The Jellyroll Man exchanged glances with the trio before sighing. “Look, kid, it’s like this….” He motioned for the tall boy to come closer. The boy squinted, skeptical of his request. To demonstrate that he had no ulterior motives, the gangster raised his hands where they could see them. The boy slowly approached him and leaned in close.
The gangster whispered something in the boy’s ear. Daytona watched as the boy’s expression changed from stern, to surprised in a matter of seconds. His eyes widened as he backed away from the Monarch leader.
He eyed the bloke as if trying to get a read on him. His eyes then found his friends who expressed worried looks. The boy’s face softened. Then, moments later, he closed his eyes, sighed, and with a look of reluctance, glanced over to the gang leader.
“Fine,” he said. “Grab your guys and get the hell out of here.”
The bubblegum-haired girl and the witch expressed their concerns, but the boy shook his head and looked away. He didn't seem pleased with his decision either.
The Jellyroll Man beamed. “Smart man. A smart man, indeed. I knew you’d get the picture!” He scrambled over to the weasel and wrapped his arm around his shoulder. “Yo, Phil! Take Collin and Renfrew, will ya?”
The automaton grabbed the beastkin and the red half-oni, slumping the two of them over his shoulders. With a final nod to the trio and Daytona, the Jellyroll Man and the automaton sauntered through the alleyway from whence they came.
Once the Monarchs were finally out of sight, the bubblegum-haired girl spoke first.
“Hey, are you okay?” She approached Daytona and looked her over. “They didn’t hurt you, did they?
The witch followed suit. “If you need healing, let me know.”
“Oh, no. I'm fine, thanks,” Daytona assured them, smiling nervously. “I’m just grateful someone was around to help.”
“Phew. Thank goodness.” The witch gave a warm smile, her right hand on her heart. “It’s just that when we heard someone screaming back here, we assumed the worst.”
“Oh, no, that wasn’t me. It was that weaselly lad with the moss hair.”
“Wait, seriously?!” The short girl chortled at this. “You mean that wannabe tough guy was sounding like that?! That’s rich!”
Daytona chuckled. “Yeah. Ducked his punch. My hands were on the wall over there, so I ended up shockin’ ‘im. Completely by accident.”
“Uh-huh. An ‘accident’.” The pink-haired girl grinned as she made air quotes with her fingers.
“It was! Honest!”
The girls burst out laughing. Conversing with kids her age. This was something Daytona hadn’t done since coming to Marlia City, and it felt nice.
“You guys were awesome, by the way,” Daytona admitted. “I got turned around on my way to school, then I ran into those blokes and you can probably imagine the rest.” She clapped her hands together. “Thanks so, so much for saving me!”
“Ah, it was nothing,” the bubblegum girl blushed.“You should really be thanking Willy.” She pointed to the boy in navy blue with her thumb. “He saw them chase you here.”
“Oh…” Daytona’s eyes flicked over to him. His eyes were downcast, clearly still processing everything that’d just transpired. “Well, thanks! Er…’Willy’, was it?”
“Don't mention it,” he replied, not making eye contact. “And ‘Will’ is fine.”
“Oh, okay,” Daytona nodded. Understanding that his mind was preoccupied elsewhere, she didn’t take his coldness to heart.
“Hotaru… Chiaki…” Will finally lifted his gaze from the ground and addressed his friends. “About earlier…I…” He stopped himself. His hands balled into fists and the bubblegum girl grabbed one of them with both of her hands.
“Hey, hey,” she said softly, looking him in the eye. “We all have things we don’t wanna talk about. So don’t go beating yourself up about not telling us.” She smiled. “It doesn’t have to be right this minute, but just know that you can talk to us whenever you’re ready…okay?”
The witch girl nodded silently, echoing the sentiment. The boy let those words sink in for a moment. He then exchanged glances with both of them before finally nodding. Daytona was beaming. Watching the two girls console their friend warmed her heart. She'd only recently met them, but something about them made her feel...at ease.
“Jarrod, no! Come on man, it’s over!”
“Have you learned anything the first t-t-t-t-t-t-t…time?”
“OUTTA MY WAY!! YOU'LL PAY FOR EMBARRASSING ME, SQUIRT!!!”
This tender moment was cut short by yelling from the alley. The four kids whirled around to see Jarrod, the musclehead, charging back into the alley despite his comrades' pleas, like a drop bear on steroids.
“Heh. Back for more, eh?” The bubblegum-haired girl grinned as she assumed her fighting stance. “Don’t mind if I—”
The young witch stepped in front of her.
“Huh?” She furrowed a brow. “Chiaki, what are you…?”
Chiaki raised her hands and focused her palms on the large bloke, channeling her mana. Her eyes rolled back as she uttered an incantation.
“YOU'RE GONNA GET IT!!” Jarrod boomed as he continued to charge.
The young witch then finished her chant, and the large bloke began to slow down. And then his body started to change. His hair had grayed, his skin had wrinkled and drooped, and his spine creaked as his back began to hunch over. Before their very eyes, the musclehead was now old and feeble, crawling helplessly toward them.
“Wha..what happened...to me?” Jarrod asked in a wavery voice. His labored breathing indicated that he was struggling with the action. He looked up at the young witch, pain and confusion swam in his eyes. “What...did you do?”
“It's an aging spell, sir,” Chiaki answered politely, “No need to worry, it will wear off shortly.”
Jarrod squinted at her before raising a wrinkly hand to his ear. “Wazzat ya say?”
“I said it's only…” She stopped herself and sighed. “Never mind.”
Holy shit… Daytona gaped at the sight of Jarrod. Witnessing the graphic transformation made her somewhat nauseous. “Okay, now that...is just terrifying.”
“Agreed,” Will acknowledged.
“Ditto,” Hotaru nodded “Did you really have to do him like that, Ch-Chi?”
The young witch’s head snapped in their direction. “W-Well, it’s not like I wanted to do it!” She waved her arms in protest. “If I didn’t, a certain someone would’ve just caused more unnecessary damage, so I had no choice.”
After a brief pause, her hazel eyes cast an accusatory glance at Hotaru.
“Hm?” Hotaru blinked innocently.
Suddenly, there was a familiar siren blaring in the distance. In mere seconds, one became several. The MPF was on its way.
“Shit,” Hotaru griped.
“Hm. Sounds like they’re a couple of blocks away,” Will deduced.
“Ooooh, gods!” Chiaki paced back and forth, her fingers resting on her temples. “Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no!” She was practically sputtering. “What have I done?!”
Will folded his arms. “A month’s detention on our first day.” He sounded almost impressed. “That’s gotta be some kind of record.”
“Not helping, Will!” The young witch chided her friend. She then squatted down and whimpered. “Oooh, my parents are going to kill me…”
“Yeah, screw that!” Hotaru shook her head. “We have to get outta here!”
That was Daytona’s cue. “Don't fret, youse guys,” she assured, “I got this!”
Placing her index finger and thumb into her mouth, she whistled loudly. Suddenly, a white cumulus cloud swooped in from the sky and into the back alley, floating over to Daytona.
“Max!” She joyfully hugged her fractus friend. “I need a favor from you, buddy. Think you can fly us out of here?”
In an instant, the cloud grew to the size of four people. Daytona hopped on top of him and glanced over at the others.
“Hop on!!” She reached out to them. The trio exchanged glances. With no other options available, they finally nodded. Hotaru was the first to climb, then Will, then Chiaki. Soon, they were all aboard the sentient cumulus cloud.
“Oh…” Chiaki uttered, reacting to the cloud’s softness.
“Fluffy,” Will added.
“Hey, if you had Max the whole time, why didn't you just call him when you were in trouble?” wondered Hotaru.
“Max doesn't respond well to danger,” Daytona explained. “Especially when there’s a ton of people. He’ll freak out and shoot lightning everywhere.”
“Oh, my…” The young witch gulped at this new information. “Are you sure it’s safe for a group of strangers to board him?”
Daytona chuckled. “No worries, youse guys are fine.” She then peered down at her cumulus companion and patted him. “Alright Max, we’re all set!”
Prreeeeeep! Max chirped happily as he raised himself from the back alley and soared into the sky. The higher he flew, the smaller Marlia City looked from below.
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