Almost forty minutes after Michael and Nami had separately vacated the DownLow, Valero found himself in a familiar spot, though free of those awful nerves from just hours before.
He grinned, with that v-shaped twist of lips that almost made him look like some sort of strange marionette.
Hidden behind his back, Valero held his present of choice.
Taking in a breath that almost turned into a laugh, Valero knocked on the door to the Neilcroft abode with fervor.
It took more than three minutes, but the softer, dainty steps that approached told Valero exactly who it was that came to answer the door.
Lisa appeared behind the crack of the doorway, a small smile growing on her face at the mere sight of Valero.
And when she opened the door fully, he wasted no time, unveiling the bouquet of black roses from behind his back, much to her surprise.
“Hello, my sweet. Why, you’re as radiant as you were mere hours ago.”
Surprise quickly turned to elation, as Lisa took in the licorice scent of the roses as she let Valero inside.
“Oh my…these are wonderful. I did not think roses could have such an interesting aroma.” she commented, turning to speak to Valero and further express her thanks.
“Truly, Valero, you didn’t have t-”
Her words never made it out, as Valero whisked her up into an embrace. Their lips met but a moment later.
For as rambunctious as he could be, he never failed to be gentle and loving.
Valero’s v-shaped goatee tickled just under Lisa’s jawline, but her expression relaxed as she returned Valero’s kiss with all the genuine love she often kept bottled up inside.
When they broke apart, Valero gazed longingly into Lisa’s picture perfect eyes.
“I didn’t have to, yes, but has that ever stopped me before?” he responded with glee.
Lisa stayed in his warm embrace, but tilted her head as if motioning to something unseen.
“You knew my brother would be gone?”
Valero winked. “Somewhat. It was more of an educated guess.”
Smiling, Lisa leaned on his shoulder, breathing softly as she realized just how much she missed these tender moments.
“I often wish I had your fearlessness. It’s such an admirable trait.”
When they were this close, Valero was always so acutely aware of Lisa’s every physical tick. From the rhythm of her breathing, to the light thump of her heartbeat, to the slow tapping of her fingers against the bare skin of his neck.
Valero sighed lightly before replying.
And unfortunately, it was the one thing Lisa hated to hear.
“Well, it’s never too late to start. Seize the day, I say!”
Lisa pulled away. Her eyes shifted towards discomfort.
“Valero, please. You know I can’t do that.”
Valero’s wise-cracking expression dropped in an instant. He raised a hand in protest.
“And why not? Why this gigantic facade? You will be my Juliet forever, but still I tire of hiding our love.”
She did not raise her voice at him, but all of Lisa’s gentleness had vanished.
“You know why. Our family prides itself on our genetic and social purity. They claim that to pollute it is to destroy the very foundation of our skills in dance. If my brother ever found out I broke that vow with you, that I turned my back on our lineage and our craft for your love…he…he would simply be beside himself.”
Valero smirked. “Yes, beside himself, I’m sure. And my dear Lucas would get over it, and we would be free to love each other with the whole world as our audience.”
With a fanciful step, he took one of Lisa’s hands in his, twirling her around until they were facing each other once again.
“Secret romances are like knives: they dull over time. And I don’t ever want this fire between us to die, Lisa.”
She blinked, craning her neck and offering a sweet smile in return.
She pecked him on the lips. “And it won’t, Valero. I will always love you.”
But Valero didn’t move his gaze. “Then promise me, when everything is settled, that we will tell Lucas…together.”
Lisa’s expression sank, as she seemed to shiver at the mere thought.
Not answering him for a few seconds, it was almost as if Valero’s voice would echo alone within their foyer forever.
“Alright.” Lisa finally relented. “I promise. I just hope my brother values your friendship as much as you think he does.”
She let go of him, taking the quiet moment to find an empty vase nearby and fill it with Valero’s bouquet of black licorice flowers.
“He’ll understand.” Valero assured, putting his hands on Lisa’s shoulders and feeling the tension beneath.
“But whether he does or doesn’t it, I’ll love you all the same.”
Lisa smirked, before turning to kiss him once more.
Out of their field of view, just beyond the door, Selena’s ears picked up the sound of Lucas and Valero’s sweet nothings.
While Lucas remained unaware, and Reign may have simply chosen not to care, Selena was acutely aware of the situation going on between the two members of DanceDown.
It was part of the reason Lisa insisted on learning some elements of salsa dancing; yet another secret she kept away from Lucas’s prying eyes.
But whether she had the knowledge or not, there was nothing for Selena to say. She observed, sometimes listened for a few moments, and then was content to let the lovebirds be.
If anything, eavesdropping on them just reminded her of the painful reality of the present.
It had been some time since Selena remembered what that warmth of love felt like.
With Reign, things could never be so sweet.
So for the likes of Valero and Lisa, and their quaint, secret romance, Selena Kay silently wished them the best.
Truth be told, there were very few situations where Paul Mercury found himself outside of the company of his fellow Pop 5.
Feeling more like an outsider than ever, he’d waited in silence with the likes of Rob Prototype and a woman named Billy, within the confines of her small yet comfortable apartment.
But even after all of Rob’s reassurances, Paul’s mind was wracked with paranoid thoughts.
Denny was nowhere to be seen, and for almost two days, she hadn’t even come back to the hotel to check in with the rest of the Pop 5.
As far as Ollie and the others were concerned, that might have been for the better.
But all Paul could think of was how she was doing. If she was alright, and more importantly, what she did in private with the disco-using leader of the Audio Knights, Michael Kay.
The mere thought of him and his afro seemed to boil up jealousy in the pit of Paul’s stomach.
Shaking his head, he remembered where he was, and that anything was better than thinking about Michael and Denny for any amount of time.
“W-Who…who are waiting for again?” Paul asked, as Billy put a hand on his shoulder once she saw how agitated and panicked he was becoming.
Though he’d just met her, Paul didn’t bother shooing her away. When it came to his cowardice, he’d always been horrible at hiding it.
“Kim.” Rob stated. “You’ve met her before. With everything going down, I called her to help. Your friend Denny might not be an option when we need her most.”
Paul squinted his eyes, letting his mind race as he tried to pull up all and any thoughts regarding Kim.
She was the angry one. The same one who’d sucker punched Lily and would have probably beaten the rest of them into the dust given the opportunity.
Certainly not someone he’d want to pick a fight with. Paul made a mental note that much like Ollie, he would have to tread lightly.
As if right on cue, the doorknob into Billy’s place turned, and Kimberly Ramone entered.
She didn’t seem angry, but she didn’t look exactly happy either. Without even batting an eye, Kim took a seat on the empty side of the couch, right next to Paul.
Then she turned her gaze right to him.
“And what are you doing here? Pop 5 not what they’re all hyped up to be?”
Paul’s voice seized up.
Was that her idea of a joke?
Paul wouldn’t have much time to think on it, as thankfully, Rob Prototype swooped in.
“Ollie chose not to meet with me, so he’s here instead.” Rob explained. “Try to be a little accommodating, Kim.”
“Um.” Billy began, in her best attempt to quell the tension. “Why don’t I get us all some lemonade?”
She got up and headed for the kitchen, as Rob fixed his baseball cap out of habit and got started.
“Alright. My contact tells me that Lex Rydell is planning something. I don’t know what, and I don’t know when, but we know he’s got his sights on all of you. That means Denny too, once he gets wind of her going off on her own.”
Kim’s expression was only somewhat annoyed now. “This is the guy who wants to off the Pop 5, right? And you need my help to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Billy came back, this time with store bought lemonade in a few glasses.
“Rydell…I think I remember the name. His girlfriend was part of the Pop 5 in the ’90s right? But she died, I remember. Really sad thing.” Billy said, as she put down a glass for each member of their congregation.
“Regardless, he’s someone we can’t take lightly.” Rob added, his tone suddenly grave. “Think of someone who has nothing to lose, who’s already fallen off the edge, and then dial that up past eleven. That’s Lex in his current state.”
Kim leaned back, crossing her arms and eyeing Paul for a moment.
When he noticed this, he turned away.
Something about her made him strangely uncomfortable.
And there was that biting question: was she just perpetually angry?
“So why not call up Michael?” Kim asked matter-a-factly. “He’s clearly trying to reach me, asking me how I’m doing. But I’m not stupid. Wherever he’s off to with DanceDown, this has gotta be way more important.”
Rob looked to one side, as if trying to avoid the request.
“Mike is doing his own thing right now. There’s a lot of drama, and I think it’s best we leave him be. Him, and Aeris and Calvin.”
Kim snorted through her nose, clearly unhappy.
“Fine, Rob. Whatever you say.”
Meanwhile, Paul had to stop himself from breathing a collective sigh of relief.
Right now, Michael was the last person he wanted to think of, let alone see.
“So what do you want us to do about all this, Rob? Just kind of sit and wait? You sure that’s a good idea?” Paul asked, quite honestly.
“I don’t want you looking for a fight with Lex, that’s for sure. He’ll kill you before you can even get a song up, I guarantee that.” the bass player replied. “Let’s sit tight for now, and keep our heads clear. When Lex comes, the best thing we can do is be ready for him.”
Kim smirked. It was the first time Paul have ever seen her smile.
“That’s what training’s for. The amount of laziness I’ve witnessed, I’ll tell you…”
Billy took a sip from her lemonade glass, then turned to Rob, eyes wide as she suddenly remembered something.
“Oh, that reminds me! Rob, didn’t you need some new strings for you bass?”
Rob blinked beneath his cap. “Yeah, I almost forgot. I should head down to the corner store and get them.”
He was about to stand up, but Kim raised her hand to halt him.
“Hey, no worries. You sit tight, I know the place. I’ll pick them up for you.”
“In fact,” Kim continued, standing up and looking down at Paul Mercury next to her. “Why don’t you tag along? Gives us a good opportunity to finally get to know each other.”
Billy raised an eyebrow at this, but no protest followed.
“I don’t see why not. We’ll be here when you get back.”
Paul just felt his throat drop. His heart thundered in his chest as if he’d been pumped full of adrenaline.
There was a slight smile at the edge of Kim’s lips, one that betrayed whatever true intentions she had for this little tag-along.
And for Paul, those same intentions looked to be anything but good.
It was at the point where Paul Mercury was left staring at the bass strings they’d come for, and Kim didn’t make so much as a motion to retrieve them, that he knew things were about to take a turn for the worse.
Alone together in the back section of this particular music store, it was when Paul Mercury reached forward to pick up the bag of guitar strings ahead that Kim finally spoke.
“So tell me…why do you think I asked you to come with me?”
Paul’s fingers stopped in mid-air.
It was as if someone had lit up an effigy next to him.
The sheer tension that radiated from Kim was downright oppressive.
She really was always angry.
And try as he might to avoid her gaze, Paul’s body seemed to swivel beyond his control to respond.
“I…I don’t know. Is it about the rest of the Pop 5?”
Kim nodded. Then her tone became less threatening, if only by a centimeter.
“Let me be straight with you. You seem like an okay guy. I’m not going to hurt you, or any of your Pop 5 friends. That I can promise.”
Paul had to hold back the urge to sigh. “But…?”
Kim narrowed her eyes, leaning in as her lips twisted with annoyance.
“You need to get a leash on that Denny girl. All she does is enable Michael. She’s probably half the reason he ran off to DanceDown like he did. She’s a bad influence he doesn’t need.”
Paul’s voice was weak and broken, and Kim fully took advantage of that.
“No! No buts. You want my help with Lex? You do me a favor and get Denny a new obsession.” she demanded.
“The longer Michael stays with her, the worse things are going to get. Don’t you see that?”
Paul gritted his teeth. His voice exploded in the next moment, with enough volume to shock even the likes of Kim.
“I know, alright? You think it doesn’t bother me? You think this whole nonsense isn’t killing me inside? Denny…Denny made her choice, and I have to live with it. But it doesn’t make it any less painful.”
His voice was cracking now, and Kim’s frown disappeared as she listened with surprising patience.
Even she could see how much of a nerve she’d hit, even unintentionally.
Paul just tried his best to stay stable.
“It’s like that one song…the Girl Is Mine. We argue about a girl, and how much she loves us. Both guys are convinced that he’s the girl’s true one and only.”
Paul sniffled loudly. “But you know what? Turns out I was on the losing side! No, I never even had a chance in the first place! All because Michael was born with those looks! All because he happens to look like some dead, stupid idol that Denny can never get out of her head.”
“It ain’t fair. Now a days…just being around her makes me stressed.”
He stuffed his hands into his pockets, and looked away. “Ah, what the hell, you wouldn’t understand.”
Kim held her breath. With a gulp, Paul caught her expression, and he could see some genuine pity in her eyes.
Thankfully, no one else in the music store, at least in the back, seemed to notice his outburst.
“Sorry.” Paul said, standing up straight and trying to recompose. “This whole Denny thing has been eating me for awhile. I try to get over her, and I go right back where I started.”
He made a small smile, grabbing his goatee out of nerves. “You wouldn’t have any sort of advice, would you?”
Kim scoffed. “Me? Advice? You’re asking the wrong person.”
“Just get over her.” Kim then stated with total seriousness. “You’ll be better off for it. That’s the only advice I can give.”
With that, Kim reached forward and grabbed the bag of guitar strings, intentions on her face clear that their errand could now be completed.
“Let’s just hope Michael wises up eventually.” she added, making her way down towards the front of the store as Paul was left standing in curious silence.
Everything Kim said was true, of course. For as much as he didn’t want to admit it, pining after a girl like her would only further damage him in the long run.
It was times like these that Paul often wished for some sort of distraction, something to keep his mind away from thoughts of Denny and Michael, from even the likes of his fellow Pop 5 and the now looming threat of Lex Rydell.
Kim’s voice echoed through his daydream and distraction.
Paul blinked, and was brought back to reality in that instant.
Up ahead, she smiled at him, guitar strings nestled safely in her fingers.
“Enough zoning, let’s get going. Don’t want to keep Rob and Billy waiting too long.”
Paul nodded, but the longer he stared back at Kim, the more he could feel a light heat growing in his face.
When she smiled, beneath her chaotic brown bangs, dark eyeliner, and heavy green lipstick, there was something nice.
It was all Paul Mercury could do to pull his gaze away and catch up.
Maybe his imagination was playing tricks on him.
But then again, perhaps there was a possibility that this new arrangement wouldn’t be so bad after all.