For more than a half-hour, Nami Nagataki made absolutely no effort to hide the expression of seething annoyance on her face.
She waited with none other than Valero within the common room of the DownLow, as the mere thought of Michael being so late only exacerbated her already sour mood.
It was bad enough that he’d managed to impress DanceDown on his first try, and with his girlfriend tagging along all the way.
Where once the center of attention was all on Nami, now Michael had come waltzing in and stolen it.
Nami narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms, her cheeks burning.
Just like he’d stolen that victory, and just like he’d stolen their chance in capturing Rob Prototype for good.
Having been busy reading the Count of Monte Christo for the third time now, Valero’s attention was finally piqued as Nami’s frustration became so painfully visible.
“Not a big fan of Michael, are we?” he asked with a knowing smile.
It was that same v-shaped smile that only seemed to infuriate Nami more.
“I do not like this.” Nami said in a huff.
“Lucas and Lisa, Reign-sama…they…they were not hard enough on him! It is not fair!”
Her voice echoed loudly in the common room, as Valero took in a calm breath and put his book down.
“Perhaps it seems that way. But I assure you there’s no great plot against you. In fact, Reign has been planning everything with Michael since long before Lucas and Lisa even found out about you in the first place.”
He moved to put a hand on Nami’s shoulder, but she flinched from his touch before he could get close. In response, Valero’s fingers froze, and he kept his distance.
“It’s interesting actually. You and Michael are intertwined, in a sense, almost as if the fates willed it to be that way. We wouldn’t know about him if not for you, and if not for him, you’d never have come to our attention. Beautiful coincidences, aren’t they?”
Nami’s squinted in disbelief, and then her ranting began.
“No, no, no! That is not good, not good at all! Afro-kun does not take credit for everything! I am here because I am the best! He…he cheated! Him and his girlfriend!”
“Please, Nami, calm down.” Valero assured, putting his hands up but keeping his voice friendly. “I assure you, there are no cheaters among us. I won’t stand for them.”
He pursed his lips, trying to appeal to her better nature. “Michael is no threat to you, to any of us. He is an ally we so dearly need, in an era where villains surround us at every turn. Please understand: you, Michael and Denny are all talented in different ways. Why else would we want all three of you?
But despite Valero’s words, Nami still turned her head, unable to hear reason.
Ever since she’d arrived at DanceDown, everyone had treated her so perfectly. They’d never spoken down to her, nor did they make her feel like some sort of loser.
Everyone except Valero.
Strange and annoying, he’d been the one to constantly remind her of her shortcomings, offering his anecdotes on how she could improve.
While Lucas and Lisa now showered her with promise, Valero was a black smudge that only made Nami remember the imperfections she tried so hard to wipe away.
“Why does he have to come with me? Do you not trust me to get the music player alone?” she asked, her voice more stable now as she posed an honest question.
“Ah, yes, well; Reign insists you go together. No one should dance alone if they don’t have to.” Valero explained.
“And to be honest, this could be good. You two need some time together, to help wash away this jealousy of yours. Think of it as a team-building exercise. Why, in due time, Michael, you and Denny could be like the Three Musketeers! You might make even Dumas himself proud!”
Nami hunkered down in her chair. The reference was completely lost on her, much to Valero’s disappointment.
“Whatever! Where is stupid Afro-kun anyway? He is so late!” she shouted, not content to control her tone for even a second.
A few feet away, the door into the common room opened, as Michael entered with wide eyes and a spring in his step.
“Hey guys. Sorry, I got a little lost. This place is huge.”
“Ah, Michael. Just in time.” Valero said, smiling at the sight of the boy and his afro. “So good to see you. How are you faring?”
Michael took a seat and flashed a grin. “Pretty good. Reign said you wanted to brief me on this whole Studio Q thing?”
He turned to look at Nami, but she didn’t even want to meet his gaze.
His stupid smile would never fail to annoy her. It only strengthened that urge to wipe it right off his face.
“Yes, indeed.” Valero began, as if narrating some grand play.
“This is to be as discreet as possible, not unlike shipmates raiding some lost treasure. The key is, fighting should be avoided at all costs. We don’t want to attract any unwanted attention from Zero Beat. Retrieve the Walkman, and do it with grace and restraint.”
Little did either Nami or Valero know of his encounter with Helia and Renaldo, and the promise to stay out of Zero Beat’s way, and in exchange, they would leave him alone.
As that very promise was thrown out the window, Michael tried instead to focus on the task at hand.
“That’s it? Just in and out?”
“Yes, Afro-kun. In and out. Is that too hard? Too much for your little brain to understand?” Nami cut in, not holding back her frustration in the slightest.
“No.” Michael replied. “It just seems…kind of easy?”
“Yes, it shouldn’t be too difficult, I think.” Valero agreed. “Only one stipulation. Reign made it clear that we can’t reveal the DownLow’s location as of yet, so I’ll be escorting you out and requesting you rendezvous with Nami at another location before the operation.”
“Escorting me?” Michael asked, somewhat confused but only for a moment. “Oh. You mean like with the sugar skeletons from before…”
Valero nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry, but it’s in everyone’s best interest.”
He turned to Nami. “Right. We should all be at an understanding now. Nami, you know where you are to meet?”
She unfurled her arms, but didn’t seem any less annoyed. “Dekozan. In your St. Marks Place. I know this by now.”
She turned to Michael, her gaze piercing. “But for you…seven o’clock sharp! Do not be late, or else!”
Michael just raised an eyebrow, confused at her anger.
He thought of saying something further, only to stop himself. She was no Kim, but it was probably smarter to keep his mouth shut, at least for now.
In the end, he was just glad enough to know that at least Nami was on his side this time.
Supposedly, Michael thought with a small gulp.
He faced Valero again, sighing in preparation for what he knew was coming.
“Okay man. I’m all good. Let’s get this part over with, so we can get this done.”
Valero smiled, his lips forming a sort of v-shape in the process. As his song effect entered the air, and one of his faithful skeletons joined their company, he never failed to be reassuring.
“Thank you, Michael. I apologize in advance for absconding you from here, but I promise you, it won’t be necessary for long.”
Valero then grabbed a spare finger of sugary bone, crushed it, and did what he’d done just the other day.
There was little time to say or do anything else, as Nami watched the cloud of crushed sugar blast into Michael’s face and send him into a daze of sleepiness.
Less than ten seconds later, and he was out like a light, as Valero summoned more skeletons to help him up and get him out of the DownLow as comfortably as possible.
“I do not understand. We are minutes from your bar, under some dumb little music store in the middle of this Village place. What is the point of the big secret?” Nami questioned.
Valero stopped, his skeletons holding Michael up as he thought on her words.
“Rob Prototype is a bit of a wild card right now. He’s an enemy we would avoid to have, as family is always a sour subject for anyone. For as nice as a kid Michael is, it’s better for us to err on the side of caution.”
Valero then raised his thick eyebrows, and said the one jab that Nami didn’t want to hear more than anything else.
“You fought the bass player, didn’t you? And lost to him, I might add. You should know this better than anyone.”
After all the excitement, all the wonder and all the awe, there was only one place Michael ended up going to after he found himself waking up in a lounge chair within the Straight Razor Cabaret.
And it was a place that came packaged with such obvious consequences.
Michael had only been gone for just a single day, but the expression on Rob’s face made it seem like he’d been gone for weeks.
Michael looked back and forth in his seated position.
The Sound Loft was exactly as he and his friends had left it; rug scorched, couches ripped, and floor cracked and bashed in various places.
With Rob right here, there was nowhere to run, and certainly nowhere to hide, perhaps in the most literal sense.
Laughing awkwardly, Michael began.
“So you’re probably wondering why the apartment’s like this. Funny story, actually…”
Michael’s tone wandered, as his energy was diminished so quickly.
Rob didn’t so much as smile. He just pulled his cap down, leaning back in the ravaged loveseat, arms crossed.
Michael looked down, hands together as gave a heavy sigh.
No use for jokes now. Just plain honesty.
“There was a fight.” he said. “Between Aeris and Kim. They tried to kill each other. I…I didn’t know what else to do. I panicked, Rob. I sent Aeris and Calvin away, and told them not to come back.
Michael flinched, but nothing came to strike at him.
Rob didn’t bark at him in anger. He seemed to have some modicum of patience, in fact, if only for now.
“Kim never got over everything, did she? Damn it…I should have tried to talk to her. This all could have been avoided.”
Michael held his breath. Somehow, Rob wasn’t as mad as he’d expected.
Of course, he hadn’t told him everything.
The true hard part approached. Michael braced himself.
“There’s something else too. I’m kind of, sort of…part of an Ensemble now?”
Michael smiled, trying to lighten the mood, but Rob’s changing expression was all too obvious.
“No, no, no…you didn’t. You couldn’t have. You should have called me. You should have called me before anything!”
Rob’s voice rose, and now, Michael couldn’t get a word in.
“This is my fault. I should have listened. Talulah was right. DanceDown really is edging back up. And Reign got you right in the palm of his hand.”
Michael put his hands up in an effort to calm his uncle down. “Rob, come on! I know what I’m doing. Haven’t I proved that by now? I don’t know what beef you got with Reign, but he trusts me. And honestly man, I trust him. This is the only way I can take my dancing to the next level, with masters like him.”
“So what I need,” he continued, putting his head down as his voice became lower. “Is for you to let Colleen know that I got this thing. I should still be able to make it to school. I’ll talk to Kim, and let her know.”
Rob stood up. There was no mistaking that twist of his mouth, and the concern in his eyes.
“Mike, listen to me, please. You don’t know Reign. You don’t know what he’s done, what he might keep doing. You think he wears just one mask? Give me a break. He’s a regular hustler. I don’t know the rest of DanceDown, but I know him. He can’t be trusted.”
Michael furrowed his brow. Annoyance began to overtake him, and before he knew it, his own tone of voice was escalating.
“You know, you said the same thing about the Pop 5, and about Denny, and look where things are now! She’s with me now! She’s…she’s like my girlfriend or something, I don’t know. But the point is, if she can be trusted, then they can be trusted.”
Michael shook his head. “All of them, Valero, Lucas, Lisa, Selena…and Reign. Who knows when things blow over with Kim, and when I’ll be able to see Calvin and Aeris again. Right now…this is what’s best. This is what I need.”
Rob pulled his cap down. The argument was far from over.
“No, you don’t know what you need. How could you? You’re still a kid. Like the Pop 5. They’re a bunch of kids, and I’ll be damned if I don’t keep my word with them. But please, don’t make worry about you too.”
“Then don’t worry, Rob.” Michael demanded, his anger flaring. “Worry about them, not me. I can handle myself. You know that.
Rob paused. He could see Michael’s anger coming through. Being called a kid never helped, of course.
“Anyway, I…I gotta meet up with Nami.” Michael said, now with clear apprehension. “I’ll try to call Colleen later, so she doesn’t worry.”
He stopped at the door to the Sound Loft.
Part of Michael expected Rob’s hand to land on his shoulder, and his uncle to make it abundantly clear that he wasn’t going anywhere.
He could stop him if he wanted to. For a Trackmaster like him, it wouldn’t take much effort.
But low and behold, Rob didn’t lift a finger to stop him. He remained standing, disbelief in his tone as Michael’s hand went for the doorknob.
“Fine. You’ll go your own way, no matter what I say. But I will say one thing. I’m always here for you, if you need me. All you gotta do is say the word.”
Michael looked down at the doorknob.
“I know, Rob. I know.”
He turned and gave his uncle a grin. It was as genuine as Michael could muster, but behind it, even Rob could see the hints of sadness in his eyes.
After so many things hitting Michael at once, it seemed the accumulated stress of friends and relationship drama had finally gotten to him.
With that, Michael could say no more.
He turned the doorknob and left Rob alone in the Sound Loft.
“I love you, Mike.” Rob whispered, but no response followed.
Taking a deep breath, he dropped back down on the loveseat, and thought of his nephew’s words from only minutes before.
One particular name flared in his mind more than any. More than even Reign.
Selena. Or more accurately, Selena Kay.
Rob put a hand to his forehead, before taking off his baseball cap and leaning back in the ravaged chair.
For his sister to be show her face again, and in Michael’s vicinity on top of that, was something else entirely.
Rob wondered if he should have said something, if he should have told his nephew that one his fellow DanceDown was the irresponsible and flighty mother he’d never known.
Perhaps it might have changed the boy’s decision to run off with DanceDown, if only temporarily.
But then Rob’s thoughts went back to the Pop 5, and the looming shadow coming to claim them
He steeled himself to the reality before him. For all his nephew’s issues and immaturity, those things would have to wait.
Where Lex Rydell was involved, few things were more dire.
On the way to the Dekozan arcade in St. Marks Place, Michael found something even harder to do than call Colleen and let her know that he was now taking after school dance classes in the Village.
To lie to her over the phone was easy, almost to the point that it made him uncomfortable.
In the end, he knew that Rob would always back him up, even if he didn’t agree with Michael’s choices.
But to just text Kim, even with something as innocuous as to ask her how she was doing, was harder than any complicated dance step Michael had practiced up to this point.
Especially considering everything that had happened to their once united Audio Knights.
Michael stepped past the threshold into the arcade, ignoring loud people at all sides and even louder noises from the games inside.
With his heart just about up in his throat, he sent the message to Kim, and locked his phone before turning his attention to the rhythm game machines up ahead.
There, with her arms crossed and a perturbed expression on her face, waited Nami Nagataki.
Once the girl he’d so narrowly beaten in a dance-off, now an unlikely ally within DanceDown.
His phone told him it was now 6:58 PM. He’d just barely made it.
“Hey.” Michael said, as Nami turned her head to acknowledge him.
She looked up at a digital clock on the wall above, then sneered back at him.
“Eh? You were almost late!”
“Almost.” Michael replied. “But I’m not.”
“Whatever,” Nami complained. “You, follow me. Let us get to Studio Q and get this over with. And you better not mess up, or else!”
Michael nodded. There was no point in fighting her on any of this.
“Okay, Nami. I understand. After you.”
As he followed her out of the arcade, it was only in that moment of crossing the threshold to the street that he realized the strangeness of the situation.
Months ago, Nami was a sworn enemy. A member of his rogue’s gallery, she made up Nagataki X with her brother Arashi, and had come so close to capturing Rob and killing Michael himself.
And now, as a fellow member of DanceDown, the two of them embarked on Reign’s sacred quest to retrieve Highlord Funk’s Walkman.
Beyond perhaps Ollie or Nathan, she was the last person Michael expected to team up with.
As they turned a street corner and saw the club lights just up head, Michael chuckled.
It alleviated some stress, if only for now.
Truthfully, being a Music Master had turned the record of his life upside down.
Tonight though, Michael could only hope that this venture for the Walkman wasn’t about to break that same record for good.