When the front door closed, and Michael truly breathed in the decor around him, he finally realized just how small Colleen’s apartment really was in comparison.
Even the Sound Loft seemed like a shack when measured up to the gigantic living room that served Denny and her roommates.
Denny let go of him for the time being, perhaps to allow Michael to take in the splendor of the surrounding space.
Everything smelled like money before, but now, it certainly looked like it too. The entire room was configured masterfully, with cool, royal colors accentuating all the furnishings. Staring at a large, purple couch right next to him, Michael wondered if it was just as inviting as it looked.
“This is just the living room.” Denny said, breaking Michael from his trance. “It’s pretty boring. And it’s usually not this clean. Nathan has a party in here like every week. Must suck to be the maid.”
“Dang, this place is huge.” Michael exclaimed. Denny gleamed in response.
“You know what else is huge?”
Michael grinned, if only to hide his lack of an answer. “What?”
“My room.” she said with slyness in her voice. “It’s soundproof too. They worked on it for me when I first moved in.”
By this point, the two of them had left the living room. Denny had Michael by the hand again, intent on showing him all of her favorite places in the penthouse before taking him to her little piece of sanctuary.
“I wish my room was soundproof. You can listen to your music as loud as you want, and nobody’ll hear it.” Michael said, much to Denny’s further delight.
“Yeah, among other things.” she replied, the pink flush growing on her face again.
Her heart beat faster, and now all Denny could think of was having Michael all to herself in the privacy of her room.
This was about to be the fastest tour of the 5 Penthouse ever.
By the end of it, Michael Kay was almost dizzy by the sheer size of all three floors of the 5 Penthouse.
He’d been pulled through most of them, with Denny babbling a few choice memories in an effort give context to the place. Michael was half-listening, more interested in her than the place itself.
Between a game room that was a literal arcade, to a professional recording studio that seemed fit for the Fab Four themselves, the 5 Penthouse was loaded with all the luxuries that anyone could ever want.
When it was all said and done, they finally made it back to Denny’s room on the first floor. Both Michael and Denny stopped in front of her door, guarded by the likes of a huge This Is It movie poster.
It was fitting.
This was it, Denny thought, wondering how Michael would react to her room and the entire life worth of memories held within.
This was it, Michael thought. Whatever happened, no matter what, he had to stay cool. For Calvin, for Aeris, and for Kim, he’d entertain Denny as long needed, whether she was Pop 5, Zero Beat, or otherwise.
“This is my room.” Denny said, laughing somewhat nervously. “Guess we’re finally here.”
For once, Michael sensed her hesitation. “Well, let’s see it then. I got no doubt it’s gonna be awesome.”
“Okey dokey. Enter, to my humble abode!”
Denny then beamed back at him, before turning her doorknob and allowing them access.
She beckoned Michael to go in first, and he obliged, taking those first steps onto her soft red carpeting.
The words slipped out of Michael’s mouth as he turned on his axis, taking in everything about the place Denny referred to simply as her “room.”
It was more like a studio apartment than a room.
On one half was clearly her living space. The floor was covered with red carpeting, and in one corner was a large king-sized bed for sleeping.
Her dresser, a towering thing at least eight feet in height, was partially open, showcasing a number of clothing pieces, all of which were something Michael Jackson had worn at one point or another. Two couches, a small glass table, and a massive plasma television filled the rest of her living space.
Beyond that, Denny had her own bathroom, which of course Michael wasn’t venturing any further into.
The other half seemed to be dedicated to her most beloved venture, and thus it appeared to be one half of an entire dance studio. Michael recognized the laminated sheen of the marley floor in an instant, and was astounded to see a mirrored wall looking back at him as well the steel barre along it. He couldn’t see any sign of it, but the boy could only assume that an impressive sound system was hidden among the walls around them.
“This is crazy. I mean, this is…this is amazing. You’re my age, but I gotta ask…are you even in high school?” Michael questioned, his eyes wide as he absorbed everything there was to see.
Denny stood right nearby, hands clasped together in happiness.
She was happy enough with just impressing him, and it was obvious in her tone.
“Thanks. I don’t really do the whole school thing. I got a tutor who comes once a week, what with all the recording we have to do and whatnot. I hear high school is pretty overrated though.”
Michael nodded in approval. “Ugh, tell me about i-”
His brain froze. Recording?
She had definitely just said that. In an instant, he turned, his eyes hungry with curiosity.
“Wait, you record? You actually make music?”
Denny laughed, perhaps at her own forgetfulness. “Oh, yeah. I’m in the Pop 5. You really haven’t heard of us?”
It took all of Michael’s willpower for him not show the uncertainty on his face. Of course he’d heard of them. Just not in the way she thought.
And with those words, she’d confirmed his own inner fears.
She was a Music Master, and she was one of the Pop 5.
More importantly, she was supposed to kill him. She and the rest of their group were supposed to take him out as a bounty for Zero Beat.
Yet here they were, and Michael Kay still breathed.
“Vaguely.” Michael finally said, now attempting to sound as oblivious as humanly possible.
Thankfully, it wasn’t hard. “I don’t really follow modern bands that much. Sorry.”
Denny just giggled in response.
“It’s okay. Our music is terrible anyway. Its acapella stuff, and I can’t even sing, but yet they push me to pretend like I do. It’s all really dumb.”
Denny found herself spilling out so many thoughts at once, caught up in it all as she swallowed up every precious minute she could with Michael.
It was true that she’d hated the rushed process to record Live to Five, and that she personally found their newfound celebrity status to be both a distraction and a bother.
Right now just being with Michael, and seeing his smile, was like seeing her cherished idol back from the dead. It was a warm, heavenly feeling that she’d hold onto as long as she could.
“That is still pretty cool though. My uncle can play bass, but I can’t sing or play anything to save my life. Must be nice to have actual talent.” he remarked, only for Denny’s face to light up as she remembered something she’d wanted to share with him since he first arrived.
“Oh, forget talent! Want to see something even better?” she asked, pointing towards a tall, red door with a black star emblazoned on the front. As they got closer, Michael could see the initials “MJ” written in gold.
“Woah.” Michael stated, now curious again. “What’s in here?”
Denny grinned wide, finding the small, golden key that opened this door and this door alone.
“My secret place. Only the special few get to see it. Let’s take a look, shall we?”
There was a click as she undid the lock, and this time, Denny walked in first before motioning for Michael to follow.
It was dark at first, until Denny clicked on the light nearby, and revealed the adjoining room to be a literal, miniature museum.
They were surrounded by a multitude of glass cases, each one housing a different item of priceless memorabilia formerly belonging to the King of Pop.
Michael kept his distance he peered into one in particular. Within, he could see a white-gold, sequined glove in near perfect condition.
“You can press your face up to it for all I care.” Denny said as she noticed his apprehension. “That’s like bulletproof glass. You’re not breaking it.”
“Denny.” Michael began, almost unsure how to continue. Some these items must have been worth thousands of dollars.
“Do you realize just how much money is in this room?”
Beyond the glove, Michael spotted a familiar black, metal-ringed jacket, a white fedora, black tap dancing shoes, and a red leather jacket that seemed almost an exact copy to the one Denny already wore.
“Never really thought about it like that.” Denny admitted, tapping her chin as she mulled it over. “But it’s got like six alarms, and security knows about it. It’s probably worth a lot.”
“This is all something else though.” Michael continued. The value of just one of these articles of clothing was probably worth the Sound Loft three of four times over. “You really love him, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Denny said, her voice lowering as she began to wander around that particular thought. “When he died in ’09, things were rough. I had to go away for awhile. They thought I might not make it past the year.”
Michael stayed silent, hearing the serious tone in her voice as he let her speak.
“But I got through it. And then everything with the Pop 5 happened, and now I’m here.”
She smiled, looking up at Michael. They had about a half a foot height difference between them.
“I’m here, and you’re here. I got what I wanted. It all worked out in the end.”
Unfortunately, Michael didn’t completely understand what she meant, but he didn’t dwell on it. For now, he was happy enough to see her happy.
“That’s nice. I’m glad I’m good for something.” he laughed, and another thought lit up in Denny’s mind like a lightbulb.
“Oh! I almost forgot! I have like all my favorite songs to show you!” she almost screamed with ecstatic glee.
Once again, Denny grabbed him by the hand, dragging him out of her memorabilia room.
Michael didn’t resist.
It might turn into a long night, but he found himself enjoying Denny’s company more and more as the minutes passed them by. Her happiness was becoming infectious.
Soon enough, he’d just about forgotten she was with the Pop 5 entirely.
For a good half hour, Michael Kay sat in a comfortable wooden chair, silent as he watched Denny dance.
He’d be lying if he said it wasn’t a bit mesmerizing. For thirty minutes, she’d gone through a few of the most notable Michael Jackson songs, played through intensely powerful speakers that were wired throughout her entire room.
It was as if his very spirit had possessed her body and directed her movements. Nothing was off; not her steps, or her turns, or even the precise locking and twists of her limbs in time with the music. Michael could only imagine that she must have practiced these songs countless times to know all their complicated choreography from memory.
When Smooth Criminal ended, Denny clicked on a tiny remote to stop the music for the time being. Not a bead of sweat appeared on her brow, and she smiled as Michael looked on with wide eyes.
“So…what did you think?”
Michael began to clap slowly, grinning wide in the process.
“That was crazy good. You didn’t miss a beat. Man, I feel like a chump. I thought I could dance, but you…you’re something else.”
Denny’s face burst with glee and she went down on her knees, grabbing hold of Michael’s hands in the process.
“Really? Oh my gosh, that’s like totally sweet of you.”
“Well, it’s the truth.” Michael noted, but Denny didn’t let go.
It was about this time that he began to notice all of the real details.
The smooth light color of her skin, the fuzzy warmth of her palms, and the slightest glow on her face. Even the very noticeable curves through her dance pants. He’d tried to avert his eyes, but it was becoming very difficult.
But more than any of those things, whenever she looked at him, he spotted that sweet glow on her cheeks and in her eyes. But true to his nature, Michael still didn’t fully understand.
It all led Michael to the big question: why was he even here in the first place? What was it that Denny saw in him, that pushed her to invite him to her palace, even though she had every right and reason to want to throw him to the lions for Zero Beat.
He had to know. Michael gulped, then the words just drifted out.
“Can I ask you something?”
Denny blinked, but continued to smile nevertheless.
Michael kept the smile on his face, but nervousness leaked into his next statement nonetheless. “Be honest. Why’d you want to hang out with me so bad? Until yesterday, you didn’t even know who I was.”
For a brief moment, Denny debated opening her mouth and telling him that she loved him.
She debated telling him that he was the living, breathing incarnation of the most important person in her life, and now that he was here, she wasn’t letting go for a second.
When Denny looked in his eyes, she always heard a heavenly tune sing in her mind. His black afro was the most perfect reminder of it all.
But the words that came out were far more mundane, though rooted in truth. Denny expressed self-control, for once.
“You seem nice. Me and my roommates don’t always get along. Maybe I needed a friend.”
She laughed at herself. Then Michael’s response hit straight home.
“Well, you’ve got a friend in me.” he said, quite casually.
Touched by his sudden words, all Denny could hear was a very young Michael Jackson singing the same line from I’ll Be There. It was the same heavenly tune that had become a familiar constant in her mind.
Meanwhile, Michael’s voice was somewhere else entirely.
Much to his surprise, she moaned under her breath, and a bright pink flush overpowered her cheeks as her fingers tightened around Michael’s.
Not knowing how to immediately react, he was glad to see her recover a moment later.
“Oh! That’s nice to hear from you.” she said, recovering from her influx of love.
She looked back into his eyes. They were both sitting on the floor now, and she hadn’t let go of him this whole time.
“I really like you, Michael.” she finally admitted, breaking the air of all tension in the process.
Only another second passed, and her heart beat back and forth as she waited for a response.
But Michael didn’t know what to say. He’d heard her, but he could only wonder if he was overthinking her words. He remained beyond oblivious, and the last thing he wanted to do was misinterpret something from someone he only just met yesterday.
Fortunately, Michael would have time to think on it, as a loud buzzing came from beneath her bed sheets.
Conveniently distracted, Michael turned to it in an instant. He took the chance while he had it.
“Huh? What’s that?” he asked, as honestly as he could muster.
Denny’s expression hardened, and for the first time all day, annoyance showed in her eyes as she clambered over her bed.
For the time being, her moment had been stolen. And by Zero Beat, no less.
“Ugh, seriously? It’s my stupid work phone. It’s probably dumb Pop 5 stuff.”
Michael tried his best to feign any interest, though he kept his ears open as best as he could. Unfortunately, if it wasn’t music, there was only so much he could eavesdrop upon.
“I’m so sorry, but you have to give me a second.” Denny said, grabbing her phone as she went for the bathroom where she could have privacy. “If I don’t take this, they’ll just keep calling.”
As much as she wanted to spend time with Michael, and as much as she wanted to further tell him how strongly she felt, the last thing she needed was for him to overhear how much Zero Beat wanted him dead. It was hard enough as it was to keep her knowledge of him a secret.
Michael nodded with understanding, and Denny closed the bathroom door behind her.
Behind it, she picked up the call, answering in the most uninterested tone.
“I’m here. Make it quick. I’m kind of busy.”
A smooth, female voice answered. It was snide and knowing as always.
“Busy? What could you possibly be doing besides wasting your time on a dead and overrated singer? I just wanted to give you a bit of news. I found a lead on Michael. Two of them, in fact. So tell me, how close are you?”
Denny looked to the door, and smiled to herself at the victory quite unknown to the person on the other line.
“I got nothing. But good for you. That’s pretty impressive.”
Lily laughed. “Of course it is. Better get comfortable in second place, because it’ll be me who’s bringing him to Zero Beat on a platter.”
“I will. Goodbye, Lily.” Denny declared, clicking the call out as she finally got sick of hearing the same bit.
She placed her work phone on the bathroom counter, sighing to herself.
Sometimes, she wondered if the money and the fame was all worth it. The likes of Lily and Nathan could be unbearable at times.
Denny then stood up, her mind back to her guest and how she’d kept him waiting.
At least now, there was Michael to balance it all out.
“She hung up on me!” Lily scoffed, as Helia sat in the high chair nearby. “Can you believe the nerve of that stupid girl?”
“Don’t look at me.” Helia said, her tone uncaring. “I’m just the messenger.”
Lily locked her phone, checking her nails out of habit in the process.
She’d met Helia at a place just across the street from 5 Records. Called the Turnabout Cafe, it happened to have the most delicious caramel frappuccino this side of Midtown. Even the normally irate Helia couldn’t resist its charm, as she slurped the sugary drink through a straw in lieu of the usual cigarette.
“You’re absolutely sure it was them?” Lily asked, yet again. She wasn’t just about to stake everything on the words of a lowly Second Beat.
Helia slurped loudly as she plucked out her phone. She was swiping for a few seconds before she found the picture, turning the screen around and pushing it towards Helia.
“Not that I’d ever forget a face, but if it’ll make you shut up.”
Lily leaned closer, noting the two in the picture. A girl with messy brown hair, toxic green lipstick, and clothes that seemed almost mismatched. Next to her was a shorter blonde, with a checkered blue blazer and overall more restrained ensemble.
“Kim Ramone, and the other’s girl name was Erid or something. We’ve tangoed with them before, and they’re friends with the disco boy you’re looking for.” Helia remarked, putting her phone away in the process.
“They were just outside. Looks like they were scoping out the record building. Then I saw them go down into the old 32nd Street subway line. Maybe looking for a way past security.”
Helia smiled, somewhat smugly. “Hey, maybe they’re looking for you. I’d watch yourself. They’re no pushovers. You can trust me on that one.”
Lily seemed unphased at her words. “That’s you. This is me we’re talking about. I’m Pop 5, and you’re not.”
Helia kept her mouth shut now. She was on the verge of cursing Lily out, but she knew better. There were valuable brownie points to be gained from all of this.
“They’re looking for me? That’s perfect. Makes everything so much easier.”
Lily smirked at her own wit.
A dirty subway line venture would have to do. She could always buy new clothes tomorrow, after all.
A persistent dripping noise could be heard as Kim and Aeris descended down old, cracking steps and into the dilapidated station below.
“Kim.” Aeris said, having been silent this whole time since they’d been denied entry in the 5 Records lobby. “You sure this is a good idea?”
Her voice was clearly annoyed. A torrent of emotions, most of them negative, persisted in her mind at the recent news of Calvin’s turncoat nature.
“Probably not, but this is our best bet. This place used to lead into a substation right underneath the building they demolished before 5 Records was built. If it’s not buried under rubble, it’s almost definitely still there.” Kim explained, water splashing from her steps as they made their way onto the platform. The lights were shot, and only Kim’s phone served as their makeshift torch.
With a sweeping motion, she scanned her phone across the tracks, causing a multitude of rats and cockroaches to scatter in unison. Down below, both girls could see copious flooding and detritus among the murk.
Aeris gulped, holding back her fears of the small and dirty things as she followed Kim over the side. They landed seven feet down into the rails, which of course, hadn’t had power for years.
Heading on the line direction towards uptown, it only took five minutes of using her phone to light their way before Kim became sufficiently tired of it.
With a click of her music player, she had Walking Disaster up and blaring, her hydra-arms lighting up the area with their ethereal magenta glow.
Unfortunately, they remained invisible to the masses of pests and did nothing to scare them off.
Kim’s stomping boots served as their only threat, and the two remained silent as they followed the railroad tracks to a supposed secret way into 5 Records.
Still, even in the dim lighting, Kim could see the sullen expression on Aeris’s face. Much like Michael, she was often the upbeat, pleasant one. A sweet orange compared to the sour lemon that was Kim.
Kim knew exactly what was on her mind. She tried her best to sound as understanding as possible.
“I’m sorry I was right.”
She bit down, realizing how bad that sounded only after she said it.
But Aeris seemed somewhat grateful upon answering. “Heh, maybe I should have listened. You did try to warn me.”
“Must be nice to like someone like that. I wouldn’t know, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.” Kim further stated, in her best attempt to comfort her friend.
She put a hand on Aeris’s shoulder, smiling even in the dark. “But you’ll get over it. It’ll hurt for awhile, for sure, but there ain’t nothing that’ll keep you down forever. You’re better than that.”
Aeris looked back at her. The sadness and anger throbbed through her very being, but all of it was directed towards Calvin.
She still had Kim. And soon, they’d have Michael back too.
She was about to thank Kim in response, when a low noise began to ring in her ears. All this time, Aeris thought it was just Kim’s music.
Instead, the approaching music was a loud pop tune. It was something that not even under the most horrible torture would Kim ever use.
She turned slightly, her eyes widening as a glowing, pink-red light approached them at dangerous speed.
Kim was far too distracted with her kindness towards Aeris to see the incoming danger, and was not at all prepared when Aeris pushed them apart with all her might.
Had she been any slower, then both her and Kim would have almost touched the two glowing dice that proceeded to explode into a brilliant flash of shimmering, burning death.
Both Kim and Aeris were knocked back hard to opposite sides of the tunnel wall, as the sound of expensive heels tapped against the dirty ground towards them.
Aeris pushed herself to get up, despite the pain in her back from being thrown like a rag doll from explosive force. Looking to one side, she saw Kim, turned away from her, silent as her headphones lay some feet away.
With her song effect gone, the only light source was now in the hands of an approaching female Music Master. It took the form of a pair of dice, conjured from the sound of LoveGame, which Lily delightfully bounced in her hand.
Dressed in very low cut shorts, a neon pink top, and gifted with looks, full lips, and long auburn hair; the girl laughed to herself at the prospect of her sneak attack.
“That was actually pretty good.” she complimented, in a way very unlike her.
Her tone and words shifted to become indignant just a moment later though. “I was expecting you to both die instantly. Well, one of you, at least. I need the other to tell me where Michael is.”
Aeris was at Kim’s side at this point, turning her over as quick as she could. Kim was breathing, but a large mark on her forehead showed that she was out cold. Even as Lily approached, Aeris shook Kim with all her might.
“Kim! Come on! This is a bad time to be out!”
Lily walked slowly, clearly in the advantage. Her steps echoed through the dark tunnel as she remained only some fifteen feet away.
Aeris was on the verge of panicking, noting the chilling pink light that grew closer.
She needed to get Kim up. If this girl was with the Pop 5, she needed Kim up and ready to fight.
Lily was closer now, and clearly toying with them.
With no other choice left, Aeris pressed on the button through her pants pocket, popping her headphones in as quick as she could. This Fragile Breath coursed through her body even as Lily was running forward in an attempt to try to pull the girl’s earbuds loose.
Just as Lily was but a touch away, Aeris felt the lightning in her fingers. One hand hovered over Kim’s arm, while the other was held out, aimed for Lily’s midsection.
A crackling blue bolt flew out with uncanny speed, slamming hard into Lily’s stomach and sending her tumbling along the dirty ground in the process.
Satisfied, Aeris looked back down at Kim, knowing her time was precious.
“My clothes!” Lily shouted, now pissed as she scraped herself off the ground. She knew this inconvenience might happen, but it was quite horrible for it to actually happen.
“Oh, forget it! You die first, and then your friend can tell me where to find the disco boy!”
Aeris sighed, ignoring Lily as her hand was still poised over Kim’s arm.
It was now or never.
“Sorry Kim…” she apologized. Lightning crackled with anticipation.
“…but this is going to hurt.”