A sneaker appropriate for the likes of King Kong rose up and crashed down upon where Michael and Calvin currently stood.
There would be no more playful banter, and even less time to Harmonize with their song effects.
Calvin’s focus was broken as he jumped to one side, just barely dodging a pulverizing death.
Beads of sweat began to form on his brow as the chaos of the situation descended upon him.
The Pop 5? Michael was marked by the Pop 5?
Calvin fought to force himself up, his knees shaking in the process.
This was a death sentence. Not just for Michael, but for all of them.
Calvin’s mind rushed back to present, and he remembered his fellow Audio Knight. He turned his head, and almost exactly on cue, he could hear the sound of disco music permeating the air.
A massive hand slammed open palm upon the ground, but Calvin just watched in wonder as its target slipped between the the gap in its fingers with robotic grace. There stood Michael Kay, popping and locking his limbs as he moved under the superhuman influence of Dancing Machine.
Michael moonwalked backwards with uncanny speed, and Nathan could only move his oversized limbs in attempt to crush him akin to some bothersome, metallic insect.
In between motions, Michael pointed to his ear in attempt to give Calvin some sort of signal.
With no mouth to speak, and a shimmering disco ball in place of his afro, Michael would remain a distraction for as long as his blonde friend needed.
“Stand STILL! I’ll make it QUICK!” Nathan roared, skin pulled taut over muscles that seemed unnaturally bulged in his now titanic size.
Calvin snapped back to reality at those words, fast forwarding twice on his music player until he was right on the chosen song.
He tried to smile, to make any attempt to lighten the situation, but fear had him in a deadly embrace.
Instead, he pressed play, descending into a realm of musical madness where at the very least, he wouldn’t have the luxury of emotion.
Calvin was quick to Harmonize, but the song effect itself had another transformation process entirely.
Loud synths bombed the air with explosive force, and Calvin’s wiry, teenage body shuddered in response. His shirt began to rip violently, as muscles expanded, skin stretched, and soon, neon blue scales entrenched themselves on every inch of his body. A thick, barrel-wide tail sprouted forth, shaking with vigor while crescent blue spikes burst forth from Calvin’s spine.
It took five seconds even after he’d Harmonized, but Michael’s distraction had paid off. Calvin growled what barely passed off as words through a large reptilian snout.
Far too busy trying to squash Michael, Nathan finally turned to the real threat. Framed under the sound of Genesis, a monstrous kaiju-human hybrid now challenged his dominance.
Nathan just grinned, stomping forward as left Michael in the dust.
“Oh GOOD. A REAL fight.” he bellowed.
Calvin didn’t respond, instead opening his mouth wide as Nathan began to charge.
There was a sonic, undulating scream, before a fluorescent beam of orange light burst forth. It hit Nathan straight in the chest, pushing him ever so slightly back in the process.
But even under the influence of Genesis, Nathan remained to be more than twice Calvin’s size. Like an unstoppable giant, he pressed forward, despite the concussive force that continued to beat against him.
“Nice try. I am SORT of ticklish.” he quipped, just about closing the distance between them.
It was when Nathan was only fifteen feet away that Calvin finally closed his jaws. Nathan’s fists were ready to beat him to a pulp, but in this form, Calvin didn’t know the meaning of fear.
He bounded forwarded with prehistoric rage, grappling with the titanic teenager and wrestling both of them to the ground. Nathan’s back slammed into one of the storage platforms, knocking down boxes and shattering them in the process.
As the two monsters dueled, Michael had already switched off of Dancing Machine, unsure how to assist in such a larger-than-life struggle.
Mostly though, he wondered over who, or what, this so called Pop 5 was.
His thoughts were cut short, however, when he saw Nathan get his hands around Calvin’s neck, pinning him with his huge advantage in weight.
Calvin roared out a breath of neon doom in an attempt to get Nathan off, but he was stifled as a huge palm closed his mouth shut. Nathan laughed as he slowly but surely began to squeeze the life out of him.
In response, Michael rushed forward, Canned Heat burning through his heels as time ticked with deadly intent.
“Dying for the disco boy, huh?.” Nathan mocked, slamming down as he squeezed harder and harder. “You got nobody to blame but you.”
Calvin’s breath came out hoarse now. He could feel his brain flickering as the air failed to enter his lungs.
For the briefest of moments, he saw his entire life flash before his eyes.
Everyone he’d scammed.
Everyone he’d fought, and everyone he’d fought alongside.
The dimmest memories of a tall, glasses-wearing woman with blonde hair just like his.
And finally, Aeris. Or Bright Eyes, as he called her in their back and forth texting that often went on well into the night.
He saw all of her beauty, all of her kindness, and a future with her that could have been.
It was when he thought he saw the light at the end of the tunnel that he heard Nathan scream.
His hands slipped away, and Calvin’s life slipped back to him in the form of a colossal breath.
Stepping off his near-kill, Nathan touched the first degree burn now present on his shoulder. Anger lit up in his eyes as he focused on the small form of Michael, who stood defiantly with his red heat-infused right hand.
“Hey! You want me? Here I am! Let’s go!” Michael shouted up at him, and Nathan rushed forward as he roared back at him.
“Oh, you don’t want to wait your turn do you? FINE! This is GONNA hurt bad then!”
Michael turned tail, skating along with the speed of the Canned Heat in his heels. He didn’t dare look back, only hearing each thundering footstep that followed so close behind him.
Up ahead, he could see where the towering storage aisles narrowed, and what remained as his only chance.
Michael zoomed through, and behind him, Nathan followed, only just able to squeeze in because of his size.
And just at an intersection, when the afro-headed teen seemed cornered, he turned on his heels.
In front of him, Nathan towered over him like a giant of legend, fist balled and prepared to mash him into paste.
Still, Michael could see bowling ball-sized eyes staring at the dangerous heat still leaking from his right hand.
Nathan reached out one massive hand to grab at Michael, and that was when the boy let loose every ounce of energy inside of him.
It was a destructive, arcing beam of heat, one which sliced over twenty feet across as it surged through metal, wood and plastic alike.
Nathan only just barely ducked underneath, his hair being singed in the process. With one sweeping motion, he then grabbed Michael in his hand, laughing loudly at the boy’s stupidity.
“You FREAKING moron! You MISSED! Now you die SLOW!”
He had no time to squeeze as Michael grinned confidently.
“Think again, friend.”
He waved in mock goodbye with his free hand, and it was then the Nathan could hear the sound of sliding metal and cracking plastic alike.
He had only a moment to look back, and see the surgical laser marks cutting the supports of the storage aisles all around him, before it all came crashing down.
The avalanche descended, and it took four entire wooden boxes to slam into Nathan’s forehead before he went down. Free from his grip, Michael ran for cover as Nathan’s huge body hit the ground with a loud thud, and veritable tons of boxed up records, instruments, and a great many other things fell upon him.
When the dust finally cleared, he was only partially buried. Michael kept his distance, but he could hear his breathing and see the huge welt now on his forehead.
Turning off Canned Heat, the afro-headed teen sighed in relief.
Ahead, he could see Calvin making his way towards them.
That was beyond close for comfort.
Rob’s worst fears had now come true. Zero Beat was looking for him. And by association, they were probably looking for Kim, Aeris and Calvin too.
Michael mused over it all as he looked upon Nathan’s breathing but clearly beaten form.
He could only hope that whatever was coming, all of Kim’s training had prepared them for the worst.
Michael said nothing as he sat nearby, arms on his knees as Calvin looked through the contents of Nathan’s wallet.
They’d had to wait a good minute for his song effect to end and for him to shrink back down, but clearly it was worth it.
“So this is it, huh? Zero Beat finally found us. And they got the Pop 5 gunning for me. For all of us.” Michael admitted, the guilt brimming in his voice.
Calvin said nothing at first. A great many thoughts went through his head however, as he tried to find the most painless solution to what he was about to do.
“All because of disco music. They want my head, and I don’t even know who these people are.” Michael went on further, feeling the bitter pain at the pit of his stomach as he worried over Colleen, Rob, and all three of his dear friends.
Calvin finally found what he was looking for, before he addressed Michael in his most serious voice. “Calm down, Mike. We don’t know that. Let’s not go assuming the worst.”
The lie slipped through his teeth, and thankfully, Michael was far too panicked to catch it.
“We gotta call Rob. He’ll know what to do. Man, if they don’t get me, they’ll find Colleen. If anything happens to her, I swear…”
Michael seemed just about ready to cry as Calvin raised in his own voice in response.
“MICHAEL! Get it together. I need you to listen to me.”
Michael stopped, taking a breath before allowing Calvin to continue. He sucked back the slightest hint of tears in the process.
“We can’t get your uncle involved, not yet.We call him, and that paints an even bigger mark on us. Zero Beat thrives on more opposition, it’ll give them an excuse to hit harder. We need to be discrete if we’re gonna survive this.”
Michael didn’t seem to understand. “So what, we sit around and do nothing?”
“Don’t worry yourself. I got a plan. Give me your key to the Sound Loft.” Calvin demanded, much to Michael surprise.
“My key?” Michael asked, now clearly confused. “What for?”
Calvin held back any hint of hesitation in his next statement.
“I left my backup music player there. I’ll need it if worse come to worse. We only just skated by with this guy, whoever he is. The Pop 5; they’re no laughing matter.”
Michael nodded, reaching into his jean pocket and pulling out the spare key that Rob had given him some time ago.
“Yeah, but if he’s not with them, then who is he? He’s got no ID in there or anything?” Michael questioned, handing the key over.
“Nothing. I’ve got no clue, Mike.” Calvin lied, tossing the wallet aside, but keeping a purple and red keycard in his fingers.
“But he had this.” Calvin said, handing over the keycard. Michael looked at it almost quizzically before Calvin finished his thought.
“That should get you up to the penthouse suite. Go meet up with Denny, but play it cool. Maybe you can score us some intel.” He relayed, and Michael instantly understood.
“And what about you?”
Another lie slipped through, but Calvin’s voice didn’t falter. “I’ll get Kim and Aeris once I’m back at the Sound Loft. You stay with Denny till I get in touch, and we’ll rendezvous later tonight. Don’t text anybody till you hear from me, okay?”
It was at this point, just before Michael accepted the truth before him, that Calvin’s voice hiccuped.
The hint of guilt just ever so slightly oozed into his tone.
“Trust me, Michael. You think I’d lie to you?”
For a moment, Michael did actually think about his statement.
Could he really trust Calvin?
After all, once upon time he’d been impossible to reach. And then there was the fact that he’d advocated that they abandon Kim when she needed them most.
But then Michael remembered that he’d just fought alongside him. He remembered him fighting to help Kim in Astroland, and standing up for him in the lobby. It was too much for all of it to be an act.
If all that was indeed fake, then Calvin was one amazing actor.
And so, trusting and honest to a fault, Michael Kay put his faith forward.
“Alright. I’ll see you later. Thanks, Calvin.”
He put his fist up to bump him goodbye, much to Calvin’s surprise.
He almost didn’t bump back, too caught up in his own deception.
Then the blonde Music Master smiled as their knuckles touched. “For sure. Stay safe, man.”
The words struck his core, and for a moment, Calvin shivered at the icy touch of his own lie.
With that, Michael bolted for the elevator. He was only waiting for fifteen seconds before it opened.
Swiping the keycard for access to the 75th floor, the afro-headed teen got one last wave towards Calvin before the doors closed, leaving his blonde friend with only the downed Nathan to keep him company.
Once he was sure Michael was gone, Calvin picked Nathan’s wallet up from the floor and scanned the ID inside again.
Nathan Ackerman. That name sealed it.
In their band in the real world, and in their group among Music Masters, he was one of the Pop 5 through and through.
Calvin remained silent as he mulled over his thoughts.
In truth, there would be no rendezvous. He would leave Michael to his fate with Denny, as he tried to salvage this situation as best he could.
As he took out his phone and began dialing Aeris’s number, Calvin found himself silently wishing that Denny really did just want to hang out with him.
He found himself hoping that Michael could have one last glimmer of happiness before he realized the awful truth.
Anything to take away the veritable weight of guilt that now hung in his mind.
Aeris picked up within two rings, and Calvin’s voice was anything but casual.
“Hey. We’re gonna have to cancel movie plans tonight. I need you and Kim at the Sound Loft within the hour. Michael ran off, and I don’t know where he went.”
Kim’s eyes remained incredulous, and the suspicion didn’t falter in her tone.
“What do you mean he just ran off?”
Calvin, Aeris and Kim sat together in the familiar living room of Rob’s apartment.
Clearly none too happy, Kim had been ripped from her plans with Billy, while the movie Aeris had been looking forward to watching would have to wait another day.
“I mean just that. He said he had someone else he had to see, and he ran off. I’m just as confused as you guys. I thought Michael just had a date. That’s why I went with him in the first place.”
Aeris checked her phone, still having got no response from Michael. “I don’t understand. It’s been over an hour, and nothing. He never takes this long to answer.”
Kim stood up, her annoyance showing. “This is dumb. I’m not sitting around if he’s in trouble. I’ll find him.”
Calvin crossed his arms in response, but the guilt in his voice was more audible now.
“And who says you’ll find him? If he’s ignoring us, maybe we should leave him alone. Maybe he’s doing some soul-searching.”
It was at this point that Kim narrowed her eyes, and suddenly, every bad feeling she’d ever had about Calvin came back all at once.
“Wait a second. You’re the one who called us here. You said it was important, and so I canceled my plans for this. Now you suddenly want to let him go? He’s not some stray cat, he’s our friend.”
Calvin’s voice shuddered for just a brief second. “I know that. I needed everyone here. You guys needed to know in person, and then we could make a plan of action.”
He paused, and Kim struck back hard.
“I’m so beyond tired with your games. I’ll makes things easy for you, just this once. What’s really going on here?”
Calvin’s voice sounded as innocent as he could make it.
“What are you talking about? I’m just telling you what happened.”
Aeris raised a confused eyebrow. “Yeah, Kim. What’s the issue?
Kim stood up calmly, stepping close to Calvin as her voice seemed strangely serene.
“What’s the issue? Oh, I don’t know…” she said, before suddenly grabbing him by the back of the hair, causing Calvin to yelp as she pulled hard.
“…HE’S the issue!” she declared loudly, getting right up in his face as anger welled up in her voice.
“You tell us the truth. You tell us the truth now, or you’ll need one hell of a wig when I’m done with you.”
Of all people, it seemed Kim’s torture worked wonders on him.
He winced loudly as she pulled on his previous locks. Mentally, he tried to fight back, to not sing like a canary, but the pain quickly became unbearable.
Calvin spoke loudly in response, cursed words jumping off his tongue.
“Okay, okay, I give!”
He took a pained breath, and Kim kept her hold as he continued.
“He’s…He’s got the Pop 5 after him. That means Zero Beat’s getting serious. If I didn’t do something, we’d all be dead for sure.”
Kim let go, but not before pushing him back hard on the love seat in the process.
Aeris leaned forward, visible worry forming on her her face. “The Pop 5? You mean that new band everybody’s been talking about…you’re saying they’re Music Masters too? Why would they want Michael?”
Calvin was clearly done faking it now, and all his fear came out like a flood. “His disco tunes, what else? It’s a bad memory for Zero Beat.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, and he was sure Kim had certainly pulled some hairs out.
“But that’s barely important. What matters is that if we continue to stick by him, then they’re going to bury us too. Our best bet is just lay low and let things come to pass. Mike’s on his own now. And once the dust clears, we just hope they leave us be and move on.”
Kim’s boot slammed hard into Calvin’s knee, and he gasped in pain as Kim spoke in a tone that just barely restrained her rage.
“You prick. You literal con artist. Leave Michael to die? That’s your Nobel Prize-winning solution?” Kim spouted, not holding back for a second.
“No way. Not happening. Not while I’m still breathing.”
In this moment, she wanted so badly to beat him within an inch of his life.
Kim held herself back though, having learned that words might be a far more effective weapon tonight.
“You know, I was just beginning to think you might have an ounce of decency inside of you, and you pull this. But then you have the audacity to sit all safe in a chair belonging to the guy’s uncle, and sell him out, just like that?”
Her rant was just as vicious as Calvin had expected. What amazed him more though, was that he still remained conscious.
Not really knowing how to react herself, Aeris just uncharacteristically laughed.
“This can’t be true.”
She became serious within the next moment.
“Calvin; please tell me this is some elaborate joke. After all we’ve been through together, please tell me you wouldn’t just betray Michael like that.”
It was at this point that Calvin finally realized he was cornered.
And just looking at Aeris’s sweet expression made him want to say anything but the truth.
Unfortunately, out came that truth, surging out like caustic acid.
“There was no other way. We fought just one of them, and the two of us barely won. Imagine the other four. Imagine all five of them!” Calvin rationalized, caught up with himself now.
Aeris just stared with disbelief as he continued, while Kim crossed her arms and shot her death glare in similar silence.
“They’re trained by Zero Beat, way out of our league, and will kill us without so much as blinking. I had to do it. It’s our best chance. I couldn’t…”
Calvin’s voice just about cracked, and with Aeris looking at him, he found himself unable to look back.
“…I couldn’t stand by and see you get hurt.”
Calvin’s words flowed out, but all hope for sympathy completely bounced off Kim. She stood up from the coffee-colored couch, somewhat satisfied now at the notion of the truth.
“I’d usually beat you so bad you’d forget your own name, but that would waste time.” she said, her voice brimming with threat.
“Do us all a favor. I don’t ever want to see your face again. Because I promise that next time I see you, you won’t see me.”
Kim turned to Aeris, who was looking down, still unable to fathom it all.
She’d trusted Calvin this whole time. Sure, he was a smart alec, he lied, and he was too confident for his own good. But underneath that all, she thought she’d seen glimmers of a good person.
For him to suddenly be a literal Judas was something else entirely.
“Hey. I know it’s all hard to swallow, but we gotta find Michael.” Kim said, tapping Aeris on the shoulder and bringing her out of her trance.
The blonde girl’s voice was low. “Yeah. We do.”
Kim gave Calvin one last glare of disappointment, before turning around and heading for the front door.
As she held it open, Aeris and him were left alone in awkward silence.
At first, her expression was soft, and Calvin thought that if anything, he could at least show some hint of remorse.
He looked to one side, the words slipping out.
“I’m sorry. I really am.” he apologized.
Unfortunately, he didn’t notice her contracted fist, and the growing heat that was the anger coursing through her very being.
She mouthed her words through a shaky tone of voice.
“No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for ever believing anything that’s come out of your mouth, Calvin.”
Having expected violence from Kim this whole time, Calvin was totally and completely unprepared.
With sudden speed, Aeris’s fist zoomed forward. It crashed hard into Calvin’s nose, drawing blood before sending his mind into a pitch black oblivion.
So hard did she hit him, in fact, that the entire loveseat flipped onto its back in process.
It all came too fast for him to realize, and Calvin’s last thought was of Aeris’s words, and the end of any hopes of winning her heart, before he was out cold.
At the door, Kim smiled in approval as she waited for Aeris to join her.
“You okay now?” she asked, clearly concerned for Aeris but beyond happy to see Calvin get some form of comeuppance.
Aeris shook her head. “Not even close. But I’ll be better when I’m sure Michael’s okay.”
Kim was quick to agree.
“5 Records it is then. Let’s go see if the Pop 5 are all they’re cracked up to be.”
A long elevator ride meant that Michael had all the time in the world to think.
For once though, he really didn’t want such a luxury. It only reminded him of the cavalcade of events that had just transpired.
Despite Calvin’s reassurance, Michael couldn’t shake off the shadow of the Pop 5.
He couldn’t shake off the worst feeling that he was now involved in something that eclipsed their original confrontation with Helia and Renaldo. Something that might even eclipse what had happened with Nami and her sunglasses-wearing brother.
And then came the subject of Denny herself.
Michael didn’t immediately knock when he made it the entrance into their penthouse suite.
Instead, his mind wandered as he took in the view. The elevator foyer alone was gigantic; decorated with nice plants, paintings along the wall, and an overall resplendent, royal colour scheme.
Everything smelled like money, and the whole place must have been worth an astronomical fortune.
Soon enough though, Michael quickly realized his distraction, and his inability to do the one thing Calvin had asked of him.
Right now, it didn’t matter if Denny was part of the Pop 5 or just associated with Zero Beat.
It was hard, but Michael had to stay cool.
Taking a deep breath, and shaking away his intense worry, he finally knocked.
It took only three seconds before the door swung open, and Denny looked back at him with wide, turquoise eyes.
Her face lit up, cheeks aglow and smiling wide as all of her pent up excitement burst forth.
“You made it! Oh my God, you made it!” she said with glee, and Michael just gave his best grin in response.
“You know it. Had a little adventure getting up here, but it’s all good. What’s new with you?”
Without so much as asking, Denny suddenly grabbed him by the hand. She pulled him inside, laughing loudly as the warmth of love took over her body.
With Michael here, and everyone else nowhere to be found, her day was made.
“With me? Everything’s new with me. Especially now that you’re finally here. Oh, just you wait and see.” she teased.
She couldn’t hide her excitement, not even from Michael.
He chuckled, though even he couldn’t deny just how nice her hand felt on his.
So far so good, he thought.
Up above, too small for him or Denny to ever notice, a tiny electronic device watched them with uncaring eyes.
Connected to a closed circuit system, it led all the way down to a private office, in the Zero Beat Symphon far below the depths of the storage area where Michael and Calvin had faced Nathan only some time before.
Watching the afro-headed Michael Kay walk into the Pop 5’s humble abode, with a very ecstatic Denny at his side, the Fourth Beat was none too surprised at the sudden turn of events.
Knowing that his death would simply be a trivial matter now, he watched with curiosity, as his crow squawked in anticipation.
Under his good grace, Denny might have this moment, for now.
And so would Michael, as it would be worth the wait.
After all, there would be nothing sweeter than ripping the springtime of his youth, along with the still-beating heart, right from his chest.