Having nearly been killed less than two days ago, Christmas had been the absolute last thing on Michael Kay’s mind.
Between Calvin’s disheartening betrayal, and getting virtually destroyed by the deadliest of the Pop 5, Michael’s mind was totally elsewhere.
But Christmas Day was now here, whether he wanted it to be or not. And after everything Michael had gone through, now seemed to be an appropriate time to check in with Colleen like he’d originally promised he would.
Of course, Michael could just tell her he never got to see her that night because he got ambushed by a Music Master in Harlem. He could tell her that, and then she’d either panic or get mad at him for lying. Not the smartest idea, clearly.
Meanwhile next to Michael, Rob seemed far more upbeat about everything that happened and for once, it was even obvious in his tone of voice.
“Pretty amazing Colleen has off today. Maybe unlucky for us, but at least good for her.”
Michael and Rob made their way up the street, having finally left the Sound Loft some time ago once the side effects of Heart of Gold had finally worn off.
But even with Rob at his side, Michael’s eyes darted to every corner, half-expecting to see any one of the Pop 5 barreling at him with killing intent.
Michael sighed as the thought of the upcoming disaster. “Can’t we just call her and say that I’m with you at a show or something? I haven’t talked to her in two days. She’s gonna be so pissed.”
“Sorry, but not an option, Mike. We do that, and Colleen’s just going to get worse on you. It’s hard enough to talk her down as it is.”
Rob’s tone was serious again, and Michael knew there was no arguing about this.
“Well, it can’t be as bad as having a target on my back, and the Pop 5 itching to get to me.” Michael commented, shaking his head as he absent-mindedly bumped pedestrians. He’d been distracted since he faced Ollie, and the idea that he was so near death still loomed over him.
Rob stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, grabbing his shoulder in effort to get his attention.
“Hey, we talked about this. For now, just keep your head low, and things will smooth over. I know some people who can get things straightened out with Zero Beat.”
Michael looked up, feeling somewhat better. As usual, Rob’s pulled down cap always made it hard to tell what he was thinking. Thankfully, his wide smile was certainly telling.
“Besides,” Rob added. “They want me a lot more than they want you.”
Michael nodded, knowing there wasn’t much more he could say to change Rob’s mind.
Instead, his concern turned towards their destination just a block away.
He hadn’t been home in two days, and in all that time, Colleen hadn’t called or texted even once.
Michael felt his heart rise up to his throat. He wondered to himself; how loud could she possibly get?
Michael could only hope he was just worrying over nothing.
When Rob opened the door into the apartment, the ensuing scene appeared to be completely casual and relaxed.
Michael followed, and they were greeted with a clean living room full of nice Christmas decorations. In their absence, it appeared much time had been spent dolling up the apartment just in time for the holiday.
Michael closed the door behind them, and that was when his nose caught the wafting, delicious scent of a turkey being cooked in the oven.
He grinned, his stomach rumbling as his body reminded him that he’d been hungry all day. Last thing he’d had to eat was just a meager hot dog at a stand by the Sound Loft some hours ago.
“Hey, we’re home!” Michael announced with as much happiness in his voice as he could muster, his eyes turning to meet Colleen as she stood initially silent behind the kitchen counter.
She’d been waiting for them, and Rob had been quiet the minute he spotted her. When Michael saw her, he instantly figured out it was for good reason.
“So what, is this the Kay Hotel now? We show up whenever we want; holidays, school nights, you name it?” Colleen asked, her tone of voice noticeably slower than usual.
In her hand, she casually balanced a tall glass of wine. It was almost empty, and behind her, a larger bottle had clearly been tapped into.
“I’m sorry, Colleen. We had a slight mishap we had to take care of. Mike just stayed at my place for a little bit.” Rob said in most reassuring voice, but every word that came out of his mouth just served to trigger her further.
She narrowed her eyes, words clouded under alcoholic influence.
“Always you with the apologizing. Sorry this and sorry that. How about a sorry for not even thinking if I wanted you here for Christmas in the first place? You just assume you’re invited?”
Rob just said nothing, clearly trying to think of something to say so as not further enrage her, when Michael finally found the courage to intervene.
“Hey, lay off him, Colleen. If you’re gonna scream at someone, then scream at me. I’m the one who didn’t check in, so don’t make that Rob’s problem.”
Colleen stepped past the counter, swaying slightly but holding onto her glass well enough. She looked down upon her younger brother with anger in her eyes, having always had the height advantage on him if only by a few inches.
With Michael’s words setting him right in her sights, all of her frustration, impatience and worry then flooded out all at once.
“Okay, little brother. You know how much I do for you? I don’t sleep, I work, and I pay the bills for a roof over our head. What do you do? Screw around with your deadbeat uncle who finally shows his face so he can feel less guilty?”
Michael said nothing, and as he expected, she kept going.
“I slave for you, Michael. I’ve been slaving for you for the last ten years of my life. I wanted to go to school, I wanted to pursue something better, but no! Colleen doesn’t deserve that! She deserves to slave forever!”
Colleen pointed an accusing finger at Rob as she continued her rant. “Thanks to him, and thanks to you, I’m permanently stuck in this stupid situation, and in this stupid life. So please, the least you can do is show up once a day. This hotel is free for you, after all.”
Michael was looking down at this point. He wasn’t about to cry or bite back, but to say he was fed up would be an understatement.
Colleen understood nothing. While she dealt with her mundane life, she had no idea of the numerous times that Michael had escaped his own death. In just the span of the last few months, she had no idea that he’d nearly set his room on fire, had almost been skewered by a basketball hoop, and that he’d almost been maimed by killer rhythm game arrows.
Before Rob could even make an attempt to diffuse the situation, a tired and annoyed Michael responded instead.
“Ok, I got the picture.” Michael stated, his voice slowly getting louder. “I’m not a complete moron. I can take a hint.”
He turned on his heel, grabbing the doorknob and mouthing a last few angry words.
“You want me gone, then I’m gone. But for your information, I got important stuff to deal with that would blow your mind if I told you. Just think on that one.”
Colleen’s eyes widened, if only for a moment. Michael turned the knob.
“But I’m such a burden, so I’m out. Sorry Rob, but you enjoy turkey and Christmas without me.”
Before Rob could say anything further in protest, Michael had already opened the door and closed it behind him. He and his afro were gone as quick as they’d arrived.
Under the smell of the newly bought Christmas tree and the cooking food, Rob was left alone with a quite drunk Colleen.
She was a bit stunned, to say the least, but it quickly subsided when she realized she was left with someone she could still bark at.
“Michael’s never like this. He never does this, he never argues with me like this. God, the things you put in his head…”
Rob swallowed his breath, but still replied nonetheless. “I should probably go too.”
“No.” Colleen demanded. “You might as well stick around. Turkey’s gotta be eaten one way or another. They’ll be plenty for Michael later.”
Rob nodded, taking a seat as he waited for Colleen to finish up. It would be foolish to argue further, and he was quite hungry.
He wondered where Michael could have gone, but mostly, he wondered about his niece.
Colleen remained to be more complicated than any line he’d ever tried to learn in over twenty years of playing bass guitar.
While Michael Kay angrily left his sister and uncle in the dust, Denny found herself in her own situation of discomfort.
For the first time since they’d originally met with the Fourth Beat about the whole Michael situation, the entire Pop 5 had been called to their war room within 5 Records. It had been built under Ollie’s strict supervision, shortly after he’d moved in as a place for them to strategize and discuss current and upcoming operations.
What worried Denny the most though, was that it was also the perfect opportunity for her knowledge of Michael to be thrown out in the open for all to see. Trying to control her fidgeting and the nervous expression on her face, things only further plunged downward when the door opened and the first member of the Pop 5 besides her made their entrance.
“What, you got nothing better to do than wait around?” Nathan snickered, rolling his tongue out as he grabbed a nearby seat. He spun around on it, laughing to himself before stopping short in front of Denny.
“Oh, wait. How about your secret disco boyfriend? How’s he doing by the way? I didn’t know he had a thing for girls dumber than bag of bricks.”
He laughed, but with the two of them alone, Denny took the opportunity to strike where it would hurt the most.
Since their incident in his room, she wasn’t even close to afraid of him. He would forever remember that.
“I thought you might know. You fought him, right? I guess even all giant-sized he still beat your butt. ” she pointed out, before pointing at the large piece of gauze that Nathan still had stuck to his head.
“So is that some new weird skater fashion on your forehead, or did Michael do that to you?”
He gritted his teeth, eyes seething as Denny just smiled. With the war room still empty, he stood up from his chair, arms spread out as he addressed her with venom.
“Watch your mouth. All I gotta do is tell everyone that you had the chance to kill the kid, and you didn’t take it, and I guarantee that you’re outta the Pop 5 in a blink.” he threatened, and now visible worry crept back onto Denny’s face.
“They…they’d never believe you.” she claimed, but Nathan just shook his head as he crossed his arms and sat back down.
“Yeah, that’s what you think. I’m one of the original three, so I got more cred than you ever will. Your song effects and your tricky dance moves are only gonna get you so far, blondie.”
Denny was about to speak further, when the door inside the war room opened.
In came Lily and Paul, followed by Ollie, who slowly closed the door behind them.
Lily and Paul kept their distance, and it was obvious to everyone why. The normally stone-faced Ollie was practically burning with rage, just barely containing it within his expression.
As everyone took their seats, Nathan whispered to Denny from across the table.
“Your days are numbered.”
“Let’s try to be quick about this.” Ollie said, his words serving enough to shut Nathan up for the time being.
“I wanted to go over everything regarding Michael and his so-called Audio Knights. The name’s been making rounds among the local Music Masters already; it’s the same one that Rob Prototype and his friends used back in 1993.”
Lily seemed somewhat confused. “Who cares what they call themselves? It’s just a stupid name.”
Ollie didn’t say anything at first, and pressed a button on the table. The entire wall shifted, forming into a projector screen in order to better illustrate his point. With another click of the small remote waiting nearby, the screen was filled with various images.
Taken from micro-cameras in their Z-phones, it showcased images of Michael, Kim, Aeris and Calvin; in various states of fighting and distress. Some of their song effects were even visible in photography, caught under a special lens developed exclusively by Zero Beat.
“DanceDown started as just a name. So did the original Audio Knights, and the Pop 5. If we allow their notoriety to gain traction, then others will eventually find cause to join them, and the problems will multiply.” Ollie explained, snapping through various pictures. He stopped at the final one, of Michael standing behind the damaged and maimed form of his Big YMCA.
“Well.” Nathan said, taking in the picture of Michael and smiling wide. “You might have failed in killing the kid, but I got some juicy info for ya that will help us out for sure.”
Denny’s eyes darted back and forth, and she wanted to turn invisible in her chair now more than ever. Next to her, Paul was beginning to realize exactly what Nathan was talking about, but he remained silent.
Ollie stopped, and his eyes widened. From where she was sitting, Denny could almost see his fist shaking. She held back any urge to gasp or shiver in fear.
“What did you say?” Ollie asked, in a low voice.
Nearby, Paul shifted audibly in his seat, and even Lily looked away, clearly unsure.
Nathan, however, was too lost in his own confidence.
“That one girl, Aeris, swooped in and saved him at the last minute. You had him pretty much dead too. That’s gotta majorly suck.”
Ollie began to walk over, even as Nathan continued, seemingly going into his supposed threat.
“I know you’re not used to losing, but there’s a silver lining, that kid Michael, there’s a reason I found him when I did. He really came fo-”
Nathan’s eyes widened, and suddenly, he felt strong fingers grab the spiky follicles at the back of his head. He tried to yell, to say something, but his face was slammed downward.
Once, twice, then a third time.
And just when it seemed to be over, Ollie bashed Nathan’s face into the polished wooden table a fourth time. Blood vessels popped, and Nathan could feel the ache from the blow on his forehead quickly returning.
When Ollie pulled his face back up, Nathan was bleeding badly from his nose. His vision was shot, and the world was a blurry haze in front of him.
All he could hear was Ollie’s cold, uncaring tone in his ears.
Nathan must have forgotten what it meant to open his big mouth like this. So in his anger, Ollie found this as the perfect opportunity to remind him.
“Go on. You were saying?” Ollie asked, only slightly interested in any actual information Nathan might have.
But Nathan waited before he said anything further. He scanned his fellow Pop 5 at the table around him. They were all silent, and clearly in shock, but not more so than Denny.
She looked away when their gazes met, and Nathan laughed through the blood dripping down his lip and onto his teeth.
“The disco boy kinda looks like Michael Jackson.” Nathan began, between a bloody chuckle. “Maybe we can get Denny to sniff him out! God knows she’s dying to lock lips with anything that even looks like the guy!”
Nathan laughed loudly, and Denny just let out a sigh of internal relief in response. She failed to understand Nathan, but whatever he was thinking, it didn’t involve ousting her just yet.
Ollie pushed him back into his chair, clearly done with his games.
“Don’t waste my time again. Most of us actually care about doing what we’re told.”
Wiping the blood from his nose, Nathan felt satisfied enough knowing Ollie could feel even a little inadequate. If it would serve as payback for all the times Ollie had embarrassed him and made him feel small, then ruining Denny’s life could wait for now.
He made a thumbs up, much to Ollie’s annoyance. “Got it, boss.”
“To reiterate my point, we need Michael gone. Sooner rather than later.” Ollie continued, motioning back to the picture of his on the projector ahead of them.
Remote still in hand, Ollie pressed a button and quickly crossed lines onto the projected picture.
It formed a red X, specifically right across Michael Kay’s face. He turned to the assembled Pop 5, noting their expressions.
Paul’s obvious apprehension, Nathan’s uncaring grin, Lily’s uncertainty and fear, and Denny’s constant fidgeting and inattention.
They were skilled, but they all had much to learn when it came to planning and patience.
“We allow his little group to gain steam, and the problem escalates. Rob Prototype was a problem for Zero Beat, and remains to be one even without the original Audio Knights.” he announced, before allowing a small smile to creep onto his face.
He would never say it out loud, but hurting Nathan like that was beyond satisfying. Almost euphoric, if he was being honest.
“But once Michael is out of the picture, his friends will follow. They’ll buckle under the fear of death, and his uncle will come looking for revenge.”
Ollie held his fist up, clearly backing up his own latent threat.
“I’ll finish him, and we erase two of Zero Beats problem at once. It’s simple, really. If we’re smart, and we follow a plan, we’ll succeed.”
His words echoed throughout the war room, and the assembled Pop 5 seemed in agreement.
Mostly, at least.
Denny was no longer paying attention, her eyes glued to her phone as she saw the one thing she’d been waiting for this entire day.
It was a text from Michael, ignoring her previous one but asking her if she’d like to meet up at a local arcade in St. Marks Place.
The blond girl was so excited by the prospect that she just about announced her response to the rest of the Pop 5.
Nevertheless, her face glowed with a huge smile, and she quickly typed her reply before tucking her phone away in her red jacket pocket.
Next to her, Paul noticed her change in demeanor, and he knew it could have only come from one place. He wrestled with himself so as not to show his visible annoyance.
Denny just listened as Ollie wrapped up their meeting, her shoes perfectly tapping to the beat of Rock With You under the table.
She could practically hear Michael lovingly singing the very same song in her ear already.
“Can you seriously just go away already?” Denny said, quite bluntly.
The short, pudgy-faced man seemed initially confused, as the two of them stood along the sidewalk by Dekozan, the arcade and amusement center in St. Marks Place that Michael was supposed to meet her at.
“I can’t just get one picture? Pretty please?” he asked, holding his phone up and smiling through disgusting, unbrushed teeth. He practically reeked of shadiness.
Denny narrowed her eyes. “No means no. Ask me again and you’ll be waking up in that trash can over there.”
She was clearly serious, and the older man shrugged before finally leaving her alone.
“Freaking celebrities…” he complained, before disappearing around the street corner a moment later.
Denny looked back down on her phone, the noises and lights of the arcade machines inside framed behind her. He was the second person to approach her in the fifteen minutes she’d been waiting, and her building impatience had finally come out in one angry burst.
His insistent creepiness on having her blow him a kiss in the picture didn’t help either. He had to be more than twice her age.
Still, compared to Michael, it all remained to be unimportant.
Swiping through her phone, she didn’t yet see a message from Michael waiting for her. She breathed in quickly, only to hear him calling for her a second later.
“Hey! I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long!”
Denny looked up, and the afro-headed object of her love had arrived. He grinned, it being his best effort at hiding his own frustration after blowing off Colleen and leaving Rob with her less than an hour before.
“Merry Christmas, Denny.” he then said, trying to break the ice as he remembered that today was also somewhat important.
But Denny just raised a curious eyebrow. “It’s Christmas?”
Michael shook his head. It was worth a try, at least. He put up a hand to give her a high five.
“Eh, it doesn’t matter. Up high?”
His voice was like music to her ears. She beamed back at him, and instead of giving him a high five back, Denny jumped into his arms, catching him into a very tight and very unexpected hug.
Michael’s face went warm, and he slowly returned it as Denny practically nuzzled into his shoulder.
The smell of her long honey blond hair was almost overpowering, putting Michael somewhat at a loss for words.
“Oh…uh, that works too.” he said, stammering if only a little.
Denny just laughed, not a care in her world as the two of them embraced right in the middle of the street.
“Nice to see you again, Michael.”
She finally let go, but made a point to grab hold of his hand before pointing towards Dekozan ahead.
“So we gonna play some games or what?”
Michael just grinned.
It was beginning to look a lot like quite the unusual Christmas.