As ridiculous as it was, Michael swiveled to one side as he dodged the first jab of Valero’s finger.
Then another, and then two more. The speed was dizzying, enough so that Michael was too distracted by it to realize the lack of inherent threat.
And when he finally did, his relief was quickly canceled out by the hard knee to his stomach that had him reeling but a moment later.
Michael willed himself to get back up and fight, only to feel a pat on his back and a slight whisper in his ear.
“Good show, boy, good show. But don’t bow out me just yet.”
Satisfied for the moment, Valero turned his attention back up, just in time to see Denny making a mad dash right for him.
“Get away from him, you creep!”
Michael sucked in a breath, but Denny was past him before he could so much as look up.
When he finally did, he got only a fleeting glimpse of her exchange with Valero.
She threw a punch, aiming for his face, only for the pirate to easily catch her hand in his.
Then with a haughty laugh, he twirled her around as they moved together in sudden synchronization.
“So impatient, and so sloppy. Is this the best that the Pop 5 has to offer?”
Valero didn’t bother to wait for her answer.
With quick and concise sleight of hand, he twirled her away, sending Denny spinning out of control before he turned his attention back to Michael.
Valero simply beckoned him with a single finger, mouth in a v-shape as he snickered with glee.
“What the heck, man?” You said you’d help us out!” Michael exclaimed, only for Valero to laugh right back.
“Yes, yes. All in good time, Michael! I simply can’t help you if I don’t know you.”
His feet shuffled, movements of mathematic clarity and perfection as a hand went on his hip and another pointed straight at Michael.
“And what better way to get to know someone than to dance with them?”
Michael’s eyebrows went up, as he was reminded of the soreness in his face and now in his stomach.
If this was Valero’s idea of dancing, then it was much more painful than Michael had ever imagined.
Michael didn’t bother with another response. He charged, limboing the moment he saw Valero’s fist coming for his face.
His limbs popped and locked, and soon he had gyrated just behind Valero in what seemed like the perfect move.
Perfect, only for a backhand slap to hit Michael out of his motion and send him careening to the ground with an audible clap.
Michael’s head spun once again, and the floor suddenly felt far more comfortable than it should of.
He looked up, just in time to catch Denny attacking Valero again.
She launched punch after punch and kick after kick, determination written all over her eyes, but it was like watching a snail futilely boxing against a leopard.
With one hand behind his back, Valero blocked and parried each attack, eventually growing bored after a mere ten seconds and sending Denny flying back with a sharp kick to the stomach.
She fell among racks of old costumes and clothes, flailing as they practically buried her.
“Not good, not good at all.” Valero said, looking down at Michael as he walked by him. “You’ll never survive the twins at this rate, if you can barely get through me.”
Michael’s breath slowed, and he focused on the situation before him.
Valero was fast, that much was true.
Faster than Nami by a long shot, and clearly skilled in unarmed fighting.
But he was just close enough to Michael, to the point where maybe even he might not be able to dodge what was coming next.
“Come, my boy. Get up. Pretend I’m Craven if you have to.”
Michael looked past him, watching Denny emerge from the mess of clothes, frustration now in her eyes and headphones now in her ears.
They exchanged but a silent glance as Michael’s body shifted into high gear.
He wouldn’t even let Valero get in another breath.
Michael’s limbs flared out, and he quickly transitioned into a windmill, fully intent on knocking Valero off his feet like he’d done to Nami Nagataki months before.
What he didn’t count on, however, was for Valero to call his gamble, and then do a standing jump that carried him clean over Michael’s head to safety.
By the time Michael lost his momentum, Valero had already grabbed him by the ankle and had him trapped in an uncomfortable, upside down stance.
“Good effort. Ingenious, even. If only I hadn’t trained with the greatest break-dancer in the world. You become far too predictable, in the end.”
Michael could move no further. His distraction, at the very least, might prove fruitful.
Behind him and Valero, music blared as Denny Harmonized with her song effect, and her voice called out in challenge to the Music Master holding Michael hostage.
“Oh yeah? Let’s see you predict this!”
Vocal hiccups and electric keys bled into the air. It was yet another piece of popular music familiar to Valero’s ears.
He kept his grip on Michael, finding himself suddenly surrounded by new opponents.
Given life by her music and now flanking Denny were gray-skinned, denim-wearing delinquents armed with wrenches, spray cans, and other kinds of ramshackle weapons.
There were six of them in total, and they gritted their teeth and narrowed their eyes at Valero in particular.
With a satisfied breath, Denny looked to either side. It felt good to have backup.
A moment later, she struck a pose and pointed at the target of her song effect.
“Hooooooooooooo!” she yelled in triumph, as her minions charged and hollered with her.
But Valero was anything but afraid.
He simply grinned at the sight of the oncoming mob.
“Quite the rowdy audience. I’ll need understudies, I think.”
With uncharacteristic strength, he swung Michael by the ankle and sent him flying into the forefront of the men who intended to beat him.
They only just barely caught the boy, delayed for but a few moments.
Time which, to Valero, was far more than he needed.
His finger went up to the nape of his neck, clicking down on an innocuous band of bronze metal. In less than a two seconds, it expanded and transformed into a set of ornate, bronze-gilded headphones which fit snugly over Valero’s ears.
They were recognizable to Michael Kay in a single instant, but the song that soon played through them was anything but.
The ground shook, and out of some human sense of fear, Denny’s mob of delinquents stopped in place.
Metaphysical, glowing cracks appeared in the marley floor below, as bony fingers of all colors of the rainbow pried their way into reality.
By the time the products of Bad’s song effect had gotten over their apprehension, Valero was soon surrounded and protected by a myriad of cackling and brightly colored sugar skeletons.
They stood shorter than the average person, jittering and dancing in place as if they didn’t know the meaning of simply standing still.
Behind Denny’s mob, Michael had composed himself and channeled Canned Heat in turn.
He was hesitant to strike, however, lest he harm Denny’s Sentonals in the process.
It was another fifteen seconds of apprehension from Denny’s mob, before she shouted again and jarred them into action.
Valero just smiled and nodded, and his skeletal friends bounded forward in response.
Both forces clashed with the sound of cracking sugar and wet strikes, as boys tussled with the undead in the lower levels of the Straight Razor Cabaret.
All the while, Valero made no effort to attack Denny or Michael, instead checking his pocket watch while their respective Sentonals fought.
If there was enough space, Michael would have no doubt brought in the Big YMCA to help.
Alas, their restrained atmosphere meant he was waiting and watching on standby until the dust cleared and a victor was decided.
Sugar bones cracked, but men also yelped as Michael watched Valero’s Sentonals slowly gain the upper hand. They pummeled their delinquent opponents into the smooth floor, cackling like clowns through loose jaws and chattering teeth.
Valero simply checked his stopwatch again, and waited patiently, headphones still over his ears and pumping the power of his music into the ensuing fight.
It didn’t take a brain surgeon to realize the situation that would come after these things won their fight.
With only Canned Heat at his disposal, Michael ran scenarios through his brain, but before he knew it, he’d entered the fray.
Blasts flew left and right, melting sugar skulls and burning up denim in tandem. He kicked at any skeletons who got close, burning up the floor and fighting his way closer and closer to Valero.
He might have just made it, if not for the four skeletons that dog-piled him from behind. They held him in place with unnatural strength, as their compatriots cleaned up Denny’s mob and had her trapped in their grasp only moments later.
Like two prisoners waiting to be hanged, Valero’s Sentonals brought both Michael and Denny forth.
He took the moment to observe Michael in particular, hand on his chin as he pulled at his goatee.
“So you want to know about DanceDown?” Valero said, sighing heavily. “I’m not sure I want to tell you, in all honesty. I expected dancers, not clumsy apes.”
“Your friend was right.” Denny said to Michael, struggling against the skeletons holding her, but to no avail. “This really was a trap.”
Michael didn’t bother fighting however. Instead, he looked up at Valero and narrowed his eyes.
“Hey! You gonna diss me, then diss me to my face.”
Valero chuckled. “Of course. If that’s what you wish.
He leaned down to face Michael. Michael had to hold back the growing smile on his face.
This was exactly what he needed. After all, while the Sentonals held him down, there was but one half of him still technically free.
Valero’s lips moved as the insult flowed out.
“I bet I could find a sick orangutan whose a better danc-”
The air flared with heat as Valero’s words were cut short.
With one clean, swift movement, Michael Kay kicked upward, channeling Canned Heat into his right sneaker heel and catching the top of Valero’s headphones and the tip of his hair in the process.
He moved to pat the fire away, somewhat relieved to see it was negligible.
But that relief vanished as he listened to the sound of his headphone band crack in two, each side falling off his ears and clattering to the ground.
No music meant no skeletons. The bony fingers that had kept Michael and Denny captive vanished.
Breathing heavily, Michael found himself holding his heat-infused hand just inches from Valero’s face. The threat couldn’t be clearer.
“How’s…how’s that for some dancing?” Michael said through labored words.
For a moment, Valero seemed shocked.
But only for a moment.
His lips shifted, and he laughed loudly before clapping in appreciation.
“Marvelous! Simply marvelous! Now you may color me impressed.”
“You sure? We don’t have to fight another ninety-six guys before you’ll let us through?” Denny asked quite matter-a-factly.
“No, that’s quite enough.” Valero answered, bowing with sudden appreciation. “But I imagine our fight will be the least of your worries.”
“Nevertheless, it’s settled. I’ll take the two of you to the DownLow.” Valero said, pulling out a pair of black earbuds from his pocket and placing them in his ears.
“DownLow?” Michael asked. “Where’s that?”
He didn’t get an answer. Instead, he listened in as Day of the Dead reentered the air, and a single purple skeleton crawled up from the ground beside Valero.
With a quick motion, Valero beckoned for its hand, crushing a single sugary finger into a fine dust within his palm.
The annoyance in Denny’s voice was all too clear.
“Hey! He just asked you a question! Where is this place?”
Valero puckered his lips, and the unfurled his palm.
“We’ll be there soon. Forgive me.”
Purple, sugary dust blew out from his palm, clouding the air in front of Denny and Michael in the process.
They coughed in unison, and then their collective worlds slowed to a crawl.
It was mere seconds before Michael could feel his head grow heavy, and his eyes fail him, before his body collapsed back in a haze of sugar-induced lethargy.
Sleep rushed to overtake him, as he felt Denny fall in tandem, with her landing on his chest as she too was caught in the same sleepy spell.
She fluttered her eyes and reached for his face, only for her hand to weakly fall down as her mind drifted off.
It was all that Michael could do to get a quick glimpse up at Valero, and the parade of his skeletal Sentonals coming to carry him and Denny away, before the mask of sleep washed over him, and he could think no more.
When Michael finally came to, he found himself on a most comfortable surface, and staring at a most unlikely of sights.
Breathing softly, her jacket slightly open and her hair draped over her hip, was a sleeping Denny.
Michael sat up in an instant, taking in his surroundings as a cold sweat came over him.
He was in an unfamiliar room, with a shag rug and a teal and purple coloration to the decor and walls.
Just next to him sat an older digital clock and a lava lamp not so different from the one in his own room. Across the bed on a small corner table, his and Denny’s music players and headphones sat untouched.
Michael ran his hand through his hair.
Was this the DownLow? Were they tricked, or was Valero true to his word?
Michael’s memories failed him. It was liking trying to remember the name of an obscure song.
All he could remember was being hit by some weird dust, and then waking up here.
Looking to one side, Michael debated touching Denny and waking her up.
At least he had the comfort of knowing she was okay.
Michael’s hand reached out for her in the same moment that her eyes cracked open and looked up at him.
He froze. Whatever Denny thought he was about to do, there were few ways for him to explain otherwise.
Thankfully, she instead asked the only logical question she could think of, considering her weary eyes.
“Hmmm…is this a dream?”
Michael looked from side to side, to nervous to formulate a better answer.
A smile grew on Denny’s face. It was anything but innocent, and something Michael had seen only once before this point in time.
She’d pounced him before he could so much as say another word, and Michael didn’t bother struggling as he found himself staring right up into the turquoise of her eyes.
Held down by his arms, Michael waited without a word as Denny seemed to happily bask in their situation.
“I always like these kind of dreams. I’ve been like super stressed lately.”
Michael offered an awkward smile. What else was there to do, really?
“Really? That sucks.”
Denny giggled. “Shut up, Michael. I’m driving tonight.”
She leaned down, and locked lips with him in an effort to truly keep him quiet.
Michael’s body just about froze, as his mouth was once again invaded and he guessed that the rest of him might soon follow.
But Denny would have no further time, as the door to their room was thrown open in the next moment.
Standing in the doorway, hands at her hips and that familiar gap in her teeth, was Nami Nagataki.
“Hey! You two better wake up or I wil-”
She topped mid-sentence, eyes widening at the sight of the two teenagers making out in front of her.
Denny pulled away from Michael, shooting a look of pure annoyance as her tone of voice oozed the same.
“Hey! Go find your own dream! This one’s mine!”
Michael’s eyebrow raised, and his heart quickened in his chest at the sight of the girl he’d first fought in Semi-Sound all those months ago.
“Denny.” he said with an audible gulp. “This isn’t a dream.”
At that single declaration, Denny turned back to him. It was now that the magnitude of their faces being only inches apart, with Denny just about straddling him, became fully apparent.
She came off him like lightning, her face as red as a beet as Nami laughed out loud like a child.
“Ha! I knew it! I knew you were his girlfriend! You cannot fool me!”
With Nami in sight, Michael was up off the bed and on his feet in a second.
He eyed his music player in the corner, but quickly realized he probably wouldn’t reach it before Nami could act.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, hands at his side. “You think you’re getting Rob? Oh man, do you have another thing coming!”
Nami snorted. “Relax, Afro-kun. I’m not here to fight. Not yet.”
She put her palm out in the most friendly gesture she could muster.
“I am with DanceDown. And now, you are with DanceDown. I came to tell you both that they are waiting for you down the hall.”
Michael narrowed his eyes. He was anything but convinced.
Nami being here meant bad news. It meant her brother was almost certainly in tow.
And together, the two of them were a potentially lethal combination.
“Waiting? Waiting for what?” Michael asked.
It was as if Nami had been waiting a hundred years to be asked that simple question. She grinned through her teeth.
Truthfully, their rematch could wait. If she could mess around with him for now, at least.
“To how you say…get down. No one gets in for free. Why do you think they are called DanceDown?”