This wasn't Hotaru’s first time seeing the gang in person, however. Though the members from her first encounter were nothing to write home about, recalling the six they had just seen, notably the automaton, the Red Oni, and the human mountain of a man in their ranks, Hotaru found herself itching for a fight. Her brain decided to put her thoughts on hold when she saw Will heading for the alley.
“W-Will, wait!” Chiaki stepped forward and grabbed him by the arm. He tried to ignore her and press on, but her grip held firm. “What on Terra do you think you’re doing?!”
“What’s it look like? I’m gonna go help her.” Will shifted his gaze from the alleyway to Chiaki. “We aren’t gonna let this happen right under our noses, are we?”
His face fell. “Chiaki?”
She didn’t respond. Her sudden silence following her earlier protest was odd, to say the least. Will furrowed his brow and shook his seized arm slightly to get her attention.
“What’s wrong?” worried Hotaru.
“H-Huh?” Chiaki let out a sharp gasp, breaking out of some sort of trance-like state. At that very moment, Hotaru caught a glimpse of what looked to be a harrowed expression across her best friend’s face, but only for an instant. Noticing Hotaru’s gaze, she quickly tugged the brim of her hat over her eyes as she began to speak.
“Will, you can’t be serious…”
Her grip tightened. “Y-You were just going to rush in there and take on six men, alone?”
“I think I can take two mages, Chiaki. And no, not alone, I’ve got you two, don’t I?”
“That isn’t the point, Will. They still outnumber us. We don't even have a plan!”
“Sometimes there won’t be time for a plan when there’s someone in need.” He shot Hotaru a glance, then continued. “I learned that from a certain someone.”
Chiaki shook her head. “Will...”
“Look, if we act fast, we can get the jump on them. But it's going to have to be a group effort.”
“Alright, how about this: I’ll subdue the two mages,” Will nodded confidently, striking his chest with a single pound of his fist. “Hotaru can fend off the other four while you grab the girl. Then you two will make a break for it while Hotaru and I—”
Hotaru flinched. She knew it was coming, but that didn’t stop her heart from nearly leaping out of her chest.
“Let me guess: You and Hotaru are to stay and fight this group of unpredictable criminals?” Chiaki was clearly agitated. Tears began to well up in her eyes and her words were practically expelled in a hiss. “Gods, do you have even the slightest idea how ridiculous you sound?! If you think I’m just going to leave you two behind, you’re insane!”
Chiaki… Hotaru's eyes widened. This was a side of Chiaki that neither she nor Will had ever seen.
Will looked away from her, eyes back on the alleyway. Chiaki bit her lower lip, perhaps upset with herself for sounding so harsh, but she had made her feelings known. Due to her tendency to get into trouble, Hotaru had grown accustomed to Chiaki’s nagging and scolding, but never in all her years of knowing her did she ever raise her voice to Will. She didn't even do that to Goldie, who Hotaru felt deserved it more than they ever did.
The tension between them was emanating and Hotaru had never felt so uneasy around her best friends before.
What’s got her so…? And then it hit her. Oh! Wait, did she…?
Chiaki took a deep breath, her pointer and middle finger rubbing against her temple. “Look, I understand how you feel, but we aren't certified to rescue civilians yet. We could get in a heap of trouble with our schools and The Board if we act on our own. It’s best if we leave this to the proper authorities.”
“Do you see any MPF officers around?” Will asked Chiaki without looking at her. His tone of voice gave her pause. It was not harsh nor irritable, but apprehensive.
“W-Well, no,” she stammered, a slight tremble in her voice. “But, they ought to be close by. We could—”
“They won't show up, Chiaki,” Will insisted, “not in time to stop this. If we don't do something soon, who knows what might happen?” He took a breath before finally turning to face her. “We have to help her. I wouldn't be able to live with myself knowing that I could've done something.”
The witch girl’s eyes shimmered. “Will…”
An awkward hush fell over the trio, angry horns from passing cars blared through the narrow street, ringing in their ears. Chiaki lowered her gaze to the ground, the brim of her hat still hiding her hazel-colored eyes.
The pain and experience in Will's words were palpable. Hotaru felt the same way and deep down, she knew Chiaki did, too. Hotaru's gaze then flicked over to Chiaki. Her once cautious and urgent expression had since dissolved. In its place, a look of dismay and worry.
Hotaru faced Chiaki and gave her a consoling pat on the shoulder.
“Hey… Talk to me, Chiaki. What exactly did you see?”
Without looking at her, Chiaki shook her head.
Hotaru heaved a sigh, she’d expected this much. Whenever Chiaki had her visions, she always remained tight-lipped. Not even her closest friends could get a clear answer. All they knew was that these visions were usually bad. Very bad. How many of them came true in her young life was anyone's guess.
If Chiaki's vision involved Will's gyro magic in some way, Hotaru could see her concern. Will’s Gravity Field magic was dictated by his psychological state. If he wanted to keep his powers in check, he needed to carefully manage his strong emotions.
Will was fearful and easily rattled as a child, capable of upending an entire city block should something set him off. On one occasion, it took Hotaru’s super-strength to muscle through the destruction he had caused. After a great struggle, she barely managed to approach the boy and calm him down. Since then, they have both trained together under the watchful eye of Mr. Peterson, Hotaru's legal guardian, and mentor. With his help, they both finally managed to control their powers to a certain degree.
Over the years, she had grown accustomed to Will's weaknesses and triggers, but judging from Chiaki's expression, she was beginning to think that there was more to worry about than a simple mishap with his abilities.
And that’s not all...
There was also the matter of the Terra Edict, a set of rules that applied to all students in Taqora. As the third rule states, per The Board's agreement with the Marlia Patrol Force (MPF), there would be severe consequences should a student interfere in matters best left to the authorities. They could get slapped with a month's suspension or worse, a felony. If the girl was a student, then only school faction members were certified to take action. Out of all of the rules in the Terra Edict, rule three made Hotaru's head hurt the most.
Yeesh, what a load of bull! What if there’re no officers or certified students to speak of? What then?
Shifting away from her jumbling thoughts and back to reality, Hotaru's uneasy feeling returned as she searched for a way to ease the tension between her friends. She looked at Will, then over to Chiaki, then back to Will again before taking a deep breath.
Her mind had been made up.
She reached over to grab the boy’s still clenched fist and squeezed it tightly with both of her hands, an old method that her father would use to calm her down as a child. After meeting Will, she began using it on him. He nodded and relaxed his hands after a few seconds, letting her know that the method was still effective.
“I'm sorry Chi-Chi, but I'm with Will on this,” Hotaru said sadly, standing beside him. “I get where you're coming from, I really do. But I can't just stand by and let someone get hurt, not when I can do something about it.”
“Hotaru,” she sighed, “not you too…”
“We can't do this without you, Chiaki,” Will said. “We’ll be in and out of there so quick, we won’t even have to worry about the MPF… so long as we keep the damage to a minimum.” He cleared his throat and shot Hotaru an expectant glance. In response, she playfully stuck her tongue out at him. Once he felt that his silent warning was made clear, he turned back to Chiaki. “So how about it?”
The young witch mulled it over in silence, still facing the ground. Hotaru could practically hear the cogs whirring in her best friend's head as she and Will awaited her decision. Then, with a heavy sigh, she finally let go of his arm.
"Fine." Chiaki bit her lower lip again as her gaze traveled upwards, locking eyes with Will, wearing an expression far more intense than before. "But Will... whatever happens... I need you to promise me that you won’t lose control. Understood?”
“Chiaki, we don’t have–”
"Will, just–” She cut herself off before her voice could get any louder. She exhaled, nostrils flaring, then continued. “Just… promise me, okay?”
Hotaru sighed as she quickly glanced over to Will. The desperation in his eyes had vanished and determination burned in its place.
"I get it, Chiaki,” he started, “You have my word. I'll–”
Suddenly, a high-pitched scream came ringing out from the alley, followed by a powerful surge of mana. Without another word, Will rushed in with Hotaru and Chiaki following close behind.
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