Different and Cool Fantastic Tales: Old Friends, New Friends

By Reid M. Haynes

Note: Some elements of this story are influenced by Japanese Anime (characters with technicolor hair, etc)

The story so far:

8th grade student Andrew Champion knew he was in for a wild ride when he decided to befriend Tarah Reichardt, the nerdiest girl in school. But he could've never guessed how special his new friend was. Tarah is actually the gatekeeper of another world called Broodring, home of the tree of life, Yggdrasil. Now, with the help of his martial arts trainer Maru Mari, Andy explores his relationship with Tarah both in school and in the realm of the fantastic tales.

(Read the other "Different and Cool" stories for details)

It was a bright June day when Jermaine Jones reunited with his old friend Andrew Champion.

He had only been in Starlight City for less than a week, but he had already found a summer job working for a small moving company. The fourteen-year-old had always been strong for his age, and the middle-aged grease-ball running the show was short a few hands. However, that was the extent of his good luck, for the boss and he were not getting on at all. The boss hated his fashion sense, and Jermaine hated the pit-stains on his dirty t-shirt; an ultimate generation gap.

"Hey Jermaine, watch the edges!" the boss yelled, as Jermaine struggled to get an ottoman out of the moving van. "And take those damned headphones out of your ears while you're workin'!"

"C'mon, ol' man!" Jermaine shot back, trying to manuever the object between two desks. "I need my tunes, get it?"

"You NEED to get your head outta your ass!" The man's craggy face bloated up with frustration, as if every pore was leaking. "I ain't payin' ya to rock out, kid!"

The boy groaned, plucking out the ear buds while somehow maintaining hold of the ottoman. Jermaine was a young, black teen with a well maintained 'fro, a brown vest, and was way too good to take this guy's crap. He was faster than most of the fat blowhards working for the moving company, so couldn't the boss let him do things his way? After all, he was only here since his mom made him get a job, and with the hot sun beating down on him, he'd much rather be rocking out than roasting up.

"Damn!" Jermaine swore, stepping from the truck's ramp to the sidewalk. "What a drag!"

The family that hired them was moving into a mid-sized town-house somewhere in Uptown: pristine, with an old world flair to it. This part of the city was trying way too hard to be something from the Old Starlight City of yore, and as such, he found it too snobby for his tastes. He wanted to go back to Downtown, his old stomping grounds, someplace familiar and "real." He had only been gone for a few years, but already the city seemed like it had a different character to it.

Jermaine was in the process of walking up the steps to the town-house when he caught a telltale shock of green hair that brought back childhood memories like a flood of sea-water. He continued inside to take care of the ottoman, but once he had put it down, he rushed back to confirm what he had just seen. At first, he thought he had missed him, but upon a closer look, he could see his old friend through the crowd of people, perusing a hot dog stand with a look of scrutiny on his face. The guy was taller, with a more mature taste in clothes, but it was him all right.

Andrew Champion, alive and in the flesh.

Quick as a flash, Jermaine chanced a look at the mid-life grease-ball, who was busy berating the other two guys for their clumsy handling of a washing machine. Figuring he could get away with taking a quick break, he walked down the sidewalk towards the hot dog stand. Trusting that the crowds would mask his arrival, he prepared for his grand entrance, adopting a strut as if he were practicing for an R&B music video. He crafted a toothy grin on his face and ran a hand through his 'fro, making sure he was seven shades of cool for his friend's benefit.

"I'd recognize that wacked hairdo anywhere," Jermaine announced, stepping into his friend's view. "What's happenin', Andy?'"

Andy's face was as blank as an erased chalkboard, as he blinked his confusion before the other boy. But soon, his blue eyes exploded with realization, and a sunbeam smile broke out across his face. "Jermaine, it's you!" he cried, almost dropping his hot dogs as he grabbed his old friend by the shoulder.

"My man!" Jermaine gripped his shoulder in turn, flashing a cool grin. "How ya doin'?"

"Doing real good!" Andy replied, struggling to keep the laughter out of his voice. "How about you? When'd you come back to Starlight City, man?"

"My ma decided to make another go of it here," he explained, placing his hands on his hips. "Her job in Morvaria City totally bombed out, so we're going to stick it out in good ol' Starlight City!"

"That's awesome!" Andy pumped his fist. "It'll be just like old times! Geez, it's been a while."

Jermaine kept up his grin, and the hand on Andy's shoulder. They had been through a lot together, after all. Three years ago, Andy, Jermaine, Justin, and Slick were once the great foursome of Starlight City, a band of misfit kids that could handle any challenge, any adversity. He remembered when they had taken on the big kids that tried to kick them off the baseball diamond, sticking it out with nothing but guts and their bare fists.

"So you're lookin' good, Andy!" Jermaine began, letting go of him and stepping back. "What's goin' on with everyone? We're in Junior High now, so I guess you have to deal with that super badass now."

"Mr. Clark?" Andy's eyes flitted off for the moment, a grimace on his face. "Yeah, he's actually my English teacher. Still real strict."

"Damn, that sucks!" Jermaine groused, folding his arms. "I guess it's too much to hope he'd quit."

"I've kinda gotten used to him by now," Andy admitted, rolling his eyes up to the sky.

"Any members of our old goon-squad from school still hangin' around?" Jermaine asked. "Like that annoying guy Peter who kept leaving his boogers on the bottom of his desk?"

"No, I think he left last year," Andy said. "I haven't heard anyone complain about him in awhile.

"How 'bout that one pigtailed geek that came in 6th grade?" Recalling the memory, a snide smile came to Jermaine's lips. "Terrible Tarah? What a nightmare!"

At this, Andy's eyes widened. "Tarah's...still here," he muttered, almost too quiet for Jermaine to perceive.

"That's some luck you got there!" Jermaine snorted into the hot afternoon air. "I remember she came in one day with an encyclopedia of bugs or some crap, and forgot her actual homework. Doofus to the max!"

"What?" Andy frowned at this, his eyebrows narrowing.

"Yeah, it's gotta be a pain having that lame-o, around," the boy laughed, shaking his head with sympathy. "Really sorry, Andy!"

"Hey knock it off, Jermaine!" Andy suddenly snapped, a surprising amount of anger coming from him. "She's a great girl, okay?"

"Whoa, dude...!" Jermaine backed up, raising his hands in appeasement. Andy had switched gears like he was racing a stock car, and he almost felt like he was fighting with his old friend. "What's with you all of sudden?"

"Just...just don't make fun of Tarah, okay?" Andy mumbled, rubbing the back of his head in that characteristic gesture of his. "Can you do that? Just let it go?"

"How does THAT touch a nerve?" Jermaine asked, genuine curiosity in his voice as Andy's cheeks started to adopt a red flush. "What's up with you an' the nerd, huh?"

"W-Well..." The green-haired boy stammered a bit. "That is..."

When Andy filled him in, Jermaine's jaw was open wide enough to stuff two oranges in his mouth. "You're kiddin' me," he said, his eyes widening in turn. "You're DATING Tarah Reichardt? Are you crazy, man? Little Miss Science Nerd Who Can't Shut Up About Chlorophyll? How th' heck did THAT happen?"

"A lot of things happened," Andy tried to explain, putting his hand to his chin as he tried to regain his composure. "We got paired up for a project, and stuff kind of just..took off from there. She's a lot more deep than you think, Jermaine. I actually figured that out pretty quick."

"Please say she at least got a makeover." Jermaine's voice was pleading. "Please tell me she got rid of the glasses and pigtails, and she's a perfect 10 now."

"No, she's pretty much the same." Andy responded to his friend's distress with a shrug. "She's still a nature fan, too. I actually got this tofu dog for her, because she doesn't like the practices of the meat processing plants."

"She's got you picking up her veggie junk?" Jermaine said, shaking his head. "Now I know you're crazy."

"Hey, Jermaine!" The two boys turned from their conversation to find Jermaine's boss glaring at them with fists on pudgy hips. "I gave ya a moment to touch base with your school-chum. Wrap it up and get back to work."

"Shoot, outta time," Jermaine grumbled, snapping his fingers. He waved off his boss, then turned to Andy. "Gotta finish up here, Andy," he said. "You're going to see the geek, right? Hang around for a sec, and I'll go with you."

"Uh, sure," Andy answered. "The tofu dog will probably get cold, though."

"Great, let's do it." Jermaine walked back to the moving wan as Andy watched him go with a frown.

"What are you thinking?" Andy asked.

Jermaine tossed a disparaging look behind him. "Andrew Champion and Terrible Tarah, an item?" he said. "I gotta see this for myself. It's a new wonder of the world."

Tarah Reichardt's home (or as Jermaine liked to call it, the Den of Geek) was the same one-story house she had moved into about three years ago. Although a normal neighborhood hovel on the surface, Jermaine couldn't help but notice the various dweeb paraphernalia scattered throughout the living room. From old art projects consisting of plastic grasshoppers, to the terrible school photos featuring brace-filled smiles, the dwelling was dipped in dorkitude, But most of all, were the newer pictures, showing Tarah with one Andrew Champion, both smiling with a complete lack of shame.

"Andrew, you got it!" Tarah was saying to Andy, taking the (admittingly cold) tofu dog and kissing him on the cheek. "Thanks so much!"

"Uh, yeah!" Andy burbled, tossing a nervous glance to Jermaine, who was retching with the saccharine sweetness of it all. "No problem."

"I'll get something for you next time, even if you want meat," Tarah promised, nodding her head. "But who's the boy next to you?" She took a closer look at him. "Oh, it's Jermaine Jones!" Tarah's eyes lit up with recognition. "Hello!"

"Y-Yeah, what's up?" Jermaine offered a weak smile, trying not to make too much eye contact.

"You're the one who got those bites from the Soaring Blood-beetle." Tarah carried on as if she just saw him yesterday. "Did you ever get the antibiotic I told you about? That's the only way to keep from being scarred, you know." Brazenly, she lifted up his shirt looking for old wounds on his side.

"Hey, get back girl!" Jermaine squirmed away from Tarah's curious fingers. "What's wrong with you?!"

"Nope, you're good!" Tarah smiled, as if she hadn't heard him. "No scarring!"

The boy Jermaine pulled his shirt down with a harrumph, as Andy stifled a laugh. He glared at Tarah, taking in her trademark glasses and pigtails. She was maybe a little taller than she was in 6th grade, but all in all, Andy's comment hit the bullseye; she was the same, goofy Tarah. At least she got rid of those ugly ass braces, Jermaine thought to himself, his mind going back to the school photos. That clueless grin is annoying enough.

Moving back to Andy, Tarah put her hands behind her back in an innocent pose. "Do you want Jermaine to come with us to the Uptown conservatory tomorrow?" she asked. "It'd be crowded in Dad's station wagon, but we can make do."

"Uh, Jermaine and me are probably gonna do something by ourselves a little while later," Andy said, as Jermaine muttered a silent "thank you" under his breath. "Anyway, I really like it better when we do stuff alone, just the two of us."

"Yeah, I really like that too." Tarah smiled at him, moving up to him and closing her eyes. With the pigtailed girl snuggling up, Andy blushed a bit, but put a hand on her tousled head, his face morphing into a smile of true affection. Jermaine watched all of this with a twisted lip, barely managing to hide his shock as Andy and Tarah turned to him, both of them all smiles. What the heck is this? He's completely in love with the girl!

Shaking his head free of the confounding thought, Jermaine tried to change the subject. "So, Andy boy, whatcha wanna do for our reunion tour?" he asked, offering up a weak smile. "Burger joint on main street?"

"Nah, I already got a store-bought burger in the microwave," he said, grinning as an idea came to him. "Why don't we pick up where we left off last time?" His smile changed into a smirk. "Tarah doesn't train with me very often, so let's have a good ol' match, you and me! Winner buys lunch next time."

At this challenge, Jermaine's mouth formed into an identical smirk. Fighting was what they were both good at, and they used to be able to take on any foe, as well as each other. "You sure you can take the heat?" he boasted, twisting into a wide combat stance. "I've picked up the Lightning Limb style in my spare time, and I'm top o' my class. HOAAAHH!" The boy made a back-handed fist an inch before Andy's face, who to his credit didn't blink.

"Ha!" Andy guffawed, folding his arms. "Your little play-fighting is no match for the Double Helix style! HYAAAH!" The boy thrust out his own fist, with Jermaine blowing on it as if shooing a gnat.

Tarah laughed. "Andrew sure is different when he's with old friends!" she said.

"You think so?" Andy smiled at the girl, who nodded happily.

Jermaine couldn't help but laugh at Tarah's good cheer, tossing them both a grin. Guess she IS kinda cute, he considered, looking through her glasses at her deep, blue eyes. In a granola-geek sorta way.

"Yo Andy, whadaya say we grab Justin and Slick for this battle royale?" Jermaine suggested, reeling back his fist. "The Four Amigos back in action, yeah? We can make it a tournament, just like old times."

A dark shadow fell across Andy's face. "I...don't think that's such a good idea," he said, his voice dropping into his throat.

"Huh?" Jermaine's eyes widened. "Something wrong, Andy?"

"Justin and I..." Andy's shock of hair fell over his eyes, partially concealing his expression. "Well...we aren't really friends anymore. We fell out at the beginning of the school year."

"...What?" The other boy straightened up completely from his mock-fighting pose, staring at Andy. Andy continued to look at the floor in silence, and even Tarah seemed concerned.

The awkward quiet was broken by a microwave buzzer in the kitchen area, jerking Andy out of his brooding. "Oh yeah, my burger," he said, moving towards the smell of cooked mystery meat. "Hang on, Jermaine. I'm gonna get this, then we'll go."

As Andy moved to the kitchen area, Tarah put a finger to her chins. "I guess he's still sad about his friends," she said to herself, her brow crinkling up.

Jermaine turned to the girl, his mouth set into a thin line. "Hey Tarah, what happened with Andy and Justin?" he asked. "They aren't cool with each other anymore?"

"Oh, it's something that happened back in October," Tarah explained, lifting her head. "Me and Andrew were becoming friends, but Justin and Slick didn't really like me very much. A lot of people don't like me, actually, and I thought Andrew was gonna choose them." Her eyes glazed over with a sparkling mist. "But then he chose me, and it's been just us for a long time. Well, us and Maru Mari." She corrected herself at the end, shrugging into a small smile.

Jermaine was flabbergasted at the story. Andy and Justin, broken up for good? They had always been a pair, side by side even in their arguments. Sure, he knew Justin could be kind of a jerk sometimes, which led to more than a few hostilities that Jermaine and Slick had to help defuse.

But for things to have changed this much in three short years?

"Hey, Jermaine!" The wiry teen looked up to find Andy back in the living area, half-eaten burger in hand. "You with us?"

"Yeah," Jermaine said, his voice losing its musical lift. "Alright, let's go Andy. The usual battle spot."

"Sure." Andy walked out the door, waving goodbye to Tarah. Jermaine followed after him, but his mind was not on the mock-combat they were about to engage in. Yeah, he would enjoy his time with his oldest friend, and leave the stuff with Justin on the back-burner for now. But he was getting to the bottom of this, for the sake of their past, and their future.

The next morning, Jermaine took a trip to Bishop Towers, located in the heart of Starlight City Westside. The two statuesque black and white buildings loomed over the rest of Westside, as if sneering at the surrounding buildings. Going by memory, Jermaine headed towards Bishop Tower White, passing by the familiar palm trees Cornelius Bishop had transplanted from the tourist trap town of Gold Coast. Following along with the teaming mass of corporate executives, he strode through the automatic doors into the lobby, which featured the private elevator leading up to the president's office and, hopefully, Justin's living quarters.

Jermaine's eyes shifted around the crowds of networking business sharks, all trying to carve out a place for themselves in the B-Co hierarchy. Gathering around plush sofas and refreshment bars, they were in a golden cage for the rich and successful, enslaved by their own greed and avarice. Jermaine had never liked these slimy types, who tended to give up all their pride and freedom for the prized coin. It was a miracle Justin wasn't like that, and still had a sense of adventure and mischief.

Didn't he?

"Are you looking for someone?" A light dulcet voice knocked Jermaine out of his worrying, and he spun around to find himself face to face with a teen girl wearing some sort of artist's getup, with mousey brown hair hanging down from under a beret.

"Um, hi," Jermaine threw up a quick hand in greeting. "Do you work here or somethin'? I could use some help."

The girl adjusted her beret with one hand. "I've only been here a few months, actually," she admitted, averting her eyes for the moment. "But I think I know most of the top executives working here. What do you need?"

"Do you know where Justin Bishop is?" he asked, hope starting to rise in his chest. "Is he here, I mean?"

"Oh, Justin!" she said, her eyes widening. "He's with the president right now. He should be back soon." The young teen gave out a soft smile. "My name's Phoebe Mills. I work in the technology department in Bishop Tower Black, and I know Justin pretty well."

"Jermaine Jones, Justin's best bud from grade school," Jermaine said, feeling he could trust this girl. "Only...I'm trying to figure out if we're still buds at all."

At the boy's downcast gaze, Phoebe responded in kind. "I...don't know if Justin has friends," she said quietly, and Jermaine looked up to find her frowning slightly. "He's not that kind of guy."

Before he could ask her what she meant, the elevator door opened, and a sharply-dressed boy with wild, silver hair walked out, along with a lanky blond boy, and an entourage of suited men. Justin Bishop had grown to be a little shorter than Jermaine and Andy, but his violet eyes were as shrewd and calculating as ever. The blond teen next to him was also easily recognizable; Slick Limestone retained his devilish demeanor and smirky smile, although he now sported an earing on his left lobe. They hadn't noticed him yet, too busy with the suits to pay attention.

"And I want my training room bots raised to Level 7 Danger Type," Justin was saying to a man almost twice as tall as he was, talking to him as if he were a swamp rat. "The drones are too weak for the caliber of my combat. Get Mills working on it right now."

"And add a snack bar, too!" Slick chimed in, grinning up at the same man.

"I need a break after talking to the old man." Justin scowled as he turned his eyes forward. "So lame, wasting time with his business instead of my own..." His eyes widened as he caught sight of the two teens standing in the middle of the lobby. "Jermaine Jones...!" he whispered, the sudden shock breaking up his stony countenance.

Slick was less restrained than Justin, and rushed headlong to meet his old pal. "Jermaine, dude!" he cried out, his one-visible eye shining from underneath his hair. "Where ya been, man!"

"Hangin' around here again!" Jermaine replied, clapping the blond boy on the back. "You still going after those cheerleaders, Slick-meister?"

"You know it!" Slick howled, flashing the "peace" sign. "They're a heck of a lot hotter than when you left. Really fillin' out!"

Jermaine laughed, looking over Slick's shoulder at his other friend. "Justin, how ya doin'?" he called out, raising a hand in greeting. "Still makin' trouble for the ol' man?"

Justin had brought up his glacier shields once more. "What are you doing here?" he asked, as if Jermaine was just another office worker in Bishop Tower White. "Didn't you move three years ago?"

"We did, but now we're back," Jermaine said, a little taken aback by Justin's frosty demeanor. "Ready to take Starlight City by storm, man."

"Hmph, guess I should greet you." Justin managed a thin smile, the small tip of his left tooth peeking from under his lip. "However, it'll have to wait. I have an appointment at the training room. See you."

"Wait, hold up!" Jermaine protested, as Justin breezed past him with his entourage. "Don't you wanna, y'know, hang out or do somethin'? We haven't seen each other in years!"

"Can't do it." Justin, for his part, was at least willing to turn around and acknowledge him. "I'm already late for my next session. Mills, you fixed up the androids, right? I don't want another sudden electrical discharge."

"They should work, Justin." Phoebe gulped a bit, but nodded in affirmation.

"C'mon, man!" Jermaine persisted, hustling to catch up with him. "We could maybe play videogames?"

"Waste of time."

"Practice our martial arts?"

"Already doing it."

"Sneak into a R-rated flick?"

Justin stopped mid-step, as if he had short-circuited. His back was to Jermaine, but he could already imagine the crooked grin on his silver-haired friend's face. Sure enough, when he turned around, his violet eyes were already shining with old mischief. Jermaine smiled; the man with the plan was back.

"I've been thinking about seeing Death Wolf III: Revenge of the Fang," he said. "A perfect movie for an apex predetor like me."

Jermaine smirked. "I thought you'd have a few good ideas," he said.

"Limestone knows the details," Justin said. "We'll take a break from training for now."

"Yeaaaah!" Slick cheered, throwing his fist in the air. "The gang is back, baby! And we're plus one now!"

Phoebe blinked. "Plus one?"

The crumbling brick of the Downtown movie theater almost seemed like it was going to disintegrate any moment, but somehow it had remained standing for all these years. Just a little ways from the abandoned planetarium, the old theater was showing matinees of films that were at the end of their theatrical run. Security was tight, and the ushers usually managed to keep underage kids from getting into the R-rated movies. But just like the gym at school, it had already been compromised by that dastardly duo, Justin Bishop and Slick C. Limestone.

"Everyone ready?"

"I'm rarring to go!"

"I'm not!"

"Ssshhh...! Everyone shut up for a second."

Thanks once again to Justin's rich father, Justin had crafted a secret passage to the R-rated screens some time ago, using the original theater blueprints as a guide. The entrance was behind a dumpster in the nearby alley, well away from the street and out of sight from most passerby. There was still a chance someone might snoop on the group, should they take too long getting inside. But they had already taken care of that, with their grand master plan.

"Alright here's the deal." Slick began the briefing as if he were a military commandeer, using a cigarette as a pointer. "Phoebe's gonna be a look out for us, and check if the coast is clear. She hadn't done this before, so they won't suspect her."

"Why do I have to do this?" Phoebe moaned, tugging her beret against her head in frustration. "I want to watch a foreign art house movie, not Death Wolf!"

"Consider it overtime for your work at Bishop Corporation," Justin said, in a manner that brooked no argument. "C'mon Mills, we're counting on you."

Phoebe sighed, and rose up from her hiding place behind the trash cans. Trying not to attract too much attention, she walked at an even pace towards the dumpster, where she had a good view of both ends of the alley. Looking back and forth, she found no sign of movie employees or the like; it was quiet. She looked back toward the others and made a motion. "It's clear!" she called out, as the three boys moved out into the open to join Phoebe by the dumpster, ready to shove it aside.

Slick was almost giddy with excitement as he leaned against the dumpster. "Hope this movie's got some hot chicks," he crowed, shooting a quick look at Justin. "Sick of watching that PG crap where they dress like nuns."

Justin grinned in kind. "It's no problem," he added. "The Death Wolf series is a cinematic masterwork in all ways."

Jermaine couldn't help but partake in their zeal. "It's been a while since I've snuck around with you guys," he said, moving alongside the other two in preparation. "Way to get back in action!"

"This is soooooo bad...!" Phoebe huffed into the warm June air, sweating with both heat and nervousness.

The four of them were sidled against the dumpster, prepping themselves. The dumpster felt unusually heavy, but the team was sure they would have no trouble with it. With the exception of Phoebe, every member of the group was ready and willing to take a good look at the uncensored action of Death Wolf III. All it would take was one good shove from their backs, and they would be in Guy Heaven.

"All together now!" Justin called out. "One!"

"Two!" The others, including Phoebe, joined in.

"Three!" The four were joined by many other voices, all of the female variety.

"Huh?" Jermaine gurgled, looking up to find feminine shadows bearing over him, like the warrior women of ancient legends. "Whaaaat...!"

From the confines of the dumpster, a dozen girls from one of the nearby high schools burst out, wearing usher uniforms and ready to rock. With military precision, three girls each subdued Justin, Slick, Jermaine, and Phoebe, pinning them to the ground so tightly that even Justin's advanced martial arts was nigh useless. Struggling to no avail, they feebly looked up to find a thirteenth girl standing triumphantly above, her green hair wafting in the wind. Even in an usher uniform, the belle of Starlight Junior High seemed ethereal, making Jermaine regret their failure even more.

"First the gym incident, and now this!" Maru Mari was bursting with manic energy as she twirled her hair with her finger. "How many times are you gonna try these stupid stunts before you call it quits?"

"Uh...six?" Slick suggested.

"Well, this is the fourth time, so you're well on your way." The girl answered Slick's stupid comment with her trademarked barbed benevolence.

"How..." Justin struggled to spit out the words. "How did you know?"

Mari grinned, tilting up the bill of her special demon-winged cap. "The theater staff found your secret entrance about three weeks ago," she bubbled. "They hired me to give you a little scare, and to teach the ushers some new skilsl for kicking minors out of the R-rated films." She put a hand to her cheek, her eyes flashing with a sudden thought. "Wait, I'm a minor too, so how am I an usher?" she asked herself before shrugging it off with an easygoing smile. "Oh well, contractor's privilege I guess!"

Walking around the captured group, Mari stopped when she reached the young inventor. "Phoebs!" she exclaimed, slack-jawed at her old friend. "You too? I knew you went to work for B-Co Corny Capitalism, but who'd thunk you fall in with these doofs?"

"Ah hah hah hah..." Phoebe grinned though clenched teeth, trying to adjust her position so that the other girls weren't crushing her. "It's part of the job..."

Mari leaned in further, the bill of her cap casting a shadow over her evil eyes. "You know I can't just letcha go, not if you're working for those guys," she said in-between gnashed teeth. "Sorry Phoebs!"

"Hose her down, Mari!" one of the girls called out.

"No one's a match for the Combat Ushers of Starlight City!" another joined in.

"Ahhhh, no!" Phoebe protested, trying to wiggle out from her place underneath the girls' grips. "Waaaaiiit!"

"Bring out the hose!" Mari cried.

A few minutes later, the deed was done, and Jermaine, Justin, Slick, and Phoebe were shuffling out of the alley, soaked head to toe. Their wet clothes drug them down, and left behind a trail of water all the way from the dumpster to the street. Jermaine's 'fro looked like it contained a swimming pool's worth of water, and Slick's carefully managed part was all out of alignment, no longer covering his left eye. Phoebe was a little less worse for wear, as Mari had mercifully taken off her beret prior to the soaking, but her hair hung limp like she had just taken a shower.

"My 'fro!" Jermaine whined, swatting at his hair in an attempt to knock the water out. "It's gonna take forever to get all this water out!"

"Tell me about it!" Slick commented, shifting his hair from one side to the other. "My hair's not supposed to show both my eyes!"

"At least they didn't do anything else," Phoebe reasoned, making sure her beret wasn't taking on the water from her hair. "Mari just likes messing around. She wouldn't really hurt us."

"Fools..." Justin growled, grinding his teeth in rage.

"Hey, man!" Jermaine spoke out, having caught the quiet insult. "What's with you?"

Justin broke away from the rest of the group, who were waiting at the side of the street for the crosswalk light. Once he was a few steps away, he turned to face them all with furious violet eyes. "This was a waste of my time and energy!" he snapped, throwing down a sweeping hand. "I should have known I couldn't go back to those days of foolishness. Not even for you, Jones."

"Chill, Justin!" Jermaine shot back, his voice rising. "It's just a bunch of stupid water! Big deal!"

"I will NOT look foolish!" Justin hollered, his eyes flashing with rage. "You're all useless to me!"

"Justin, calm down!" Phoebe cried. "Nothing is happening!"

Justin snorted, showing his back to the rest of the group. "I'm going back to Bishop Towers," he said, his wet, spiky hair flapping in the summer wind. "Go do whatever you little people do, while I take care of business."

The boy stalked off towards Westside, leaving behind a long, wrathful shadow in his wake. Phoebe stared off at him with sadness, while Slick palmed his face. Jermaine growled after his old friend, his face knotting up. "What's his damage?" he muttered. "I don't even know that kid anymore."

"He's been kind of lame for a while now," Slick sighed. "Started getting obsessed with 'power' and all that jazz. He barely wants to hang out anymore, unless it's some scheme to get favor with his Dad. I'm getting kind of sick of it."

"Andy said they weren't pals anymore," Jermaine said. "Somethin' to do with that weird bug-girl Tarah. Like they're dating now, or some junk."

"Don't even ask me what that's all about." Slick stifled a laugh, letting his frustration show in a sour scowl. "I swear, everyone's gone crazy." The boy's expression grew weaker, his voice quieter. "I just want to watch movies man, and check out girls. Not deal with all this drama."

Phoebe continued to stare at Justin, and the distant Bishop Towers.

Next Up- Part 2