THE GIRL TOSSED AND TURNED as her dog-shaped alarm clock reverberated on her nightstand, creating a deafening sound across the bedroom. She wrapped her polyester headrest over her ears in an attempt to tune out the noise, but to no avail. Her eyes shot open as she could no longer ignore the incessant ringing, quickly sitting up and glaring over at the alarm clock.
"Hey," the girl uttered in her morning voice.
The clock continued its audible assault.
"Hey," she said once again with a more stern tone.
The ringing did not cease.
She clenched her right hand into a fist and smashed the stupid thing through her nightstand. That finally put a stop to the ringing, but now she needed a new clock… and a new nightstand.
The girl grumbled as she sat up, wiping the drool, eye booger, and snot residue from her face. Staring down at the mess she made, she made a mental note to inform Mr. Pete that the “new state-of-the-art” alarm clock he got her was a big fat dud. She wished he would stop to test these new products, or at the very least, check an online review before just carelessly throwing away a perfectly good wad of cash.
"Voice recognition, my ass..."
She then climbed out of bed and began her usual morning stretches; pushups, situps, butterfly stretches, and jumping jacks. After working up a good morning sweat, she let out a sharp exhale as she made for her bedroom window, opening her blinds to the sight of a bustling metropolitan city.
"Good morning, Marlia City!" she beamed proudly with her hands on her hips. The girl showered, dried off, and braided her thigh-long neon pink hair into a single ponytail. She threw on her Requiem School for Girls uniform; a purple short-sleeve blouse with the shielded emblem of the academy adorning the breast pocket. This was paired with a black collar with a gray ribbon, a black skirt with a purple line at the bottom, a gray petticoat, black knee-high socks, and brown dress shoes. The girl grinned as she struck a heroic pose in her large standing floor mirror.
Lookin’ pretty good.
In her kitchen, she prepared three sandwiches, one with sliced vegetables, and two with hash browns and eggs. She marked them before packing them neatly in her school bag. Checking her watch, she darted over to the genkan entryway, walked into her brown dress shoes, and made for the front door. As she opened it and stepped over the threshold to the outside, she turned to face her empty home with her clenched fist against her heart.
"Freshman Hotaru Hyakuya," she reported, "preparing to depart from Home-base to acquire knowledge at Requiem's learning facilities!! Awaiting permission to deploy, captain!"
"Permission granted, private!" Despite the silence, she could still hear her father's reply. This exchange was their morning routine for as long as she could remember, and even on her worst mornings, he always managed to make little Hotaru smile.
"Boy, I miss doing that," she said, giggling to herself as she closed the door and locked it before turning on her heel. She had made for a nearby stairway when something in the distance was caught in her periphery, stopping her dead in her tracks. She slowly turned her head and gazed upward.
In the sky, hovering just below the sun, was a deep blood-red sphere. For thousands of years, the red sphere known as The Yolk was believed to be responsible for the existence of magic in this world. It was just as responsible for taking her parents away from her when she was small. Her body grew hot and her breathing turned ragged as images from that fateful day began to vividly resurface in her mind's eye. She knew it was foolish, but it felt like the red ball of miasma was somehow gazing back at her. Mocking her.
Hotaru looked down at her hands. They were trembling violently. She quickly brought them together, interlocking her fingers, and clasping them tightly. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. After taking some time to think of her parents once more, she exhaled, slapping her rosy cheeks for good measure, and forming a smile on her face.
I know it's been five years, but don't worry about me, I'm doing just fine. Wherever you are... I'll go out there and bring you guys back home… I promise.
Hotaru took a moment to stretch out any cramps left in her legs and back before rushing down the flight of stairs. Okay… First day of school... Let's do this!
The downtown streets of Marlia City were gleaming from last night's rain, some cars still had their lights on well after sunrise. All manner of people crowded the sidewalks. Many of them were human, while others possessed green skin, red skin, wings, tusks, animal ears, and other bizarre features. In the Holy Kingdoms of Taqora, this sort of diversity was commonplace.
"Hotaru!" called out a familiar voice that made Hotaru's heart flutter in her chest.
Her face glowed red as she quickly fastened the ribbon of her uniform before turning to see a much taller teenage girl of the same ethnicity waving at her. The girl had an hourglass figure, long ash-blonde hair that flowed down her shoulders, round hazel-colored eyes, and a head-turning smile that lit up just about every room she stepped in. She wore the same school uniform as Hotaru, the only exception being a color-coordinated wide-brimmed steeple hat, signifying her witchhood.
"Chiaki!" Delighted by the sight of her best friend, Hotaru ran into her arms at full speed, nearly sending them both to the ground. The young witch cried out as she caught her.
"Chiakiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!!" The pink-haired girl whimpered, nuzzling up to her, face buried deep into her large chest. A large smile spread across her face as she caught a whiff of her friend's usual scent.
Ahhh, cherry blossoms.
"Hotaru, careful..." Chiaki cautioned with a strained voice. "you're...hurting me..."
Hotaru gasped before she quickly loosened her hug. "Whoops! Sorry about that."
"Honestly, did you miss me that much?"
"You have no idea..."
"But we saw each other three days ago."
Hotaru locked eyes with her. "That doesn't matter! If I don't get my daily dose of Chiaki, I honestly think I'd go insane! Never leave my sight again!!"
Chiaki shook her head back and forth as she laughed. "You're so goofy!"
Hotaru pouted. "Hmph, I'm dead serious, you know. I don't see what's so humorous about my aching heart, Chi-Chi." She pulled away from her. "But if you don't want my affection, just say so... I still have Will."
"No, no, no!" Chiaki cried playfully, throwing her arms around the smaller girl before pulling her back towards her. "I'm sorry. I missed you, too."
Works every time, Hotaru grinned.
"Well, you two are certainly lively this morning," said a deep, monotonous voice with a youthful tinge. Hotaru's eyes lit up as she gazed from Chiaki's bosom to see a tall and lanky teenage boy with dark skin and long black cornrows walking towards them. He donned his orange and midnight blue Phoenix Military Academy uniform, a rival school also located in Marlia City, just southwest of Requiem. Like Requiem, Phoenix was renowned for molding students who were adept at using magic and other supernatural abilities into protectors of the realm. However, in the academy's 370-year history, it had only been a century since they started allowing girls to attend. By that time, Requiem School for Girls had existed for more than 150 years and had since engaged in a long-standing crosstown rivalry with Phoenix known as the Hullington derby.
"Oh, heya, Will!" Chiaki greeted the boy, waving him over with a smile.
"Willy, you're here!" Hotaru beamed as she pulled away from Chiaki and bounded towards the boy, wrapping him in her second large embrace of the morning. All too familiar with the smaller girl's tight squeeze, Will did the necessary calculations in his head before using his mana to prepare a gravity field and braced for impact. Her face tilted upward to meet his only to see that it was much further up than she remembered.
"Hey there, mister,” Hotaru grinned playfully. “You went and got taller on us, didn't you?"
"Maybe," Will answered nonchalantly. He was quite tall for his age, so much so that people often mistook him for an adult just as they mistook the smaller Hotaru for a child. However, Will had been taller than Hotaru for as long as they’d known each other, so if he had grown at all in their time apart, he could hardly tell the difference.
"Aww, Chi-Chi, look, look!" Hotaru's grin grew wider. "Our wittle Willy is gwowing into a big stwong man!"
"Mind chilling out with the baby talk, short stuff?" Will didn't appreciate her teasing one bit. "You're only a month older than me."
"Hmm." Chiaki inched closer as she squinted hard at her friend. After fully taking in his appearance, her eyes went wide. "Say, I believe he did! A whole four inches if my estimate is correct. Male puberty is quite something, isn’t it? Color me impressed!"
"Our boy… Our baby boy..." Hotaru said, tears streaming down her face. "He’s growing up so fast… At this rate, the girls will be all over him before too long."
“There, there. Let it all out, Hotaru.” Chiaki reached over to pat her best friend's shoulder before handing her a handkerchief.
“Oh, thank you…”
The tall boy rolled his eyes in annoyance, though the purple hue washing over his face made it obvious that he was blushing. "Gods, knock it off, will you?"
"Oh, don’t take it to heart Will. Hotaru’s just proud to see how much you’ve grown this past year. As am I," Chiaki smiled as she nodded, akin to that of a proud mother. Not long after that warm statement did tears begin to stream down her face as well. “Oh bother, I... promised myself that I wouldn’t cry when this day came… Now, look at me… How embarrassing...”
She reached down into her brown leather shoulder bag and pulled out another handkerchief.
"Ugh. Chiaki, not you too…" Will sighed heavily.
“There, there. Let it all out, Chi-Chi.” Hotaru echoed as she reached up to pat her best friend's shoulder.
“Y-You’re... crying... too, you know!” Chiaki retorted. She was practically blubbering.
“Nuh-uh! I was… just… k-kidding around!”
As this was going on, the commotion incited a few passersby to make sideways glances at the trio.
"Oh, sweet Mother, now people are watching. What is this, some sort of manzai routine?" Will sighed. The girls both looked at him silently. Their blank expressions only served to confuse him.
Suddenly, the two girls broke into hearty laughter, wiping away their tears. Will’s Brookville accent coupled with his deadpan delivery was almost guaranteed to get a chuckle out of anyone.
"Sorry about that, Will," Hotaru giggled, pulling him back into her tight embrace. "That got kinda mushy for a second, didn’t it?"
“Disturbingly so, yes.” Will was never the type to pull any punches. “Say, how much longer are you gonna hug me?”
“‘Til I’m satisfied.”
"We have quite the long day ahead of us," Chiaki said, still chuckling. "A good laugh once in a while should help boost morale. Well needed, Will. Thanks."
Will shook his head. "Wasn’t my intention, but you’re welcome, I guess.”
A sudden growling sound interrupted the light-hearted exchange. Will’s face flushed purple once again upon hearing it.
"Oh!" Hotaru's head was perfectly aligned with Will's abdomen, making it easy to hear the rumbling from his stomach which immediately reminded her of the food she had packed earlier. Will was also incredibly thin, always leaving home without breakfast despite his mother's pleas, so Hotaru always made sure to pack some extra food for him.
"I almost forgot!" she said, releasing Will from her embrace and sinking to her knees. She removed her backpack and set it on the ground. A split second later, Hotaru pulled out one of the sandwiches she packed, it was neatly wrapped in brown kitchen paper, supported by clear strips of tape. She handed it to Will.
"Here ya go!"
"O-Oh, thanks," Will bowed slightly as he removed the wrapping, "Forgot breakfast, again. I didn't want to be late."
"No problem!" bubbled Hotaru as she stood up, using her left hand to dust off the side of her skirt. She then glanced over and caught a view of Chiaki's face. Hotaru was normally bad at reading faces, but even she could tell that it was a look of anticipation. This made her smile.
"And for the pretty witch lady..." Hotaru grinned playfully as she brought her right arm from behind her back to reveal another wrapped sandwich. Chiaki's eyes lit up like a child's on Terramas morning.
"Sliced veggies with salad dressing? Just like you asked."
"Oh, Hotaru, you're a lifesaver!" Chiaki opened her bag and placed the sandwich into one of its compartments. "Thanks a lot! I didn't want to be late, either, so I forgot to pack something for lunch."
"Honestly, you two..." Hotaru smiled, shaking her head playfully. "What would you guys do without me? Really, though, it's no biggie, I'm just glad you two are satisfied."
"Why wouldn't we be?" Will asked between a mouthful of scrambled eggs and bread.
“Will, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Chiaki scolded, now sounding like a disappointed mother. "It's quite rude."
"But he is right, though,” she smiled, placing a hand on her best friend’s head, “eating your cooking is a privilege, Hotaru."
You guys... Hotaru felt as if her heart were about to explode. She blushed heavily as a warm and fuzzy feeling coursed throughout her body. She had to credit her mother for being such a magnificent teacher in the culinary arts. Thanks to those lessons, her friends were always eager to try whatever new dish she had cooked up. They were truly the greatest friends anyone could ask for. Just seeing their smiling faces was enough for her.
"Oh, enough already, you two!" Embarrassed, she rubbed her cheeks with both hands. "You're making me blush!"
"Girl, please, you've been red since we got here," Will pointed out, gobbling down the last of his sandwich. "Either you're coming down with something, or you're just happy to see someone. My money's on the latter."
Chiaki tilted her head. "Hm? What are you talking about, Will?"
Is this revenge from earlier?!
"D-Don't mind him!" Hotaru assured her, stumbling over her words, feeling her face burn an even brighter red than before. She walked over to Will and rapped him hard on the back with her palm, forcing him to cough up the remnants of his sandwich. “I'm probably red in the face from all this damn pollen in the air.”
“But, pollen season ended a month ago.”
She made a face at Will before mouthing a quick “shut up” in his direction. When they were children, the always quiet and introverted Will was not known for having such a sharp tongue, but he developed somewhat of a knack for it due to being in Hotaru's presence for nearly a decade. She knew that he was just paying her back and would never actually go spilling her secrets, but too often was he treading on thin ice. He may as well have had a megaphone.