Valero couldn’t remember the last time nerves had gripped him like they did now.
Perhaps in hindsight it was a mixture of things: the new hopefuls waiting in the guest room, Nami’s surprising show of skill, Reign’s promise of their grand plan, and the fact that their very existence as an Ensemble had only become relevant in the last month.
Nicodemus Craven was dead, to both Music Masters and the world at large.
The time to make the world recognize DanceDown again was nigh. Without Craven’s insanity leading New York Zero Beat, there was a chance that they might even be able to make it through everything without a fight.
But this was just one of many issues.
And one of those very same issues waited for Valero just up ahead. With as much confidence as he could gather, Valero knocked on the pristine alabaster door and abated his breath.
It was no more than precisely three seconds before the door was answered, and opened to reveal a face Valero had seen countless times now.
Dressed like an aristocrat, clad in baby-blue vestments with silver-blonde hair, was none other than Lucas Neilcroft.
“Valero.” he said, with only the slightest bit of surprise in his articulate tone. “So nice to see you.”
He opened the door further, revealing the gargantuan abode inside. Valero nodded as he stepped forth and admired his surroundings like he’d done many times before.
At Lucas’s personal request, this living space had been completely remodeled to better fit the mold of their original home in Germany. It was a marvel of interior design within the DownLow, containing a huge foyer with white marble steps, a private ballroom, and decorations that would make any crown prince jealous.
Of course, it was all possible because the Neilcrofts had enough money to their name to fill a landfill. In truth, there would be no DownLow if it wasn’t for them.
“Where’s Lisa?” Valero said, looking around but seeing no sign of the demure beauty that was Lucas Neilcroft’s twin sister.
“She’s freshening up. You know how much she despises looking ruffled. With the new arrivals and all.”
“I understand they got a hit on you.” Lucas said, pointing out the small mark on Valero’s forehead; a slightly bruised burn that was proof of Michael’s earlier gambit.
“Michael, yes.” Valero admitted with a chuckle. “He has potential. The kind of potential we’d only seen once before.”
“Please, Valero. If I hear one more time that this boy is the reincarnation of Highlord Funk, I swea-”
Valero laughed out loud. Loud enough that the acoustics of the foyer caught his laugh and echoed it far away and down the adjoining hall.
“I always found that to be one of Reign’s more amusing ideas. He’ll always be my best mate, but even I can see how he reaches sometimes.”
“Right.” Lucas said, fixing one of his cuffs out of habit. “Either way, we’ll see how much potential he has soon enough. Him, and the Pop 5 girl.”
“It’s some wonder she’s even here in the first place.” Lucas added, as Valero simply chuckled in response.
“They’re not mannequins, Lucas. They have names: Michael and Denny.”
Lucas narrowed his eyes. A hint of impatience leaked into his tone.
“And do those names dance for them? Do they perform a two-step in their stead? I think not. I have no interest in who they are: only what they can do. When they impress me, then perhaps I will bother to acknowledge them.”
“And yet you coddle over Nami like you’ve just adopted her from Japan.”
Lucas’s face flushed at the sound of that, as he thrust his arms down with sudden, unbridled energy.
“Because she proved herself, Valero! She did what was asked of her, and excelled on top of that! She did what all of us at DanceDown have done, and for that, she has earned my respect!”
Lucas sighed, realizing how much he had raised his voice as he put a hand to his forehead.
“I’m sorry, my friend. I know you mean well. I just wonder sometimes if you’re taking all this seriously. We all know you’re talented; skilled in ways I can’t comprehend. Reign believes in you for a reason. But still you get far too attached.”
Lucas’s words couldn’t have come more on cue. Having heard his outburst, out of the hall emerged a sight that Valero would never get tired of.
She was dainty, smaller than her brother by mere inches despite being his twin. Her hair was draped over one shoulder, and the purity in her eyes made it seem like she’d been sculpted from the finest marble.
“Is everything alright?” Lisa asked with genuine concern. “I heard shouting.”
Lucas smiled. “Yes, dear sister. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
He eyed her from top to bottom. She wore small, custom made dancing shoes, and a long dress fashioned in blue and white with inlaid diamonds.
“Are you ready to meet our guests?” Lucas asked, as Lisa nodded obediently.
“Yes, I am now.”
Her gaze turned so slightly, and she curtsied in presence.
All this time, Valero hadn’t said a word. He’d been momentarily distracted by the vision of absolute beauty that was the woman before him.
“It’s nice to see you, Valero. You look well.”
Her voice never failed to make his heart sing. Valero smiled wide, the cloak of love having already overtaken him.
Sometimes he even forgot they weren’t behind closed doors.
So before he realized it, Valero was already overstepping his boundaries.
Taking Lisa’s hand in his, he kissed it just so slightly as his compliments gushed out in turn.
“And you are positively radiant as usual. Calypso herself would be jealous.”
He pulled away before Lucas suspected anything. Meanwhile, it was all Lisa could do to keep the burning shade of red from overtaking her expression.
Somehow though, she stayed calm, and more importantly, quiet.
“Well,” Lucas said, clearing his throat but thankfully no longer upset. “Let’s get going. I’m sure everyone’s quite anxious.”
Valero’s heart pounded in his chest, as Lucas opened the door behind him.
When Lucas looked away, he and Lisa shared a quick, secretive glance.
And though he couldn’t hear it, he was pretty sure that her heart was moving at a similar pace.
In all this time, Lucas had not the slightest clue.
And for as much as it pained Valero inside, he knew that Lisa wished more than anything to keep it that way.
But now was not the time to dwell on such things.
Instead, he smiled through his teeth as he answered his articulate ally.
“Anxious? Oh, Lucas, you have no idea.”
As Michael followed Nami towards their destination, he averted his gaze from Denny, and at the same time tried his best not to be so obvious about it.
This was now the second time they’d kissed.
The second time, and somehow, Michael still wasn’t sure how he felt about it.
Even harder to admit to himself, he wasn’t sure how he felt about her.
With time to spare as the aimlessly followed Nami, Michael rumbled through all the details in his mind.
She was nice, and she clearly cared about him a lot. Looks aside, they shared a lot of common interests, and she was the only real friend she’d had beyond his fellow Audio Knights.
All in all, she made him happy. To Michael, it didn’t need to be any more complicated than that.
And with his beloved Audio Knights now split in half lest they destroy each other, Michael sensed he might need Denny at his side more than ever.
Michael’s eyes wandered. He found himself looking at Denny, from her tap dancing shoes, past her red jacket and long golden ponytail, right up to that excited look in her eyes.
Michael’s mouth opened to say something, perhaps to reassure Denny that their awkward little moment wasn’t going to be a problem, when Nami interrupted his thought process by throwing open the doors into the main dance hall.
“We are here!” she announced with glee, revealing the scene ahead.
“I apologize if we took too long. These two were a little busy, but it is fine now.” she added, speaking to the gathering of Music Masters that waited for them ahead.
Built years ago, this massive room served as DanceDown’s staging ground of sorts, the hallmark of the DownLow; a place for them to express the purest art of dance in as comfortable an atmosphere as possible.
A mixture of different styles served to conquer this place: a massive chandelier up above, marley floor smoothed to perfection, a graffiti mural on the far wall that looked as fresh as yesterday, and even what Michael thought was a series of long metal poles in one lonely corner.
Lest his mind wander to more unscrupulous places, he focused on the largest setpieces in this place.
Situated in ascending order, perfectly balanced, were five thrones modeled off amps. To Nami, these sights were nothing new, but to Michael, it was like looking at something out of a comic book.
The lighting seemed to be set up meticulously, so that spotlights shined below but made it hard to see who was orating from their speaker thrones up above.
As he and Denny followed Nami to the center of his huge place, Michael got the impression that their audience was bigger than he thought.
As soon as Nami stopped, and Michael and Denny followed suit, colored lights clicked on above on the speaker-thrones. All were made visible under the light, save for the Music Master occupying the tallest and centermost throne.
Michael spotted Valero among their number, along with others he didn’t recognize.
There was a young man and woman who looked like they were related, and dressed in regalia more fit for a masquerade ball. All the way on one side, a woman dressed in red, with heavy eye-shadow and a saucy expression blinked through unbridled hair.
Just looking at her made Michael strangely uncomfortable, and he had to avert his gaze.
It was almost liking looking at his sister, and Michael preferred not to dwell on that fact for long.
With everyone now gathered, from the centermost tower, an authoritative voice began to speak.
“Here we are, and right on time. Welcome to the DownLow, the home of Neo-DanceDown. Valero tells me the two of you have potential.”
Denny couldn’t help but chuckle at the notion. “Well, I mean, you invited him. I just sort of tagged along.”
Lucas was quick to cut in against any sarcasm.
“Oh, believe me, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t specifically invited. Valero is…peculiar, but he does not make mistakes.”
He looked up towards Reign, then towards Valero and then back to his sister.
“For as nice as this vantage point is, I’ve always preferred the up close approach. Anyone else?”
Valero smiled wide. “Why would I ever say no? I scouted them, after all. They’re practically my children.”
Lisa was quick to nod in agreement.
“If that’s what you wish, brother.”
Like Deji before her, Lisa descended from the back set of stairs behind the amp-throne but a moment later.
Lucas and Valero followed, until all three Music Masters joined the company of Nami, Denny and Michael on the dance floor below.
Only Reign and the mysterious woman stayed content in their thrones above.
Michael cleared his throat.
He was here, and it wasn’t a trap. A good sign, to say the least.
“So it might sound dumb, but what’s this all about? Who are you guys?” Michael asked, as honestly as he could.
Valero smiled with satisfaction at such a simple question, hands behind his back.
“What do you think this is all about? Who do you think we are?”
Michael chuckled. “Well, dancing, duh. And that’s what you guys specialize in…?”
By this point, Michael was only slightly uncertain.
If anything, this Valero character actually made him a little more comfortable, as strange as he was.
Reign’s voice boomed from up above, still shrouded in mystery.
“Why not give them a little history lesson? It’s not like any of us are going anywhere.”
Valero’s grin grew wider. “History, history, history…of course!”
He tapped a finger on his chin as he spoke without restraint.
“It all started in 1974, with the man known as Highlord Funk. He was a master of both disco and martial arts, and a visionary who created an Ensemble the likes of which the world had never seen. What started as a place for disco users became a haven for those who seek to perfect the art of dance. Cabaret, ballroom dancing, salsa, break-dancing: they’re all all beautiful in their own way.”
“Dancing, you see, is the equivalent for us Music Masters who cannot play an instrument. We seek to perfect dance-fighting; an art that has existed for centuries. All of us specialize in it, but the twins here practice its original form.”
He motioned to Lucas and Lisa, as Lucas in particular took over.
“Thank you, Valero. To be frank, dancing is not some simple party trick. It’s not some attempt at wooing a lady, nor is it a buffon’s way of having a good time. In its purest form, it is the perfect fusion of man and music. And here, with DanceDown, we will teach you how to make that connection a reality. If you’re capable, and if you’re willing.”
Michael and Denny looked at each other, somewhat impressed as Nami watched wistfully.
Of course, Lucas was quick to catch their excitement.
“I would warn you though: this will be no easy task. You stand among five of the greatest dancers in the entire world. Our styles may differ, but our skill is not in question. And the same goes for our standards.”
Lucas snapped his fingers suddenly, motioning towards Nami. His sister said not a word nor made the slightest reaction, as if she nothing more than a statue by his side.
“Nami! Get them in position. We begin the first test immediately.”
Without skipping a beat, Nami shooed Michael to one side, forcing him onto white imprints of shoes that he hadn’t noticed before on the floor.
Next to him, approximately six feet away, Denny took her place as well.
“Please stay still!” she said, as electronic noises signified a mechanism working from below. “It will be bad if you don’t.”
There was a brief flash of light, and then both Michael and Denny felt a sudden tingling at their heels, as behind them two sleek speakers emerged, ready to blast music.
“So…what was that for?” Denny asked, as Lucas’s face didn’t soften for even a second.
“Just some magnets underneath the floor. They’re programmed to respond to any lack of motion for the next ten minutes.”
Michael scratched his head. “Okay cool? I don’t get it.”
It was at this point that Nami laughed. It was the moment she’d been waiting for.
“You two have to dance for ten minutes, nonstop! And if you stop…it will hurt.”
Lucas raised an eyebrow, not at all too happy with Nami’s attitude as he cleared his throat in an effort to get to stop.
“…As I was saying, yes, it will be uncomfortable. But you’ll be working with music familiar to you. Stamina is key; and if you can’t last ten minutes, how can you ever utilize dance-fighting in its purest form?”
Valero nodded in agreement. “Always pain before pleasure. That’s just life.”
Reign’s voice echoed from above, as all present looked up in unison.
“You heard our piece. It’s your choice now. Michael, Denny: you in, or you out?”
Michael looked to the girl next to him, searching for an answer in her eyes, but quickly realizing there was little he could say.
He would be lying to himself if he said he wasn’t screaming yes in his mind.
All this time, he thought his dancing was a gimmick, something to surprise his opponents and hopefully distract.
Who knew that it was an actual fighting style, some ancient and secret martial art? It was both awesome and crazy to imagine.
“Yeah. I’m totally in.” Michael answered, beyond confident in his tone.
Denny nodded quickly. “Same. If he’s good, then I’m good. We’re ready.”
“Glad to hear.” Valero replied, motioning up towards the unknown woman in her speaker-throne.
“Selena? Hit it!”
The woman didn’t answer, at least beyond pressing a button on her dashboard and causing music to blast right behind Denny and Michael in the next instant.
As Music Masters, Michael and Denny were no stranger to hearing two songs at the same time. They pumped out almost in unison, thumping , jingling disco noise and then a more techno-pop beat supported by quick, euphoric singing.
They were songs that both Michael and Denny knew, and now songs they weren’t being asked to Harmonize to, but to dance to.
At first, it appeared to be a simple task. Almost easy in fact.
Michael moved like water, the same way he’d done in his own room under a mirror-ball countless times in the past. All eyes on him, he shuffled his feet, popped his shoulders, and swung his hips to the disco beat that proved to be heaven in his ears.
Almost too distracted in his own beat, it was when he spun around that he caught sight of Denny.
In the same way she’d shown him at the 5 Penthouse, it was as if she was possessed by the spirit of Michael Jackson himself.
Her impression of his dancing style couldn’t be more perfect.
Every finger point, every time she went up on her tiptoes, every crotch-grab, and every moonwalk was absolutely on-point.
And when the five minute mark came, it was Michael who began to visibly sweat, as his limbs began to burn and the pain of lactic acid buildup became exceedingly clear.
Dancing Machine had made it seem so easy to dance forever. Unaided, Michael realized just how much of a crutch it had become.
He slowed down, only to trip himself up and he stepped for a moment on the wrong foot.
He might have stopped then and there, but as his pace slowed, he felt a sudden spike of electric pain course up his heel and past his shin.
Michael’s reaction couldn’t have been faster, once the pain became worse.
Before it might get to his groin, he was back to moving quickly. Michael closed his mouth shut, and kept his dancing pace despite the aches, lest the horrible shock return and he shriek any louder than he already did.
As K.C. sang to him, and Michael Jackson did the same to Denny, the assembled DanceDown watch with intrigue.
Lucas and Lisa were both quiet yet interested, and Valero wouldn’t stop stroking his goatee in excitement.
Nami twiddled her fingers impatiently, while the mysterious Selena and Reign said nothing further as they watched from their speaker-thrones above.
When the song looped, Michael felt that he might never live to see the end of this dance.
The words of Donna Summer echoed in his mind, as he shifted into a windmill in an effort to make this anything but his last dance.
What was only a another twenty seconds felt like an eternity, considering the throbbing pain in Michael’s limbs.
Finally, when he swung his body back up, and glanced at Denny as she was caught in a pose pointing up to the sky, the music finally stopped.
Michael’s legs just about fell apart on him. He was down on his knees before he could even take another breath, his chest heaving as every part of his body ached to some degree.
Denny was quick to come over and help him up, but Michael could barely look in her the face.
“Hey, hey, relax.” she said, in her most reassuring tone.
“You did it, Michael. We both did.”
“I wouldn’t count yourselves out of the woods yet.” Valero interjected. “But not bad. Not bad at all.”
“If I may. There is always room for improvement.” Lucas added, looking at Michael first.
“You! You have no stamina. You made it through that ten minutes like an overweight man through a marathon. Far too close for comfort.”
He then pointed straight at Denny. “And you! You have no variety, no personality. Is all you can do copy someone else? If there’s some sort of style unique to you under all that choreography, I fail to see it.”
Michael gulped, as Denny furrowed her brow in annoyance.
Thankfully, it seemed Lucas was aware of their soured moods, as he sighed in effort to control himself.
“But…I do not have the final say here. That is up to Reign.”
He looked up, addressing the leader of DanceDown in all his shadowed glory.
“What did you think? Shall we allow them forward?”
Up above, Reign stirred, but still remained mostly unseen. The sound of his breathing made it seem like he was contemplating.
It was only a few more seconds before his answer came.
“Yeah. They got it. One more test, and we can bring them in.”
Michael gasped, elated and then fearful over what might come next. He was already in pain as it was, and he doubted whatever it was would be easy.
Lucas, meanwhile, seemed more than satisfied with his answer.
“I understand. And I have just the test.”
He looked to his sister, putting his hand out which she gladly latched onto.
“Whatever it is, we’ll do it!” Denny announced, adrenaline pumping as her heart rate increased.
“Yeah…” Michael said between breaths, trying to push down his exhaustion. “I’m…I’m still pretty raring to go.”
“I very much hope so.” Lisa said, her words a surprise within this entire exchange. “I look forward to it, actually.”
Her sweet voice seemed at pure contrast at the quick and concise stance that she and her brother soon took.
They stood in each others arms, eyes serious as newfound targets presented themselves.
Music began to play from one of the speaker towers behind them, as Lucas made their intentions crystal clear.
“Your final test…is Lucas and Lisa Neilcroft!”
With peerless accuracy, Lucas twirled Lisa around, catching her with perfect timing as Michael and Denny pulled out their respective headphones.
Lucas’s eyes narrowed as the sound of his beloved music entered the air.
Few moments could compare than facing opponents in the intricate dance that was combat.
“Audio Knights, Pop 5, on the dance floor, names matter not. Prepare yourselves! You face us together, or you face annihilation!”