Kim watched in patient silence as city lights, cars and pedestrians zoomed past on the street below.
The M6 bus lumbered towards its destination, as Kim glanced through her recent texts again and wondered at the growing concern in her mind.
It was not often that Kim was worried over something outside of her own life, but yet here she was, thinking about Aeris and about everything Michael had told her from the last three days.
It was approaching evening, and the dawning sun glinted against the bus windows as Kim looked on with glazed eyes.
She saw reflections of her life; Michael, Calvin, her brother, and even the slightest hint of Ayla Syntara’s maniacal grin.
And then there was Aeris Fairfield.
Calm, pleasant and kind; someone she’d always been able to trust.
The only other girl among their group, she was someone who Kim could confide in even during what she perceived to be her weakest moments.
Kim leaned up in her seat, resting her cheek in her palm as she continued to stare out the window.
She pursed her bright green lips. Why was she so suddenly conflicted, she thought to herself.
She should be happy that Aeris suddenly wanted nothing to do with Calvin, in hindsight.
She should be happy, but she wasn’t.
It was an unnatural response coming from Aeris, considering the amount of time she’d spent talking to Calvin and clearly enjoying his time and attention.
And if Aeris was under enough stress to break it off with Calvin just like that, Kim knew whatever it was, it was far from good.
One text to her friend is all Kim had sent, and as of this moment, that same text remained unanswered.
She pushed her phone into her pocket, annoyed and impatient at the lack of response.
It was a feeling she’d often put on others, and one she herself now finally understood.
The bus lurched to Kim’s stop, cutting off her thought process and reminding her of the whole point of today’s excursion.
But as she walked down the steps and landed onto the sidewalk, Kim couldn’t help wonder what was taking Aeris so long to respond.
She left the mental note in her mind.
If Aeris didn’t answer, then Kim would call her when the time was right.
Hopefully, her blond friend wasn’t crying out tears of heartache over Calvin or otherwise.
Because friend or not, the last thing Kim Ramone wanted to hear about was boy-related drama.
It was a concept that remained incredibly alien and aggravating to this day.
As a Music Master, Kim’s hearing would forever be extremely sensitive; able to detect minute sounds that a normal person might miss entirely.
So it was no surprise that Kim was somewhat taken aback, when she heard what sounded like heavy breathing from behind Billy’s door just a moment before she knocked.
Pondering for only a moment if she’d intruded in Billy’s privacy, Kim proceeded to knock on the door anyway.
There was shuffling and moving on the other side, and a noise which sounded like the adjustment or ruffling of clothes.
About ten seconds later, and Billy shouted back from behind the door.
“Just a minute! I’ll be right there!”
Then a familiar voice that Kim knew all too well spoke to Billy in turn.
“You’re expecting someone?”
It was Rob. His calm and composed tone was unmistakable.
Billy half-whispered in response as she audibly headed for the door.
“No, I wasn’t. I’m sorry, I’ll try to be quick.”
The door swung open, and Kim put on a smile, as Billy took a deep breath.
She recognized Kim in an instant, but all Kim could do was notice her somewhat disheveled state.
Her face was red, and her short hair more unruly than normal. The shoulder of her shirt was hanging, as if it had just been quickly thrown back on without second thought.
“Kim!” she said, sounding quite exasperated. “I didn’t know you’d be stopping by, I was just with…an old friend.”
Billy held the door open as Kim walked inside, her eyes instantly locked onto the sight of none other than Rob Prototype waiting in the living room.
His cap was off, resting on the coffee table nearby. His familiar guitar case was off his shoulder and on the floor, leaning against the couch in peace.
“Rob?” Kim said, clearly taken aback. “You two know each other?”
Rob reached for his cap, quickly pulling the brim over his eyes, which inadvertently revealed his sudden discomfort.
“I knew your brother. I was just making my rounds and checking up on Billy.” he nevertheless said, thought it was quick and to the point.
Billy walked past Kim, a reassuring look in her eyes as she attempted to diffuse any tension in the air.
“I’ll call you later?” Billy said, and Rob nodded.
“Yeah, sounds good. Thanks for the info. I’ll be seeing you.” he replied, only to stop his gait as she moved forward and gave him a light kiss on the cheek.
Even Rob wasn’t so perfectly composed to hide the light warmth in his face from Billy’s kiss.
Kim had to stop herself from speaking out loud, and seemed speechless as Rob waved at her, and then quickly made his leave from the apartment.
Nearby on the floor, Lennox purred loudly as Rob’s exit almost left a vacuum in the air.
When Kim finally turned around to face Billy, the older woman was already sitting down on the couch, an unsure smile now pasted on her face.
Kim took a seat opposite to her, still at a loss for words.
When she found said words, she made no attempt to control herself as the flow of information came out.
“So how long has that whole thing been going on?”
Billy laughed forcefully. “What do you mean?”
Kim just narrowed her eyes. “Don’t play dumb with me. I heard you two outside the door.”
Billy sighed, resigning to the truth. “Nothing gets past you, Kim. Look, I don’t know. I’ve seen Rob here and there, and he came around more recently since you and your friends had your run-in with the Pop 5.”
Kim snorted under her breath. “It’s not that I have a problem with it. I’m just sort of surprised. I didn’t think women mattered to him.”
Billy looked away. “Oh, believe me, they do. But Rob’s always really respectful and professional. I still remember the first time he came by after Seth died. I was an absolute wreck.”
She crossed her fingers in her lap, clearly uncomfortable about her next words. “I didn’t see him much after that. Then about a a few months ago, he started checking up on me.”
Billy laughed now, clearly fond of the memories she was telling. “I sort of forgot he’s ten years older than me. Maybe I was a little lonely too. But to be fair, I’m the one who kissed him about a month ago. I never thought he’d respond, but then he did. So now I guess he’s sort of seeing me, low-key.”
Billy leaned forward, suddenly serious as she remembered something important.
“Please, please, please don’t tell anyone. Rob was very clear about that.”
Kim nodded in understanding, but Billy wasn’t finished.
“Especially his nephew.”
“Yeah, okay, I get it.” Kim responded, now somewhat annoyed.
“I’m sorry.” Billy apologized. “It’s all a bit stressful, you know? But I don’t want to gush forever. What’s going on with you? You kind of caught me off guard coming today.”
Kim glanced down, remembering her phone and all the drama that seemed to be happening with Aeris.
She spoke with slow deliberation. “I’m having a problem with a friend of mine. She’s been unresponsive, and she pretty much dumped the guy she likes.”
Kim herself felt her chest tighten, as everything coming out of her mouth just seemed all the more difficult to discuss.
“I’m worried about her. I don’t really know what to do.” she admitted.
It felt like weakness, but by now, Kim knew better. Billy understood her.
Billy leaned back, thinking to herself in an attempt to give some sort of good advice.
“Oh my. Drama is never good. You haven’t talked to her at all since this happened?”
Kim pulled her phone out from her pocket, swiping it open.
She looked beyond disinterested as she replied, but it was more an attempt to mask her own worries.
“Nope. Not a word. I was hoping you’d have some sort of advice, as cheesy as that sounds.”
Kim looked up, and in Billy’s pleasing eyes, she searched for any comfort she could find.
She had yet to admit it out loud, but the longer she spent with Billy, the less she felt like Seth’s ex-girlfriend, and the more she felt like some long lost older sister.
“You’ve probably heard this a million times.” Billy began, as Kim listened with intention. “But sometimes, people just need space. If she wants to talk to you about it, then she will. The best thing you can do is just be there if she needs you.”
Kim chuckled, a clear attempt to try and make herself feel better.
“Sounds familiar.” Kim observed. “I guess truthfully, I’m more used to dealing out the silent treatment than getting it.”
Billy laughed, putting a hand on Kim’s shoulder and passing forward a pleasant smile.
Her whole apartment already had a relaxing effect on Kim as it was, but Billy’s demeanor and voice just made everything all the more comfortable.
“Hey, it’ll pass, I’m sure of it. It’s about your friend Aeris, right? Rob mentioned he was looking into her situation, just making sure she’s okay. I know it’s hard, but try not to worry yourself over it.” Billy assured.
Her assurance was worth something. Kim could depend on Billy for that.
Still, a spark snapped in Kim’s mind, as she thought over the notion of Michael’s uncle suddenly involving himself in Aeris’s affairs, whatever they were.
If it really was just teenage drama, why did he care?
For the briefest of moments, Kim thought about the fact that they were all Music Masters, and about everything they’d been through so far, and how Aeris’s situation and change in attitude could possibly have to do with that.
Then her expression broke into a more calm smile but a moment later.
Aeris? A danger?
Kim couldn’t imagine a more ridiculous and inane thought.
She was too nice for her own good. As far as Kim was concerned, the only thing dangerous about her was the fact that she seemed to turn heads where Kim didn’t.
“Okay.” Kim said, now seemingly okay. “I’ll give her some time. Thanks, Billy.”
Billy was quick to try and change the subject.
“Good. I’m starving. You want to grab a bite around the corner?”
Kim stood up, hands now in her pockets as she tried to shake a new, foreign thought from her mind. “Sure.”
She couldn’t be jealous of Aeris, could she?
It’s not like Kim actually cared about the attention of idiots like Calvin.
That comment of Billy’s came back into her thoughts; the same one about Michael being a special someone in her life.
As she and Billy left the apartment together, she had to stop herself from bursting into laughter when she thought about it one more time.
Michael as boyfriend material?
Now that was truly ridiculous.
It had taken all of Aeris Fairfield’s willpower to stave off tears for as long as humanly possible.
She stood alone, sitting in Nicodemus Craven’s office below the Symphon underneath 5 Records as she waited to be fetched like some gaudy trophy.
Her hair was now dyed permanently black at the tips and on her bangs, and her previous ensemble was replaced with a sleeker, more daring black corset, black skirt, and matching knee-high socks and boots. On her left wrist, the tattoo given to all members of Cypress glistened against her skin; a permanent fixture she would keep for the rest of her life
She’d held back on burying her head in her arms in despair, knowing fully well by now that Craven would enjoy such a sight more than anything.
Instead, she kept a tight grip on the arms of her chair, staring forward as heavy mascara hung underneath her eyes.
Her lightning bolt earrings were elsewhere in the Cypress mansion, as were her other familiar vestments.
Craven had taken those things from her like he had taken her freedom.
So long as he held the lives of her brother’s within his spindly, ghastly grasp, she would look and dress like this for as long as he demanded.
All Aeris had left of her previous things was the sacred blue music player given to her by her grandmother all those years ago.
Craven was horrible, but even he seemed to realize taking away her song effects would leave her defenseless and useless.
The door opened behind Aeris, light creeping in as the monstrous shadow of Craven himself loomed over her.
It was the one thing she’d been waiting on, and the one thing she’d hoped would never come.
Aeris said nothing as she turned to face him.
Craven’s voice was just as unholy as always.
“Come now, my sweet. It’s time.”
There was a clear sense of uncertainty among the assembled Pop 5.
They waited in silence in their war room, at the very top of 5 Records where for once, Craven was coming up to meet them, and not the other way around.
On one end, Lily and Denny sat next to each other. Though they certainly weren’t happy to be so close to one another, insults had yet to be thrown and the worst thing to come between them was a dejected glance.
Nathan tapped furiously on his phone as Paul remained quiet and composed beside him. Towards the center of the table, Ollie waited in deep, almost deadly silence.
They’d all been quiet for the last ten minutes, and it was Denny who showed the most worry in her expression as they waited for the Fourth Beat to arrive.
He’d said nothing of today’s meeting beyond it being very important news.
So because of that, Denny could only wonder at the possibility of finally being discovered; the notion that Sirenia had reneged on their agreement and ultimately sold her out to Zero Beat and the rest of the Pop 5.
After all, besides Michael Kay, the rest of the Audio Knights still lived.
From what Denny could remember, there was Calvin Altberg, who she personally captured, Kim Ramone, whom she’d heard of more than once, and the last and most unseen one, Aeris Fairfield.
Denny’s leg started to shake from sheer panic, and the rumbling sensation was enough to get Lily to finally speak.
“Can you please relax your nerves?” she insisted, only for the Denny to respond with actual honesty in her own words.
“I’m sorry, I’m just super worried. When Craven calls us all in like this, it’s almost never good.”
She directed her gaze towards Ollie as she continued. “We all saw what happened last time. What if he does that to the rest of us?”
Ollie held his hand up to interrupt her lest she continue further. “Not going to happen.”
He narrowed his eyes, quite serious in his tone now. “That will be the first and only time he gets the jump on me. I promise you that.”
Nathan looked up from his phone, laughing in spite of himself and ignoring the tension in the air. “Seriously shut up, Denny. It’s not like we don’t hear enough from you. Don’t be a dork; it’s probably nothing.”
He whispered further threat, but kept his eyes on his phone. “You better hope.”
Paul moved forward in his seat, hands clasped together. “It’s never a crime to be careful, I say.”
His expression seemed calm, but Paul hid his own worries behind that facade.
Denny being ousted meant he might be as well. He had kept that in his mind all this time.
They might have discussed things further, until the door into the war room opened, and the familiar, lanky form of Nicodemus Craven entered.
He had a large, almost sociopathic smile on his face, as he stood in the doorway in effort to obscure their assembled vision if for just a moment.
“I admire the punctuality today. It’s something to be rewarded, in fact.” he began, his voice slick and uncomfortably happy.
Craven narrowed his eyes, his gaze shifting to that of a snake’s.
“I have something to share with you all. Or more accurately, I have someone to share with you.”
Lily in particular realized exactly what was going on even as Craven stepped away, to reveal the now black clothing-clad Aeris just behind him.
Nearby, Denny could see the look of hinted horror that replaced Lily’s usual pompous expression.
Aeris was blank-faced and unresponsive, which Craven ignored as he took the pleasure in introducing her.
“You’ve all heard of Ms. Fairfield here, I presume?” Craven hissed through his teeth.
“I hope you’ll all make her very comfortable. She’ll be working with Zero Beat quite soon, and I imagine she’ll need all the help she can get.”
Craven reached for the remote on the table, long spider-like hands pressing down to activate the projector and bring a familiar screen back on the wall.
It showed an image of Calvin Altberg and Kim Ramone; different situations side by side, song effects blaring with intensity under Zero Beat’s specially developed camera lens.
“Which brings me to today’s topic.”
He clicked once, bringing up a picture of Michael and Rob to join the others, with Michael’s picture in particular having an red X crossed right through his head.
“There’s still a bit of unfinished business, and I’d like the Pop 5 to finish it.”
He laughed like a demon as the sick sentence left his lips.
“One Audio Knight down. Three more to go.”