yet to make him uncomfortable in one way or another.
After all these months of aggravation putting up with the likes of Nathan and Lily and cowering under Ollie’s veiled emotions, Paul suddenly found himself looking forward to the coming days.
He smiled, quite genuinely now.
Of course, he was completely unaware that outside Denny’s door, Ollie listened to them both in silence.
To this day, Ollie remained a master of hiding in plain sight. An expert at staying quiet and nondescript, he’d heard enough, and soon left the two newest members of the Pop 5 to the company of each other.
For the future, he would remember their interactions and the adoration that showed so obviously on Paul’s face.
Denny remained another problem entirely; though she was skilled at dance and with her song effects, she had a painfully short attention span. He wondered how long till she fatally lost focus in a fight.
But for now, matters more important than Denny’s recent induction into their group had suddenly come to light.
A Music Master thought retired in Europe for years had recently shown his face in Washington Heights.
The infamous bass warrior, known in the touring scene and among his fellow Music Masters as Rob Prototype, had finally resurfaced after almost a decade.
And with his rememergence, came the painful reminder of the disco sound that had once carved a wound deep into Zero Beat.
He might not have been a true follower of Highlord Funk and his former DanceDown, but he remained a problem nonetheless.
Ollie would heed his orders for now. Zero Beat insisted to let foreigners take their shot at him, so they could have their precious deniability.
Two Japanese Music Masters had the task seemingly in hand, whether they were ready for it or not.
But if they failed, then Ollie was more than up to pick it up in their stead.
After all, once his bass was out of the way, crushing this so-called Trackmaster’s windpipe would be a trivial matter in comparison.
One day, he thought.
One day, Ollie would have the feared Rob Prototype as another notch on the back of his cap.