Michael Kay gnawed like a hamster into the nubs of his fingernails, his gaze unsure as Kim seemed particularly calm and focused.
“You sure there wasn’t anywhere else we could meet up?” he asked, swallowing his apprehension as best he could.
But having heard that tone of hers this entire time, Michael should have known her answer long before she ever said it.
“After that little run-in with Helia and Renaldo? No, there wasn’t.”
The look in her eyes were unyielding. It was immediately apparent that this was a fight Michael was certainly not going to win.
Not that he was going to try in the first place.
Instead, he attempted to relax in his seat, staring at the front door every few seconds before switching back to the view of the open kitchen with nervous intensity.
“I still think we could have just gone to Rob’s place.” Michael suggested, staring at the front door as he went on.
“Colleen doesn’t have the key there…”
Kim narrowed her eyes, before brushing away her hair out of habit. “Yeah, no thanks. I’d rather deal with her than them.”
She made zero attempt to hide the toxic venom beneath her tongue.
Michael just exhaled in agitation.
In the middle of February, Colleen’s apartment seemed to be just at the midpoint temperature-wise. Not too cold, but not warm enough.
No surprise to Michael though, considering the landlord’s shabby record of maintenance.
As if reading Michael’s mind, Kim proceeded to reiterate the very thing they’d gone over once before.
“No way am I buying this ceasefire crap. At least, I’m not buying that it’s permanent.”
“But you think they mean it for now?” Michael asked.
Kim turned away, if only slightly. “Just for now.”
She furrowed her brow, clasping her fingers together on her lap. “But you better not be getting cozy. It’s bad enough that those two think it’s high time to go on their freaking honeymoon. I don’t need you slacking on me too.”
Michael shot back in an instant. “Calvin and Aeris. They still have names, you know.”
He put a hand on his forehead, feeling a throbbing frustration already coming on. “Look, can we not do this right now? I get it. You’re mad at them. But that doesn’t mean I have to be mad at them too.”
“Sure, Afroboy. And just because you’re a chump doesn’t mean I have to be one.” Kim shot right back, finally prompting Michael into a state of true annoyance.
His own self-defense was interrupted, however, as Michael’s fear finally came to pass when he heard the sound of the front door lock click and the knob being turned shortly after.
The door opened, and in entered Colleen, carrying multiple plastic bags full of what Michael presumed were groceries.
She nearly dropped them when she spotted Michael and Kim, sitting around the living room coffee table and looking quite exasperated.
“Michael? You’re home early.”
Her eyes drifted towards the sight of Kim.
Combat boots up on the coffee table, arms crossed, brown hair a mess, and a clearly agitated expression on her face. Very far from any sort of welcoming demeanor.
“Hey Colleen! They cut you loose early today?” Michael replied, trying to sound as exuberant as possible.
Unfortunately, his sister was clearly distracted.
“No, I had the day off. Guess I forgot to tell you. So who’s this? Another…friend of yours?”
Kim looked back at her, somewhat stunned at the connotation.
Thankfully, Michael swooped in for the save before she could say anything particularly toxic.
“This is Kim. We’re just chilling. No dance club today, so…”
Kim craned her neck back, her expression remaining stone cold as she decided to give her piece anyway.
Whether she got the social cues or not, Kim didn’t care. Colleen’s look said everything.
“Before you ask, Michael’s not my type. So please, stop with the staring.”
As Colleen placed the groceries on the table, not sure of how to respond to that, Michael belted out a loud, forced laugh.
“Haha! Good one, Kim!”
He averted his eyes from his sister’s gaze. “Anyway, we should probably get going.”
Michael stood up, with Kim following soon after as the two of them made their way to the door. The boy opened the way for her, allowing Kim to stomp her way through before exchanging a few last words with his sister.
“See you around, Colleen. Text me if you need anything.”
He then gave her the most reassuring smile he could muster, before closing the door behind him and leaving Colleen alone in the apartment.
She was left looking down at the groceries on the counter, a mixture of confusion, curiosity and genuine concern all rolling through her mind.
Besides Denny, in all this time, Colleen had not met a single one of Michael’s so-called friends.
She took a deep breath. That familiar feeling of stress was coming right back.
With this Kim character, as far as first impressions went, his sister wasn’t sure if she’d experienced worse.
And if all of Michael’s friends were as similarly pleasant as Kim, then maybe she was right in worrying so much about her little brother after all.
“…You know, you’re pretty famous. So you do you prefer Home Run or…?”
The goggle-wearing, black-masked hero answered with casual candor.
“Eh, a little more like infamous. Just call me Gabe. Fulcrum beats that any day though.”
Clad in powered armor, his newfound ally, a shorter woman, chuckled.
“Maybe. It is what it is.”
The two heroes were soon interrupted, by none other than their younger, hot-headed compatriot. Fists balled up, he was far more focused on the problem currently in front of them.
“Will you two stop gushing and get with the picture? Big monster, bad odds. And all this water pressure will cut through us like butter…”
In response, the other two heroes readied their stance. The taller, mask-wearing one fixed his goggles.
“Good point. I forget not all of us can regenerate…”
The city slept as conflict approached.
In the next moment, the three heroes struck a pose, and their reptilian, three-eyed leviathan of an enemy approached without mercy.
Meanwhile, lights flashed and sound boomed as their audience just watched in awe.
Calvin and Aeris didn’t swoon with the rest however, comfortable in each other’s company as they watched the superheroes battle on-screen above.
Aeris rested her head on Calvin’s shoulder, leaning up against him, fingers drumming on his chest. Peace could not even begin to describe what it felt like being with him, without conflict or violence to jar the moment.
The only thing the situation lacked now was their familiar friends; Michael, with his unending energy, and Kim, who was still angry with Aeris beyond words.
The thought of Kim, and her choice words to Aeris at the restaurant over a month ago, lit up like a tense fire in her mind.
Happiness vanished from Aeris in but a mere moment as her mouth moved to speak.
“We’re going to have to deal with it all eventually, you know.” Aeris pointed out, as Calvin was jostled from watching the movie a moment later.
“What? You mean Kim?”
Aeris gave an exasperated sigh. “Of course. Who else? Don’t be ignorant, okay? It doesn’t suit you.”
Calvin offered a small smile. “I know, I know. I just hate seeing you stressed. After everything that happened with Craven, Kim should have understood by now.”
Aeris cuddled up closer to Calvin the seat as superheroes shouted epithets above.
“And I shouldn’t have lied.”
“You had a better reason than most. Don’t start with the whole guilt routine, because I’m not falling for it.”
He winked, showing the smallest grin now. “I already fell for you, after all.”
Aeris nudged him on the shoulder, but it earned a giggle out of her at the same time.
His arm stayed around her shoulder, and the two brought their attention back to the movie ahead.
Still, that inkling of guilt couldn’t completely leave Aeris’s mind.
For every reason she had to do what she did, Kim seemed immune to compassion.
For every bit of understanding that Michael and Calvin showed, Kim seemed to have the opposite in excess.
On the movie screen, the black-masked hero seemed to answer that gnawing question in her mind.
“With you guys here, we can do this. I know we can.”
He wasn’t actually speaking to her, but he might as well have been.
She exhaled deeply again, listening to the beating beneath Calvin’s chest and descending into that familiar feeling of peace.
Kim would calm down.
Sooner or later. She had to.
Even she couldn’t possibly be mad forever.
“We can’t just meet like normal people, can we? Always has to be some backstreet with you…”
Rob walked beside Talulah, hands in his pockets and bass guitar case on his back.
She laughed as they made their way down the sidewalk. “What can I say? I like the dark.”
She then put a finger to her lips, eyes narrowing like a serpent’s. “And from what I remember, so did you…”
Tonight, Rob wasn’t going to deal with her silky speech.
“Enough. What did you drag me out here for? I don’t appreciate my time being wasted.”
She didn’t answer, instead focused on something up ahead.
They walked only for another minute, before Talulah finally stopped in the middle of the sidewalk.
She’d met him in the middle of Greenwich Village, on the corner of a store they both knew well.
As of right now, it seemed that Talulah had led him to a place of seemingly no consequence.
They were in front of a vacant lot, guarded by blue plywood that was now covered with various posters and signs of upcoming concerts and other events. A regular sight in the neighborhood, and nothing Rob found himself ever losing sleep over.
But to Talulah, this spot seemed suddenly important.
She had her headphones out as she stared at a particularly wordy sign; advertising a dance bar a few blocks away called The Straight Razor Cabaret. It was a newer goth club that Rob had passed many times, but had never found the need to visit.
“This should do.” Talulah said, mostly to herself, as Rob remained tense but nevertheless let her continue.
He couldn’t seem to keep his composure around her. Her smiles, her walk, that wing-like hair; everything about Talulah just screamed in Rob’s mind. It brought back that flaring, white-hot anger he ‘d thought that he long since abandoned in his youth.
She cast an awful spell the longer she was around him, and to make things worse, she seemed to be enjoying it.
But Rob was no stranger to this kind of behavior. He would refuse to indulge it for as long as he could.
And so, not willing to say another word, Rob Prototype just watched as Talulah channeled her song effect and focused her gaze on the poster before her.
Her eyes shifted, becoming glazed with a purple sheen as a raspy, raucous singer belted lyrics into the air.
In response, semi-transparent, gilded hands formed just at the edge of Talulah’s, as she waved them like a fortune teller and the letters on the poster responded in kind.
Under some mystical influence, they washed back and forth, defying reality itself before swirling into a purple pool that reflected back an image Rob Prototype never expected to see again in this lifetime.
Framed within this mirror-pool, as alive as ever, was Lex Rydell. He wasn’t wearing his usual beanie; dressed in little more than a trench coat and casual clothes beneath.
He appeared to be alone, in a dimly lit room with drab gray walls. On the table in front of him was an assortment of weapons, from an old twelve-gauge shotgun to a Desert Eagle that looked as good as new.
A few more seconds passed, as Rob’s jaw nearly dropped while he watched Lex perusing through more instruments of death.
This was no memory Rob recalled. The age on Lex’s face seemed to just hammer home the reality of the image further.
Finally, Lex furrowed the mustache above his lip, staring forward with cold eyes until Talulah’s hands relaxed as the image washed away.
Then wall became as it was before, the translucent hands above hers disappeared, and her eyes returned to normal as she stopped the playing music.
Rob was on top of her in an instant.
“You playing tricks on me now? Crazy illusions? What the hell was that?!” he yelled, and yet somehow, the woman remained impeccably calm.
“What do you think it was?” she asked him.
Rob wanted to look away, but his gaze was caught.
His eyebrows narrowed under his baseball cap. “Lex. Couldn’t be anyone else.”
Talulah crossed her arms, approaching Rob and speaking as if suddenly omniscient.
“Our Audio Knights persist, it seems. And with that song, if they know me, I can see them. How do you think I tracked you down in the first place? The invite was a formality more than anything.”
Rob’s hands moved before he could stop them. They grabbed at Talulah’s collar, holding on tightly as he gritted his teeth.
“You were spying on me? If you think I’m letting you pull another fast one on me, think again.”
His grip tightened, threat written all over his face, and yet still Talulah responded calmly.
“Rob, please. If I wanted to get rid of you, you wouldn’t even know it was me. I’m trying to warn you, because you know what happens next here.”
Rob glared at her with agitation. The truth was in her eyes this time, as much as he didn’t want to admit it.
After another moment of mental debate, his grip faltered and he let her go.
“He’s supposed to be dead!” Rob shouted at her face through a strained voice.
“I was there for it!”
He shifted an accusing gaze back to Talulah. “You were too. Did you know about this? All this time?”
Her own expression never faltered. “No. And it doesn’t matter if I did, really.”
“What matters now, is those kids you saved. Craven might not have gotten to them, but if we don’t do something, Lex will.”
Rob took a deep breath. He stood up straighter now, before pulling his cap down to further cover his eyes.
“Right. But don’t think this absolves you of anything.”
Talulah didn’t reply. Rob turned around, expecting she would follow as a new destination and a new goal inlaid themselves in his mind.
“To Hi-Fi Records it is then. I’m not watching another Pop 5 die. Not again.”