As if thrown down by an angered god, lighting flashed brightly within the recesses of the abandoned 32nd Street station tunnel.
A female scream, one that might have never been uttered out of Kim’s mouth otherwise, signified her acknowledgement to the sudden and intense pain.
Her eyes swung open, blinking for a few brief moments before catching the sight of Aeris leaning over her.
“What the hell? Did you seriously just defibrillate me?”
Aeris nodded, but was quick to get back on her feet as she answered Kim. “You can be pissed about it later. Right now, we got this harpy to deal with.”
Already angered over the stains that practically destroyed her clothes, Lily’s answer was sharp and abrasive as she manifested and launched another deadly pair of dice forward.
“Harpy? Oh, you’ll be wishing I was just that!”
Kim rolled to one side, ignoring the jolting pain that had still yet to subside. A few feet away, another shimmering explosion burned into the tunnel wall, but luckily Kim’s reflexes kept her unscathed.
Frustration grew in Lily’s voice, even as Aeris charged forth, her fingers crackling with blue lightning. “Look, I only want disco boy’s location! Give that to me, and perhaps I’ll think about letting you two go free!”
“Yeah, yeah, over my dead body.” Kim declared, manifesting Desolation Row as she pulled herself up from the murky, disgusting ground.
Amid the darkness, their only light source remained to be the bright glow of their various song effects; silver-shocking blue, pink-red death, and angry, eldritch purple.
“That can be arranged.” Lily shot back, before unleashing two pairs of dice from either hand towards Kim and Aeris simultaneously.
Aeris ducked, and tumbled off her feet in the process. Thankfully, both dice flew overhead, landing on the ground only to blow up within the next two seconds.
This was enough for Kim. As the dice approached her, she gritted her teeth, hoping her gamble might actually pay off.
With a hard swing of one of her darkforce claws, she sent the pair of song-borne cubes right back at Lily.
The girl seemed shocked for a brief moment, before her expression shifted to sly look as she quickly and easily caught the dice between her fingers.
“Oh dear.” she said, smiling to herself. “Boom.”
The dice exploded in a brilliant display, seemingly bathing Lily in a shroud of pink, glittering fire.
A few seconds later, and the energy dissipated. Besides the state of her clothes, Lily remained no worse for the wear.
She smirked at such a feeble attempt to outsmart her. “Sorry, but I’m very thorough with my song effects. It’ll hurt you, but it won’t hurt me.”
She began to laugh, and finally, her distraction cost her. Aeris’s black-gloved hand grabbed onto her forearm, and the blonde Music Master tensed her body as she let the lighting flow out.
The voltage followed, though it was far from any deadly level of intensity.
Amazingly though, Lily only winced as she kept standing, as if the lighting had seemingly no effect. Aeris narrowed her eyes, and just pushed out even more.
Seconds passed, and Lily shuddered, but didn’t collapse. Instead, she finally willed out a sharp-heeled kick right for Aeris’s face. Blood was drawn as Aeris fell back down, splashing the side of her head in a dirty pool.
Lily wiped away a dribble of saliva from the corner of her mouth, taking her other heel off the rail that had taken the brunt of Aeris’s lighting current this whole time.
“Helia told me about your little trick.” she remarked, pointing to a familiar pair of white, orb-shaped headphones. “These are Z-phones. Custom made, and in particular, totally conductive. Sorry to disappoint.”
Even as Kim reached to wrench her headphones off, Lily was surprisingly quick in her reaction.
She grabbed both of Kim’s wrists, and with strength that seemed to betray her thin frame, she held the girl back just enough.
With another sharp-heeled kick, Lily had Kim in pain and down on one knee. Between the shock of being awakened so violently and the pain throbbing all over from various blows, Kim’s strength, even with Desolation Row, was faded.
And for Lily, that was just enough for her to hold the girl back as she belted out her song-changing statement.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret. I don’t even need to fast forward or rewind. One sentence, and I get the songs I want automatically. One hundred-percent voice-activated. These things are expensive for a reason.”
Kim pushed back with fury, but Lily held her back just enough. The claws remained inches from her shoulders.
“What’s your big plan? Talk me to death!?” Kim growled, itching to shut her up.
Lily laughed. “As if! Turns out I’ve just always been better than the both of you. I was born this way, baby.”
With a series of pink, neon lights, her headphones reacted to the words, shifting through a large music library before finding the song of choice.
It played automatically in the next second, allowing Lily to Harmonize as the club beat hit the air with zero abandon.
When she finally had the song effect upon her, Lily suddenly just let go of her attempt to hold Kim back.
Seeing red through purple irises, Kim finally had the opportunity to slash downwards, waiting to see blood violently drawn from the exposed skin of Lily’s shoulder.
Instead, there was a loud chink as Kim felt pain surge back through her energy claws. Confused, she slashed again, but the spike of pain caused her to reel, and Lily remained untouched.
Under the influence of Born This Way, in both places where Kim had attempted to cut, Lily’s skin had now taken on an alabaster hue. It was as if she slowly turned into living stone, her expression calm as she allowed the protective covering to make its way across her body.
“What…what the hell?” Kim said, slashing at Lily’s face in unrestrained anger. Two chinks, but no damage whatsoever.
Lily just looked back at snidely. “My turn.”
Rarely did Lily have to be this physical in a fight, but she knew enough to know how to hit someone.
The right hook slammed into Kim’s cheek, and pain coursed through Kim’s jaw as she was sent flying back from the force.
Lily just clenched her marble fist, smirking to herself at her own overwhelming power.
Her expression didn’t change even as lighting attempted to force its painful voltage into her stomach. Lily just looked down, her skin shifting to a yellow-rubbery substance, which deflected the silvery-blue bolts harmlessly. Aeris forced all her will into piercing the surface, but it was to no avail.
Lily approached her with grace, before kicking her in the face yet again, and then painfully slamming her heel down on one of Aeris’s fingers.
It wasn’t enough to break it, but Aeris still screamed.
The sound of her pain echoed throughout the tunnel, and unbeknownst to all three Music Masters, it echoed through a microphone that was hidden within the confines of Lily’s custom-made headphones.
Further within, hidden among the shock-absorbent plating, a tiny camera watched the beaten form of Aeris.
From his private office beneath 5 Records, he could see her sprawled across the tunnel ground. Cuts on her elbows, her blazer dirtied and somewhat torn, and her hair a veritable mess.
He could see the exquisite pain on her face, and hear it through her strained voice.
On his desk his crow, fondly named Scourge, pecked at his ring-encrusted fingers for attention. Shooing him away, the Fourth Beat found himself distracted for the first time in a long time.
He had long since looked away from the screen that overlooked the living room of the 5 Penthouse, and thus didn’t notice as Paul returned early from their survey of Ripsaw’s recent demise.
The Fourth Beat found himself suddenly licking his lips at the mere sight of Aeris.
He could see innocence, purity, and a strength of will just begging to be broken. It was something that Denny lacked, much to his disappointment.
Watching through his long, black hair, he felt oddly comfortable.
Aeris, he remembered, from Helia and Renaldo’s extensive report on their last encounter with her and Kim.
The Fourth Beat just about shuddered in his seat from anticipation.
What a beautiful name.
In his own form of silent betrayal to Calvin, one thought surged through Michael’s mind as he waited for Denny to come out of the bathroom.
Some time ago, his phone had vibrated in his pocket.
Having been with Denny this whole time, and remembering Calvin’s specific instructions not to text anyone, Michael let it be.
But caught alone for this brief moment, Michael found himself wanting to at least check.
After all, it could actually be important, he thought.
Pulling out his phone, Michael’s eyes instantly spotted a message from Aeris. And when he swiped up, all he could see was the following.
– Hey Michael. you okay? Lmk –
Michael raised a curious eyebrow, but true to his word to Calvin, he didn’t reply.
This was strange. He’d expected Calvin to have told them both the situation by now.
And judging from when this message was received, to when he’d last seen his blonde friend, the timelines just didn’t add up.
But Michael had no further time to think over it, as he heard the sound of approaching steps. At first, his mind assumed it was just from Denny coming out of the bathroom.
Shock wrapped around his face, as it was the door into her room that was slowly opened, and an unknown voice began to speak.
“Denny.” the speaker said, his voice low and lacking any confidence. “So sorry about last week. I was…I was going to wish you happy birthday.”
Michael stood frozen as the speaker entered. He looked about the same age, dressed in a nice, green-hued ensemble and possessing a strong Liverpool accent. He was nervously stroking his red-orange goatee as he entered, stopping the instant he saw the sight of Michael and his huge black afro.
Silence permeated between the two of them, but it didn’t last long. The suspicion grew quickly in Paul Mercury’s eyes.
“Wait, it’s not what it looks like! She…she invited me!” Michael pleaded, but Paul ignored the boy’s words as he clicked in his Z-phones as quick as he could.
“Save it. Not takin’ the chance with you. Be taking you across it all.” Paul declared, in his best and most threatening serious voice. The voice-activated song switching responded almost instantly.
To Michael, that was hardly a threat.
The music that began to rise in volume in the air was another story, however.
With picture-perfect timing, Denny finally opened her door, peeking out to see what the commotion and the new tune in her ears was all about.
Her expression dropped from happiness to fear as she realized Paul was in her room, and that his eyes were squarely on Michael.
The jig was up.
But even as Across The Universe manifested beside Paul, Denny still found herself practically screaming in protest.
“Paul! This is MY room! You can’t just come in here without asking!”
Next to Paul, a Sentonal in his splitting image finally came into being. It was very much of photographic copy of him, but instead of skin, hair and clothes, its entire body was as black as space, and dotted with starry vistas and galaxies alike.
Michael tried to move, but with a wave of Paul’s hand, he found himself stuck.
He was caught like a mime inside a shimmering, transparent blue box that now served as a temporary prison. As Michael struggled, all he could see was Paul and his Sentonal move in unison as Paul argued with Denny.
“Are you serious right now? Don’t tell me you’ve been harboring this guy the ‘hole time. I keep quiet for you, and you do this behind my back?”
Denny just glared back, and her words were equally nasty. “Stop acting like an annoying brother. I got this under control. I…I was going to give him to Zero Beat soon.”
Michael’s eyes just about popped out of his head in response, and he slammed a hand against the blue prison.
“…what? Are you freaking kidding me?!”
Denny winked at him, trying to be reassuring, but Paul was no moron.
“I can see that!” he shouted, putting himself out of breath in the process.
Denny balled her fists, getting right up in Paul’s face. He was taken aback, and his Sentonal mimicked him perfectly.
“Oh, take a hint, will you? He’s my…my…”
Denny struggled with the next few words, but Paul was already back on her.
“Your what? Out with it!”
Michael gulped in his trapped state. He silently wished that this all didn’t turn out to be a huge mistake.
“…my friend! And it’s staying that way! No way am I giving him to Zero Beat just like that! So whatcha going to do, Paul? You gonna fight me for him?”
Her threat seemed big, but even she knew better. She’d seen Across The Universe before. The Sentonal could only move if Paul could, but she still wasn’t sure what the limit to its powers was.
It could teleport things and trap people from anywhere. That was all she’d seen, but it was more than enough.
With just a wave his hand, Denny would find herself in a similar situation to Michael. Then all it would take was to wait for Lily, Nathan and Ollie to return, and they’d both be screwed.
Paul kept his eyes on Michael, but didn’t move to stop Denny.
“No. I ain’t gonna fight you. I’d never. But do you really think I’m just gonna keep quiet about this?” he asked, his voice much calmer now.
He scanned Michael from top to bottom, from his huge black afro to his hot rod red shoes. Slowly but surely, he was beginning to understand why Denny was keeping him around. And the thought alone was enough to infuriate him.
Denny clasped her hands together, pleading as her previous aggressiveness all but disappeared. “Please, please, Paul. Please do this for me. I promise I’ll never ask you for something this big ever again.”
Paul mulled over the thought, but only for a brief moment.
He waved his hand, and his Sentonal followed. In the next instant, Michael dropped from his scrunched position, now free from the space-time prison.
Denny smiled. “Thank you, Paul.”
Her only friend in the Pop 5 just shook his head. He cursed himself for being so easily caught by her girlish charm.
“I hope you know what you’re doing. You’re lucky that I’m the one who got sent back, and ran into the two of you.”
He addressed Michael now.
“You best be going, disco boy. The rest of the Pop 5 will be coming back soon. You don’t want to be here when Ollie shows up.”
Michael nodded. “Thank you. I’m totally in your debt, Paul. The name’s Michael, by the way.”
Paul remained serious. “I hope we won’t be seeing each other again, Michael. For your sake.”
With that, he gave Denny one last glance, before turning tail and leaving her room, shutting the door closed behind him.
If only she knew what had happened to the last incarnation of the Pop 5 that had chosen to directly disobey Zero Beat. Paul kept that to himself of course, lest he completely terrify her with the awful truth.
Inside her room, Denny sighed in massive relief, as Michael stretched his limbs from being held up so tight.
“Wow, that was close. But it sounds like you know that your name’s going around…”
Her voice trailed off with uncertainty, and she couldn’t help but think that she may have screwed up by not originally telling the truth about herself to Michael.
Thankfully, Michael just laughed in an effort to ease her tension. “It’s no big, I’m kind of used to it by now.
Michael looked back at her, and he wondered at this own patience with this whole situation. Checking his phone quickly, his eyes widened as he realized how late it was getting, along with Paul’s choice words.
“I think I’m gonna split, Denny.” Michael said, clearly not as comfortable as he was before.
She blinked, realizing the worry present in his voice. “I hope you’re not scared over Paul or anything. He’s good at keeping quiet. He does it all the time.”
Michael scratched the back of his head, unsure of what to say.
More than anything, he needed to get back to Aeris. He’d gotten enough intel to satisfy Calvin for hours, at this point. Of course, the thought of the rest of the Pop 5 showing up and killing him definitely made him not want to overstay his welcome.
“I believe you. No worries, Denny.” he assured, grabbing the doorknob as he prepared to exit.
Denny finally understood that he was about to leave, and in the moment, she grabbed his hand. Her voice perfectly emulated just how much she didn’t want to let go.
“When can I see you again?”
The light in her voice so bright. Michael wanted to do anything but disappoint.
“Uh…I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.” he told her, trying his best to sound positive.
Fortunately, Denny seemed happy enough with Paul not ousting him to push any further. She nodded.
“Okay. You have my number, and you know where to find me.”
Michael Kay grinned back at her.
Luck seemed to be on his side today. On top of that, he found Denny’s company to be something else.
Her boundless energy had finally infected him fully. He might be worried about the Pop 5 and his fellow Audio Knights, but he had a funny feeling he’d be seeing her again soon.
Michael’s Kay’s voice brimmed with the usual, memorable assurance.
“Catch you on the flipside, Denny.”
Where in the very same moment Michael felt a mix of happiness and worry, Kim could only feel crushing pain.
She breathed heavily, kneeling as a small bruise had formed where Lily had hit her jaw. Every breath, in and out, jostled with pain.
A few feet away, Aeris found herself in a similar situation. Lily had let up, if only for a moment, and Aeris was forced to painfully twitch her finger to make sure it wasn’t broken.
It hurt horribly in the process. If it wasn’t hairline fracture, it was definitely a bad sprain.
Shaking, Aeris tried to pick herself up, but she found the wind knocked out of her as Lily kicked her hard in the stomach. Before she knew it, Lily had her heel pressing her back down onto the floor, stifling her breathing in the process.
“Tell me where your friend is. Tell me now!” Lily demanded.
She was only so used to fighting for so long. Her patience was wearing thin.
“Ha!” Kim exclaimed, though unable to will her battered body to charge at Lily as she wanted. “You’re an idiot if you think either of us are gonna rat on Michael. You’re wasting your time.”
Lily seemed to agree. “You’re right, I am.
She grabbed Aeris by the collar, even as the blonde girl struggled to break free. Putting a weak hand on Lily’s forearm, the electricity did nothing but bounce off her yellowish, rubbery skin.
Another painful right hook, and Aeris’s lip was cut.
“Then you tell me, Kim. You tell me, or I will beat her face uglier than it already is.”
Kim narrowed her eyes. The girl might be bluffing, but she wasn’t going to wait for another punch to find out.
Kim pushed herself up, despite the pain, when something interrupted Lily’s train of thought.
She stopped herself, still holding Aeris but now focused on her headphones. Even with their hearing as Music Masters, it wasn’t a song, so Aeris could only hear hints of the faint, silky voice coming through on the other line.
Lily’s expression changed from smirking confidence to clear confusion within seconds.
“What do you mean just leave them? This has to be a joke.”
The voice said something further, but Aeris couldn’t make it out. She imagined it was a threat though, by just how quickly Lily’s indignant tone disappeared.
“No…no, I understand. I’ll be back upstairs in ten minutes.”
The voice was gone, and Lily looked down at Aeris in disbelief.
Then her grip slackened, and she dropped her by the collar. Lily shot a glare at Kim, clearly none too happy.
“Talk about getting off easy. Zero Beat’s saving you two for another day, I guess.”
She said nothing further, instead going into a headlong run in the opposite direction.
At the very apex, she jumped, and her body suddenly seemed lighter than air. Thin, delicate wings sprouted from either side, and her skin took on a vibrant blue hue.
Zooming with quick bursts in this new, flight-capable adaptation, Lily was soon far away down the tunnel.
Once they were sure she was gone, both Kim and Aeris could finally count their stars.
Aeris left her hurt hand on one side, pulling out her phone now that she had a free moment. Checking it quickly, she finally saw a response from Michael.
Aeris spoke through a pained voice. “The Sound Loft. Once I heal us up, Mike says to meet him at the Sound Loft.”
Kim stayed silent, only nodding in acknowledgment as Aeris switched to the familiar sound of Heart of Gold.
Kim was far from being patched up, but suddenly, the pain wasn’t so bad.
Just knowing Michael was okay was far better than any medicine anyone could ever give her.
Cold had finally descended upon New York City, and Michael could feel it in the air.
His afro swayed in the windy breeze, and it served as a perfect standby for a warm winter hat.
Michael had a good five minutes to think to himself as he waited for the bus back to Washington Heights. Even on such a cold night, Midtown remained busy and bustling with life.
He thought over everything that had happened in the past few months.
Meeting Kim, Aeris and Calvin. Finding Rob back in his life again, and saving him from the clutches of Japanese bounty hunters. Fighting for their lives against the crazed Ayla Syntara and now, meeting someone new in Denny.
But with such a meeting came unforeseen complications.
He now found himself entangled within the web of the Pop 5, who under the orders of Zero Beat, wanted him nothing less than dead.
He gulped at the thought as the the bus doors opened, stepping up the aisle as quick as he could. The driver was silent, as a few others, among them a tall, foreboding boy wearing a backwards cap, followed.
Michael found a seat towards the middle of the bus, his eyes drifting out the window as he went over everything in his head.
He’d talk to Calvin when he was back at the Sound Loft. To all three of them. Once they were all clear on the full situation, and how harmless Denny was, maybe Michael could convince them to call Rob to sort things out.
The afro-headed teen hoped there was some sort of bloodless solution to all this. He found himself not just wanting to just cut Denny off, even though though that was probably what Calvin would insist upon.
He knew it would be a tough line of discussion. For now, he was content waiting for the bus as he listened to Michael Jackson’s voice in his ears. Denny had certainly put him in the mood for it, that much was for sure.
Caught in his own little world, Michael didn’t notice the pair of dark eyes watching him from the back of the bus.
The stranger sat forward, a blank, serious look on his face, hands clasped together. He wore a backwards cap, nice sneakers, and a large, dark gold hoodie.
He was patient. The bus would thin out, and if he had to, he’d follow Michael somewhere nondescript.
Failure for him was never an option.
Since his induction into the Pop 5, and as their self-appointed leader, Ollie had yet to fail.
And no matter what happened with this afro-headed problem up ahead, that wasn’t about change.