“…I really want to take a brief moment to express just how happy we are to have you here. I’d like to think that here at Hi-Fi Records, our talent is truly unmatched.”
The man’s voice echoed throughout the smooth, clean hallway, his energy infectious.
At this point, it didn’t seem possible for Rex to have any more of a spring in his step; he twiddled his fingers excitedly while addressing the assembled Pop 5 before him.
All but one, at least.
Among their number, their blonde-haired, Michael Jackson-loving compatriot was nowhere to be found.
Rex soon realized that with unsure candor.
“Um, is Ms. Girelli going to be joining us today?” Rex asked, fixing his glasses as Ollie took a deep breath in response.
The welling anger inside him threatened to emerge in one explosive outburst.
Perhaps in an effort to avoid such obvious discourse, Paul Mercury answered in his stead.
“We’ll catch ‘er up when we see her. Apologies.”
Rex nodded, putting on a smile again. “No harm done. Just a shame. I very much enjoy settling the new artists in.”
He beckoned the four teenagers, walking further down the hall as he began to speak with all the vibrant energy of a pastor.
“As I was saying: we’re so beyond thrilled to now have the illustrious Pop 5 as a part of the Hi-Fi family.”
He then motioned to the diamond, platinum and gold records on the wall, clearly estatic for this part.
“But you’re not the first famous names to be on Hi-Fi, and I doubt you’ll be the last. Melody-A, The Memories and Altitude Seven are just a few of the notable heavy hitters we’ve had in the past thirty years.”
But where Rex was proud, others were blatantly disrespectful.
Nathan snickered, paying attention only when it was convenient.
“Great. So not only do we get paid less, but we get to join the ranks of a bunch of dinosaurs.”
He laughed loudly, content to continue if not for Lily so quick to interject.
“Don’t mind him. He’s just mad most people forget he’s in the Pop 5 in the first place.”
She smiled mischievously through full lips. “Though with his voice, that’s probably for the better.”
Nathan squinted back at her with toxicity, before Rex cleared his throat in an effort to reign in the situation.
“Ahem, with time, I hope we can increase the modest cash advance in which we’ve provided. It all depends on record sales, of course, which I imagine will be a non-issue for all of you.”
He moved his eyes from Nathan, to Lily, to Paul, and then finally stopping at Ollie himself.
Rex had to hold back from audibly gulping.
For such a young man, Ollie’s gaze was particularly cold and even callous.
Ollie’s question was firm and right to the point.
“Any word from Rob Prototype?”
Rex shook his head. “No, not since we spoke to him a few weeks ago. So sorry to have put you up in a hotel all this time. Your studio should finally be ready within the week, living space included.”
“I see.” Ollie replied. His gaze meandered, clearly distracted as a great many things wandered through his mind.
“It is what it is. The sooner we can get to back to recording, the sooner things can go back to normal.”
Rex grinned. “That’s the spirit! I for one believe that enthusiasm can take you just about anywhere.”
“As soon as the studio’s ready, I’ll let everyone know.” Rex reiterated.
“In the meantime, please enjoy yourselves as you see fit.”
Quickly, a light bulb lit up in his mind. “I understand Daft Punk’s playing in the Garden tomorrow night. I could get the five of you tickets, if you’d like. It’s the least I can do.”
The four teenagers looked at each other, debating the idea internally before Paul chose to speak out first.
“It’s a nice offer. Give us a little time to think about it, will you?”
“Of course.” Rex said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some matters to attend to. We’ll reconvene later.”
He bowed, before leaving them alone in the hallway, with naught but diamond, gold and platinum records on the wall to keep them company.
Ollie’s expression changed in an instant. Paul became more visibly agitated, as Lily sighed and her snide smile vanished.
The time for calm appearances was over, and Nathan let loose without a care in the world.
“So where is that dunce anyway? Wasn’t she supposed to be here today?”
“I don’t know.” Ollie cut in, before Paul could come to her defense or Lily could further fan the flames. “And I don’t care.”
All he could think of was the path ahead. Hi-Fi was just a stepping stone, as Rob had told them, to eventually returning to their rightful seats within Zero Beat.
Ollie was thinking beyond petty grievances, while Nathan seemed to bask in them.
“Traitor. She’s probably off mashing faces with that disco dork. Some teammate…”
Ollie’s eyes widened, and his anger shifted towards the spiky-haired teenager in an instant.
“No more commentary. We have bigger things to worry about.”
He turned his gaze to Paul and Lily as well.
“And That goes for all of you. Right now, Denny is the least of our worries. I’ll deal with her when I see fit.”
His fist tightened at the mere utterance of her name. It took every fiber of his being to hold that anger in as he continued.
“Whatever’s happened, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re still Pop 5. And if the rest of you want that to be official again, you’ll do well to keep your eyes to the future. The bass player’s promise is priority.”
“Hey, we’re not just ignoring her, you hear? After all she’s done for us, not a chance in the world.” Paul chimed in, despite that pounding in his chest at squaring off so obviously against Ollie.
But the leader of the Pop 5 thankfully wasn’t in a fighting mood. He narrowed his eyes and relaxed his shoulders.
“We? There is no we: only you choosing to waste your time on her. I won’t stop you.”
He raised his voice again. All of his agitation and frustration was veiled in his tone in that one singular moment.
“But know this: she’s Pop 5 in name only. Just remember that.”
Denny Girelli’s chest rose and fell, as she buried her head in her arms and seemed unable to enjoy the colored decor and vibrant noise all around her.
She’d been at Dekozan, the aptly-named arcade in St. Mark’s Place, for over an hour now.
Hidden from prying eyes, her expression was sour, and boredom had long since overtaken her the moment she found out that Michael would in fact not be joining her at the arcade tonight.
This was simply one more crushing disappointment among a multitude of others; foremost among them being her standing within Pop 5.
For as air-headed as Denny often was, it all still should have been no surprise to her.
It turned out it that her betrayal did in fact come with looming consequences. Ollie never really tried to hide his seething contempt for her, despite the fact he’d yet to lay a hand on her despite everything she’d done.
Maybe it was in part because of her appeal to Rob, and maybe it was Ollie being strangely merciful, but either way, the damage was done.
She was no longer comfortable around them, and though Ollie hadn’t threatened her further, his silence was proof enough.
Whenever and wherever she could, she met up with Michael and stayed out their way, returning to their hotel only at the latest of hours and rarely spending from the cash advance Hi-Fi Records had provided them.
And when their new studio was finally furnished and done, it would make no difference to Denny.
For as much as he tried his hardest, Paul could do little to allay their discontent. She was as welcome around the Pop 5 as Michael was welcome to join Zero Beat.
Eventually, after half-heartedly drinking bubble tea and realizing she couldn’t finish it, Denny meandered on over to the familiar dance game machine that she and Michael and played on multiple times now.
These same game machines had been curiously empty all this time, but Denny paid no mind to that as she climbed up onto the dance pad and began scrolling through songs.
Her attempts to cheer herself up were meager at best.
Because without Michael, everything just felt empty and lifeless.
His golden smile, energetic voice and boundless energy were like catalysts to keep Denny up and excitable.
The more she thought about not having him around, the more helpless and drained she felt.
Her fingers scrolled through the song menu, eventually stopping for a moment on the familiar title of This Is My Happiness.
Denny’s finger hovered ever so slightly as she pondered on whether or not to play it.
Unfortunately, this moment in time reminded her of anything but happiness.
So lost in her own despair she was, that Denny almost didn’t hear the voice next to her; heavy with accent and somewhat condescending.
“Oh, very nice choice! They have less songs in this arcade, but that is a very good one.”
Denny turned slightly, observing the girl who stepped on the dance pad beside her.
She was about the same height, with long, axe-like dark blue hair and a prominent gap in her smile. There was a curious, almost devilish glint in her eye as she spoke further.
“Thank, I guess.” Denny said, looking down as she did so.
“You know, this is my favorite game. Do you want to play?”
For a moment, Denny said nothing.
She heard Nami’s words, and understood them, but they still might as well have gone through one ear and out the other.
Whoever this Asian girl was, she wasn’t Michael.
Still, any modicum of distraction was better than moping around all day. Even Denny couldn’t deny that to herself.
She nodded slightly, moving to the right to allow the girl access to the song menu.
“You choose something.” she said. “Whatever you want. I don’t care.”
Nami smiled at the opportunity, waltzing right in and inputting the secret m-formation to unlock all songs on the machine just a moment later. Lights flashed and the game spouted a loud congratulatory chant as the number of song choices on screen multiplied by four.
Nami Nagataki then cracked her fingers, scrolling through songs until she finally found her desired choice.
Finger hovering over her choice, Nami turned to Denny, smiling through the gap in her teeth.
“You are Denny, right? Of the Pop 5? I have heard of you. I beat the remix of “Live to Five” on this game so many times now.”
She narrowed her eyes, tilting her head but maintaining an upbeat tone nevertheless.
“I heard you know where I can find Afro-kun. I have unfinished business with him.”
In that single instant, Denny’s lack of energy and dour mood vanished in a whirlpool of panic.
Her tone escalated. “Michael?!? What…What do you want with him?”
She balled her fists, threat now erupting in her voice. “If you’re trying to get him, if you’re trying hurt him, I…I won’t let you!”
Nami put her hands up, smile remaining despite her tone becoming more reserved.
“Do not worry. It is not about Zero Beat. I just want to talk to him. You have relations with him, yes?”
“What’s it to you? How do you know Michael?” Denny shot right back. Her eyes showed both fear and uncertainty.
At these words, Nami pressed play on the machine, and her chosen song began to play.
Among the two Music Masters, it was simply background music to their conversation, never messing with their focus for even a moment.
Still, Denny spotted a knowing glint in Nami’s eye. She wasn’t sure if this was a song she could Harmonize with, or if it was all simply some sort of huge bluff.
“Oh! He is a friend to me. He is your friend too, yes?”
To that, Denny didn’t immediately answer. She scanned Nami up and down, from her bright green Gogo boots to her shiny white top.
She found herself focusing far too much on the physical, and before long, a pang of jealousy began brewing within her.
And she couldn’t have made it less obvious to Nami, who just smiled wider with delight.
Denny’s eyes became serious. “If you know I’m with the Pop 5, then you know who’s with me. You better tell me who you are. They won’t be as nice, I promise you.”
An empty threat, but thankfully the Japanese girl wasn’t completely sure of that.
She complied with the sly smile written on her face.
“My name is Nami. I am here on vacation from Japan. I was just hoping to see Afro-kun again, for how you say, old times.”
All this time, Nami’s chosen song was still playing.
However, Denny’s score plummeted as she stood still and the arrows kept passing by on-screen. Winning a meager game was the last thing on her mind.
Always the king of multi-tasking, Nami kept up with the arrows while they spoke, and delight ran through her body as her score showed just how easily she was winning.
“He’s got enough friends.” Denny declared, jealousy mixing in with equal parts suspicion. “You stay away from him, you hear?”
Nami laughed. As quickly as it came, Denny’s threat just as easily diminished.
“Ooooh.” the Japanese girl mused. “He cannot have more friends? Are you his…kanojo?”
Denny raised eyebrow. “His what? Speak English!”
“How you say…” Nami replied, meandering on. “…his girlfriend?”
Denny’s face flushed red in an instant. Her words were quick and cleary unprepared.
“W-What does it matter? No more questions! You leave Michael be, or else!”
With that, the blond girl stomped off the dance pad and away from Nami, her ponytail swaying angrily behind her.
Nami just stayed in position, catching the passing arrows on screen as she looked back at the departing Denny with wistful curiosity.
As per DanceDown, now was the time to keep things calm and controlled. Which meant no further questions, as it was already incredibly obvious that Denny knew Michael in some significant fashion.
More importantly, Nami now had a lead towards Michael, beyond just going out and finding him herself.
And that lead was mutually beneficial to Nami and Neo-DanceDown.
They would get Michael, safe and sound.
And Nami would get her rematch, just as she’d imagined it.
“Thanks again for coming so quick.” Michael began, content to see all of his friends before him. “Rob said he needed everyone tonight. That it was pretty important.”
By now, dark had overtaken Greenwich Village. Streetlights served as the only source of bright among the pedestrians and cars framed by a night skyline.
“You think it’s about Zero Beat?” Aeris asked, hands clasped at her lap as Calvin stood next to her.
Michael shook his head. “Nah, I don’t think so. Unless Helia and Renaldo were lying to our faces.”
“Not outside of the realm of possibility.” Kim proposed. “We’re giving out our trust way too easily.
Her eyes narrowed, as her gaze lingered on Aeris in particular. Calvin cut in but a moment later.
“Hey, stop that. Does that attitude ever take a break, seriously?”
Kim said nothing further.
She instead turned to Michael, wind blowing her hair as the four Audio Knights waited by the street corner some ten odd blocks from their destination.
“No time for arguing. Let’s not be late.” Michael exclaimed, leading the way as his friends followed him while he navigated via his phone’s GPS.
Rob’s location was Synthosphere; an old dance club Michael remembered him talking about from years ago.
It ended up being relatively easy to find, but getting inside was another matter. As teenagers, the four Audio Knights were quickly shooed away by the ominous bouncer, and despite Kim’s bravado, it was clear they weren’t getting in anytime soon.
Kim was more than willing to fight the bouncer to the ground, if not for Michael’s insistence to walk away.
More arguments ensued, forcing the afro-headed boy to step in and dissolve the fire before it could start.
It took a good five minutes, and attracted quite a bit of attention, but amazingly it worked.
But just as Michael calmed everyone down, and was preparing to call Rob, a previously unseen person stepped out from the shadows of the streetside, calling out.
“Michael, right?” she said.
He turned, acknowledging his name as he squinted to get a glimpse of her in the night.
“You’re Rob’s nephew. Been looking for you Audio Knights.”
Michael didn’t nod. He guaged her appearance; tall and slender, with wing-like hair and reddish-brown skin. She had a warm, but somewhat sly smile on her face.
His fingers moved with sudden adrenaline. Thoughts of a coming fight rushed through his mind.
“Who are you?” he said.
The woman appeared unsurprised.
“Talulah. I’m an old friend. He asked for me to fetch you and your friends.”
Talulah turned her head, pointing her thumb at the street behind her and the place it led down into.
“There’s a park we can cut through. We can meet in him at my place in fifteen.”
“And why should we trust you, exactly?” Kim accused, not taking her gaze off the woman in an instant.
Talulah laughed, putting a hand over her mouth as she tried to control herself.
She’d long since forgotten how obvious she could be about things, and the mere thought amused her.
“Well, I guess you really can’t.” she admitted. “But you want to see Rob, don’t you? I’ll bring you right to him, I promise.”
Michael looked around. He realized that the longer they took with this person, the more attention they drew to themselves.
Trap or not, he decided to put his best foot forward, nodding in acknowledgment.
“Okay. Lead the way, Talulah.”
Finally satisfied, Talulah smiled, and she turned as Michael gave each of his friends a cursory nod.
After being a Music Master for this long, he wasn’t completely stupid.
It was a silent way of telling them to stay prepared, music players out and headphones at the ready.
Trusting in Michael’s decision, Kim, Calvin and Aeris were with him.
But as they followed this mysterious newcomer, Michael himself could only hope his confidence wasn’t overblown.
Then again, he wondered if he was just overreacting.
After everything they’d been through, maybe Michael Kay finally deserved just a little bit of credit.