“Get back here you little thief!”
Laughing from the adrenaline rush, Akko pushed herself to run faster, the wallet she had just nabbed remaining tight in her clutches.
"You can't catch me!" she hollered behind her, her glee increasing as the man chasing after her gradually fell behind.
Akko vaulted over a small wall before she was outside the park boundary, zipping across the street and dodging traffic like a pro. Living on the streets for so long made things just like this second nature, after all.
Darting into an alley, Akko finally came to a stop, leaning heavily against the wall of a building as she caught her breath. She was unable to engage in her spoils, however, as the wail of sirens quickly approached. Akko grinned, her eyes glinting upon seeing the police car pull up on the street beside her.
“Stop right there!” one cop ordered upon getting out of the driver’s side and pointing at Akko.
After making sure the wallet was stashed securely inside her hoodie pocket, Akko spun on her heel and darted off down the alley.
“Catch me if you can!” she taunted again, giggling with mirth as a second cop bolted from the passenger’s side to pursue her.
Akko knew these back alleys by heart, however, so the thundering of two pairs of footsteps behind her didn’t cause her to fret in the slightest. She knew that, given time, she would eventually lose them.
Upon turning into a particular alleyway, however, Akko skidded to a halt upon seeing another police car blocking her escape, an all too familiar and imposing figure looming by the street entrance and waiting for her.
“Crap! Chief Finneran!” Akko shrieked before quickly backpedalling and turning yet another corner. She couldn’t hear the two cops from before anymore so she slowed her pace to allow herself to think of her best means of escape. Still, the thrill never left her.
“Miss Kagari! Stop right this instant!” the stern voice of the police chief echoed after her.
“Yeah right,” Akko grumbled with a roll of her eyes. While she saw running from the cops as a sort of game—though it was more of a hobby, honestly—Chief Finneran was the final boss she knew to stay away from.
All of Akko’s previous run-ins with the woman had taught her well.
“Crap!” Akko exclaimed once more upon seeing she had miscalculated somewhere. Her latest turn had led her to an alley with a tall chain link fence separating her from her freedom this time.
Akko recalled her last attempt to scale it, and her tailbone began to tingle from the haunting memory.
Though with the resuming sound of duo footfalls, Akko knew she didn’t have much choice. Another fall was nothing compared to the sure wrath of Finneran, or another overnight in jail.
The two cops from the beginning rounded the corner before coming to a halt, and though their caps obscured their faces, Akko could see their grins. A similar look formed on her own lips as Akko simply stuck her tongue out at them.
Taking off at breakneck speed, Akko leapt at the fence before beginning to clamor up it haphazardly. Not even halfway up however, she felt a tug on the leg of her pants. Huffing, Akko looked down and into familiar green eyes that were flashing in amusement.
“You really want to fall on your ass again, Akko?”
Akko groaned before letting her face fall against the cool metal of the fence.
“Shut up, Croix.”
The cop, Croix, just chuckled before stepping back from the fence and holding out her arms. “Need a hand?”
Begrudgingly, Akko accepted, and let herself fall into the waiting arms below her. Before the purple-haired woman could mock her anymore though, Akko broke free of the bridal carry, landing on her feet with a “hmph.”
“It’s not like you to choose this alley as your escape,” Croix pointed out. “You’re getting sloppy.”
“It’s not my fault Finneran showed up and spooked me,” Akko rebutted. “You know how much that woman hates me. Why’d she get called in anyway?”
“Perhaps because she knows it’s you we’re dealing with, and of our…incompetency when it comes to apprehending you,” the second cop finally spoke up with a gentle laugh.
Akko just smiled warmly at the second woman before closing the short distance between them with a hug and laugh of her own.
“I can’t help that you became so taken with me,” she jabbed playfully.
“Yeah, Chariot, what a great cop you are, falling for the little delinquent we’re always supposed to catch,” Croix joined in as well.
“Hush, the both of you,” Chariot huffed before pulling Akko back and trying to fix her with her hardest look. “Now, Akko, you know Croix and I love you and favor you, but this is the third time this week that we’ve been called for something you’re involved in. If we don’t show up with you in handcuffs, we need to report back with something.”
“And it’s only Thursday,” Croix piped up, which earned her a half-hearted glare from her redheaded counterpart.
Akko immediately deflated when the conversation took a turn south, shoulders slouching and hands fisting around the wallet in her pocket.
“It’s been a rough week,” she mumbled, kicking at the ground beneath her in hopes to earn her more pity points. “I’m grasping at straws here.”
“What keeps happening to the money Croix and I give you each month?”
Akko folded in even more on herself. “I owe some people…”
Chariot sighed and squeezed Akko’s shoulder. “Akko… Please tell me it’s not the Rebels again.”
“Okay, I won’t…”
When Chariot simply sighed once more, Croix chuckled lightly before taking her turn.
“Akko, why do you keep bothering with them? You don’t really want to be a part of them, do you?”
“I don’t know,” Akko continued to mumble. “Sometimes I think it’d be nice to belong to something like that, but then I know that I’m just not cut out for it. I mean, you both know I already feel bad for having to steal and pickpocket, even though I put on a good show; I couldn’t join a gang with a good conscience…”
“Then why do you keep giving money to them?”
“B-Because Amanda keeps tricking me!”
It was Croix’s turn to groan and roll her eyes. “O’Neill, huh? Yeah, she can be a slippery one.”
“You’re telling me,” Akko grumbled as she looked away from her friends. “She keeps saying that if I invest in her, good things will happen, and sometimes they do, but then she just asks for more money, and I guess I’m too stupid to stop.”
“You are far from stupid, Akko,” Chariot consoled, pulling the brunette back against her in another hug. “You try to make the best of your circumstances, as unfortunate as they are. Even you’re bound to make mistakes sometimes.”
“But seriously,” Croix deadpanned, “stop giving that girl money.”
“I’m right, aren’t I?”
Akko giggled a bit at the women’s usual banter, the two of them always managing to brighten her days, even if their meetings sometimes ended up with her in a cell for the night.
“So do you guys really have to take me in?” she asked hesitantly. “I’ll give you the wallet back if it’ll keep me out. I haven’t taken anything from it yet, I swear.”
Chariot looked contemplative for all of a second before she seemed to give in and smile.
“Just give us the wallet and we’ll let you go,” she said.
Akko beamed and fished the billfold out before quickly tossing it to Croix. Chariot fixed her with a stern look then, but Akko merely huffed, knowing what was coming.
“But next time you’ll have to arrest me, I know.”
The two officers escorted Akko back to the entrance of the current alleyway before the brunette spun back around and gave both of them a hug.
“Thank you both. Again.”
“I’d say stay out of trouble, but I know who I’m talking to,” Croix joshed.
“Shut up,” Akko replied with a chuckle.
“Do take care though, Akko,” Chariot said next. “Why don’t you play more in the park? I’m sure that guitar of yours would like the practice.”
“Maybe,” Akko shrugged. “People usually just ignore me though, and so it gets disheartening after a while.”
“Still, you’re good at it, Akko, and I know it makes you happy,” Chariot responded. “Maybe we’ll try to stop by and leave a ‘tip.’”
“Well, if that’s a promise…”
Both of the women laughed before Chariot lightly swatted Akko on the behind.
“Get out of here you little troublemaker. We’ll go endure Finneran’s wrath in your stead.”
“Thanks, Officer du Nord,” Akko smiled with one final hug. With an added shout of, “Bye Croix!” last minute, Akko darted back off between the many buildings surrounding them.
She made it back out to the street with no more hassles and no sight of Chief Finneran. Relieved, Akko finally took the time to relax. Even though she knew Chariot and Croix were on her side most of the time, she still didn’t like having to run into them. She knew she was constantly putting their jobs in jeopardy, and she had spoken up on their behalf before and told them she didn’t need them to protect her all the time. Yet they always refused to budge, even going as far as giving her so much money a month to help her feed and take care of herself.
After all, they knew it wasn’t her fault she was homeless.
Akko didn’t know much about her mother, and nothing about her father. All she had managed to learn was that her mother had come to America from Japan by sneaking aboard a ship when she was pregnant. She hadn’t been any older than Akko at the time, however, and so once Akko had been born, she had left her on the stoop of an orphanage, a note explaining what she could tucked within the folds of a blanket.
Akko had lived at the orphanage until she was fifteen when she decided to strike out on her own. No family had ever seemed interested in adopting her, so she had gradually grown bitter and concluded she didn’t need a family anyway. Of course, two years later, Akko wished she hadn’t acted so brazen.
Sure, she could always show back up at the orphanage and would most likely be taken back in, but her pride wouldn’t allow it. She had always thrown a fit while she was there, what reason should she be allowed to come back after acting like the little delinquent she was? Besides, she only had a few months until she turned eighteen, and then she really would be back on the streets.
It wasn’t like she was homeless because she was lazy or incompetent either. Akko had applied for several run of the mill jobs, but even then she was simply cast aside in favor of some other applicant who had experience, no matter how little. People didn’t realize how difficult it was to get a job when you had no place to live. Even if she happened to land something, how was she to manage her uniform, or dress professionally? She barely had enough money to feed herself most of time, never mind going to a laundermat. Not like she even had clothes that needed to be washed. The extent of her wardrobe was the overly large burgundy hoodie she always wore, a pair of jeans with holes in the knees, ratty sneakers, and her signature gray knit beanie. She had one pair of sweatpants she wore to sleep in, and one graphic t-shirt she had nabbed from Goodwill back in the quite literal hole in the wall she lived in, and that was it.
Even though she hated to rely on them, Akko was grateful for Chariot and Croix’s kindness. Despite the opposite ends of the spectrum they resided on, they tried their best to treat Akko as daughter, or at the very least a friend. Hell, Akko had even been invited to spend a night or two at their place before, though she only took their offer when she was desperate. She was usually able to find other means, even if that meant breaking into a gym after hours to use the showers there, or shoplift a single bag of chips from a convenience store for dinner.
Deciding she had done enough brooding for one day, Akko resolutely shook her head to clear her thoughts. She stuffed her hands in her hoodie pocket, readjusted her beanie, and continued to shuffle down the sidewalk. Glancing up at the sun, she noticed it was about one in the afternoon.
Smile flickering across her face, and her next destination firmly in mind, Akko picked up her pace. She guided herself through the maze of the city until she came to its outskirts, the most recent corner she turned dropping her right in front of a huge expanse of land, one archway proudly telling everyone where they now were.
Luna Nova Academy.
She stepped through the archway tentatively, keeping an eye out for any students or campus security. Even though the grounds weren’t gated and the school didn’t have uniforms, Akko knew she stuck out like a sore thumb and didn’t belong regardless. As the most esteemed school in the area, the brunette was certain none of its students would be caught dead dressed the way Akko was.
Or wear the same outfit two days in a row, let alone seven.
Still, from her experience on campus, Akko was pretty sure the next change of class wouldn’t be for another few minutes, so she quickly made her way to her choice spot on the grounds: a large oak tree which overlooked one of the many class halls. With a running start, Akko ran up half the length of the trunk until she could grasp the lowest hanging branch. From there, she expertly climbed her way higher and higher.
Thank the heavens her tree-climbing skills were better than her fence-climbing skills.
Meandering her way out onto her favorite branch, Akko stretched her legs out before her and leaned back against the trunk, her eyes trained on one of the many windows to the hall she overlooked.
School, at least in the usual sense, had never been an option for her. Sure, the orphanage had their own classroom set up for the kids, so Akko had been through basic schooling. Even after running away, she would make her way to the library quite often to keep up to date on the most basic knowledge she felt a girl of her age should know. She may not be able to write a thesis on differing political views and their influences on society, but she still knew general history, math, science, and language.
For a homeless girl her age, Akko considered that pretty substantial.
She always found herself up in this tree on campus, however, because she longed for one of the many things she had missed out on: companionship. Having been taught in a class with maybe five students at the most, Akko had yet to experience the general immersion public or private schools offered. She didn’t have any friends her age, and even though she had browsed several Social Skills for Dummies books, had little to no idea how to go about talking to her peers. Hell, her two best friends were cops; and while she loved both Chariot and Croix to death, they weren’t exactly the kind of friends she had always dreamed of having.
This was the biggest reason Akko constantly spied on the populous of Luna Nova; she liked to imagine herself down there amongst the daily routine of classes and free time. She lived vicariously through its students, getting the school experience she had always dreamed of from afar. It was fun in its own way; she didn’t have to worry about homework or tests, or showing up every day on time, yet it still let her feel even the tiniest bit included. Sometimes, when she was feeling extremely bold, she would forgo her tree entirely and huddle up outside one of the classroom windows and listen in on the lecture firsthand. Sure, she couldn’t participate, but at least she could hear the lesson.
The school bell echoing across campus had Akko sitting up from the trunk of the tree to instead shift on the branch so her legs were dangling off. She leaned forward in anticipation, a smile on her face as she watched the class change. She had the perfect vantage point, able to watch as one room emptied completely before refilling with a new group of students, some exiting the building to mill about the grounds on their break, others heading to different halls on the opposite side of campus.
She stiffened a bit when a group of four girls made their way beneath the tree Akko currently occupied, chattering all the while. They had to be gossiping, Akko assumed, with how quiet their conversation was, as well as the constant fitful of giggles that bled out of them. They each settled down in the grass, still chatting away, and some began pulling food out of their bags, others books and homework. Akko marveled how she had yet to be spotted to this day. All one would have to do is simply look up to find her sitting above them. She tried to quiet her giggles at the surprised expressions she was sure to garner, before her nerves flared at the notion of being caught. Surely her being here wouldn’t warrant the cops like many of her other daily activities would, but she was technically trespassing, so she was certain to get in trouble regardless.
With those thoughts in mind, Akko chose to huddle back against the trunk, hoping the foliage of the tree would continue to conceal her. She didn’t need to see Chariot and Croix twice in one day; Croix would never let her live it down.
She waited another hour, observing each and every aspect of a normal day at school that she could before another bell sounded. She heard the four girls sigh below her before they got up and headed back towards the building they had come out of. Once things had settled down yet again, and no one else took refuge under her tree, Akko deemed it her time to leave. She shouldn’t overstay her welcome.
Even though she hadn’t been welcomed in the first place…
She scaled down the tree with finesse and had just gotten her feet back on the ground when a throat clearing behind her had her cringing.
“Don’t you know it is rude to spy on others?”
Diana is introduced, and she and Akko have their first confrontation. Needless to say, both are left with strange feelings.
On the outside, Diana Cavendish had the perfect life. Born into one of the city’s wealthiest families, she had never wanted a day in her life. Her father had been an esteemed judge, and her mother a beloved doctor. They had brought honor to the family—and herself by extension. Her perfect grades and extracurricular activities at school made others idolize her, people clamoring to be her friend, or just to associate with her on the most basic of levels. She was beautiful and refined, not a day going by with a single hair out of place.
Yes, Diana Cavendish had the perfect life, indeed. She had no room or right to complain.
But that was only a mere outsider’s opinion. There was much more going on behind the scenes; things that made this ‘perfect life’ lackluster, fake.
Instead, for the longest time now, Diana felt her life was anything but perfect.
The respect she garnered was all because of her name, nothing more. Her grades were perfect because it was expected of her, not because of her love of school. Being the teacher’s favorite was an empty feeling when it was only done based upon insistence. Image was everything. Cavendishes were elite.
And Diana played the role superiorly. To strangers, she was the immaculate heiress. She was proud without being arrogant, demure without being rude.
Yet that’s all this was: a role to be played. An act. One Diana was the ideal fit for.
And it was one she had never wanted anything to do with.
Things hadn’t always been like this, however. There was a time where Diana remembered being carefree, happy, and hopeful; surrounded by the love and warmth of her parents, knowing that she would continue to be loved no matter what because her parents cherished her. Not because of her name or status, but simply because she was their daughter.
She hadn’t always been a puppet on a string. She hadn’t always had to work to jump expertly through every flaming hoop held out to her. She hadn’t always dreaded waking up each day, knowing the life she was living wasn’t truly hers.
Everything changed once her father passed away when she was seven, and her mother three years later only days after her tenth birthday.
With the matriarch and patriarch out of the picture, and Diana still only being a child at the time, her aunt took up the role as head of the family. Only they weren’t really a ‘family’ anymore. The disdain her aunt had felt towards her mother all their lives continued even after her death, so her aunt only pretended to mourn the passing of her sister. Inside she was celebrating. At last she was the one with power; no longer overshadowed by her ‘perfect sister’ or the ‘hotshot husband.’
The Cavendishes were about to enter a new era, and even at the tender age of ten, Diana knew that the future was foreboding. Done out of a prideful ego, not continuing love of a family name.
Diana had been kept around simply because her parents’ will left her in custody of her aunt, though even before her parents’ passing, her aunt had never worked hard to hide her ire for the youngest Cavendish. She was housed and given the basic necessities, but the love that had once surrounded her had been snuffed out. She became cold and bitter as she grew into her teenaged years, and the closed-off personality she adopted made it easier for her aunt to mold her into the perfect doll for society to gawk at.
While her aunt was vile behind closed doors, she too could play a role perfectly. And she pulled off the leading role flawlessly; being charismatic and humble and everything else expected of an established family head when in the public’s eye. At the end of each day though, she had no qualms berating Diana for every little thing she could pin on her. The higher her aunt climbed in high society, so too was Diana expected to replicate that success in school and day-to-day life. By the time she was a freshman in high school, she was already being pressured to apply to colleges, coerced into declaring majors she had no interest in at all. Now a senior, she was only so far from the most pivotal change in her life.
And it had all been meticulously, maliciously, planned out for her, leaving no room for her own input or desires anymore.
Diana had tried rebelling against her aunt on occasion, but a sharp tongue and a quick hand were enough to eventually have her submit. Even though she continued to stew in her own silent hatred and anger for what her aunt had done to her family name, Diana matured and realized that the best way to defeat her aunt would be to simply bide her time and follow her orders.
Still, all this did little to fill the void in her heart left by her parents.
The jarring ring of the school bell was able to reach Diana in the depths of her cryptic thoughts and memories, and she stopped her practiced note taking with a heavy sigh. She had zoned out for most of the lecture, yet somehow had been able to write clear and concise notes regardless.
A practiced skill, obviously, she thought dryly with a roll of her eyes as she collected her things.
The shrill cry from right next to her would have caused her jump had she not grown so accustomed to it as well. Plastering on a smile, she turned to face the redhead.
“Barbara and I were going to go off campus for lunch since Professor Babcock’s class is cancelled. You wanna join?”
“No, thank you, girls,” she declined politely. “I think I’ll just head to the library to get an early start on tonight’s assignments.”
Barbara Parker and Hannah England were probably the closest things to friends Diana had. They had started out as fan girls, following Diana everywhere she went and taking every opportunity to prove to her that they were worth her time. In one of her weaker moments, though, Diana had given them the time of day, and now the three were near inseparable. Diana was certain the two only continued to be her friend because of the popularity it brought them; surely it wasn’t her riveting company that kept them here.
She could see the two of them wanting to complain and try and drag her off campus anyway, but after nearly four years of friendship, knew their attempts would be for naught.
“Okay,” Barbara was the one to reply. “We’ll see you in Lukić’s then?”
Closing her eyes to make her smile seem even more sincere, Diana nodded. “Of course.”
That had the two of them beaming and they retreated from the now-empty classroom in a fit of giggles. Diana just shook her head at their leave, a long-suppressed memory of a similar joy of her own surfacing and leaving a bitter taste in her mouth.
She really had been fully intent on going to the library, at the very least for the peace and quiet it brought if nothing else, yet she found herself coming to a stop in her trek across the courtyard as she saw the most peculiar sight.
A girl—who clearly didn’t attend the school if her appearance was anything to go by—was coming down from one of the thickest trees on campus, the ease at which she did so impressing Diana for only a second before she tossed the thought aside in favor of snidely thinking the girl must be part monkey.
Her aunt’s snark permeated her mind then as it always did, demanding she go find out what the girl was doing. After all, a Cavendish didn’t attend a school overrun by hooligans.
Squaring her shoulders and brushing off any lingering traitorous thoughts—when was the last time Diana had climbed a tree?—she strode over to the ruffian.
Clearing her throat, she spoke clearly, “Don’t you know it is rude to spy on others?”
Her pride flared as she saw the girl jump, and she allowed a small smirk to grace her face at the reaction. By the time the girl had actually turned to face her, however, her features were back to their stoic preset.
Although this stranger’s piercing, beautiful red eyes had Diana nearly forgetting her role momentarily.
Who even had red eyes?
“Well?” Diana pressed then, hoping to get back on top of the situation.
“I- uh…” the girl mumbled, looking anywhere but Diana. “D-Don’t you know it’s rude to sneak up on others?”
Diana’s façade gradually faltered with the return quip, her shoulders relaxing and body overall becoming less tense.
That had definitely not been the answer she had been expecting. Still, she couldn’t afford to act like it had caught her off guard.
“If those others are somewhere they clearly don’t belong, then I don’t find it rude at all; I think it is a necessity,” she replied confidently. “Now please state your business here. You obviously aren’t a student.”
At Diana’s final words, the girl’s eyes flickered with indignation—and was that a glimmer of hurt?
“Well, I’m terribly sorry my appearance offends you, Princess,” the girl bit back. “Surely at a ritzy-ditzy school such as this, you’ve been taught to never judge a book by its cover; maybe you need to learn to apply that to real life situations.”
The malice with which the girl spoke was enough for Diana to let her guard down once more, and she let her features soften just a bit.
“I apologize,” she said shamefully, looking away from the girl briefly. Focusing her attention back on those peculiar rubies before her, she added, “That was a very rude thing for me to have assumed.”
The brunette seemed a bit surprised at how easily Diana had handed over the reigns, as her own gaze softened before she seemed to be overcome with nerves—if the subtle pink of her cheeks was anything to go by—toeing the ground beneath them with her scuffed up sneakers.
“I mean… Y-You’re right that I don’t go here, but just because I’m not dressed like you shouldn’t be the only reason for you to assume that.”
Diana had to admit the girl was right yet again. Scowling, she berated herself for letting her aunt influence her behavior from so far away yet again.
“May I make it up to you somehow?” she asked, realizing she was having better luck in the conversation when she wasn’t acting in others’ best interests.
The girl seemed to ponder over something for a second before she grinned.
“Is the library here any bigger than the one in the city?”
Diana was caught off guard yet again, and for a second, she just stood there blinking at the girl before her.
“Um…” And was she really stuttering now? “Do you mean bigger in size, or bigger in its expanse of books?”
The melodic giggle that flowed from the girl before her and to Diana’s ears had her shivering, and she didn’t even pay any heed to her aunt’s voice screeching at her for the moment of weakness.
“Wouldn’t a bigger building mean more books?”
The coy, playful look in those shimmering red eyes was enough to let the rest of Diana’s walls come crumbling down, successfully burying her aunt’s influence in the rubble. Another smirk was plastered on her face before she was even aware.
“Not necessarily,” she responded with an equally joking tone. “Maybe the extra fifty square feet is just for show?”
Diana didn’t even care when the girl’s next bought of laughter caused her heart to flutter and her smirk to morph into an easy smile. She hadn’t enjoyed talking to someone this much in forever; there was no way she was about to let this opportunity pass her by.
Her aunt be damned. It felt good to rebel again.
“At a school such as this? I wouldn’t even be surprised,” the girl replied.
Diana allowed herself to chuckle a bit as well, since it was true Luna Nova did like to flaunt its wealth—the large archway at the school’s entrance doing just that. Still, she wasn’t entirely satisfied with the girl’s reason for being on a campus where she didn’t belong.
“So, if you came onto campus for the library, why were you up in a tree?”
The brunette went ramrod straight at the jab, the rate at which her face became just as red as her eyes amusing to Diana.
“Um… I-I- uh…”
Seeing the girl closing in on herself, even going as far as to take a step back from Diana as if she would need to bolt any second, Diana found herself immediately wanting to put the girl back at ease.
“I didn’t mean for that question to sound so accusatory, I apologize again,” she explained. “While I am quite curious why you were up there—or how you even got up there—I realize it’s not necessarily my place to demand an answer from you.”
“I just like to watch the students…” the girl mumbled so quietly Diana had to strain to understand.
“Why are the students here so much more fascinating than at your own school?”
The girl froze again, stammering out some unintelligible answer before she squeezed her eyes shut.
“I’m sorry!” she exclaimed almost frantically.
And then she took off. Diana had only taken one mere step forward in an attempt to stop her before the girl was gone from the vicinity.
For the second time in not even a half hour, Diana found herself blinking absently, at a complete loss for words.
She hadn’t even gotten the girl’s name…
Akko didn’t stop running until she was back inside park boundaries. She finally allowed herself to come to a stop by the fountain at the park’s center before bending over and allowing her lungs the precious air they sought.
“Shit, that was close!” she gasped as she regained her breath. She spared a look around her to make sure the girl hadn’t followed her before she added somberly, “Guess I can’t go back there anymore…”
The image of the girl from before traitorously flashed in Akko’s mind. Her immaculate presentation, esteemed posture… She had really been the whole nine yards of perfection.
Of course I would have run into the queen of the school, too, Akko bemoaned in her head. That’s almost even worse than if it had been the principal!
Still, she had been quite beautiful; perhaps that’s why Akko had tried talking to her before her instincts kicked in and told her to run.
No, bad Akko! Bad thoughts!
Still, as her heart rate returned to normal and Akko realized the crisis had truly been averted, she couldn’t help but let her thoughts wander back to the girl. Particularly her bizarre behavior.
It was like…split personalities or something, Akko continued to mull over as she aimlessly began wandering through the park. She started off so cold and closed-off, but then she was joking and teasing like she was enjoying the conversation.
Though Akko may not excel in social situations, she had mastered the art of reading people during her time on the street, and while the girl back there had been the furthest thing from an open book, it was almost like she was begging to be read.
Judging a book by its cover, huh…
Before she could look any deeper into things, she caught sight of a group of girls headed her way that caused her stomach to drop.
Akko gulped, fidgeting with the beanie atop her head. “H-Hey, Amanda!”
Amanda O’Neill, leader of the local ‘gang’ in town, the Rebels, and a small group of her members strutted up to the brunette. Akko had no doubt they were looking to get into nothing good.
“What are you doing here?” the feisty redhead asked. “Aren’t you usually pining after all those schoolgirls right about now?”
Akko fumed. “I do not ‘pine!’” she growled. “I just like to watch!”
Amanda scoffed. “Is that what you call it? How is that any different? Or better?”
Amanda raised her hands in surrender. “Look, whatever. Was just curious why you weren’t there.”
Akko figured mentioning she was essentially chased off campus wouldn’t help things. So instead she just weakly replied with a shrug, “I just didn’t feel up to it today.”
“Then would you feel up to coming to chill with us?” Amanda offered, a sly glint flashing in her eyes that had Akko slightly concerned. “We were just heading back to base. We managed to lift a Switch the other day, and Conz actually got this old bum TV working that’d been in the alley out back. Plus, there’s always food and drinks.”
Akko’s stomach turned at the mention of ‘food and drinks,’ recalling the past few experiences she had had with some of Amanda’s ‘delicacies.’
“I… I dunno…”
Amanda just clapped a hand on Akko’s back. “C’mon, dude! Look, some of your investments contributed to the tools Constance needed to get that TV working; don’t you want to see the fruit of that labor?”
Part of Akko wanted to shout at the fact that Amanda had spent her money on simple house tools, but the more compliant part of her just muttered out a “sure,” before she was being nearly-forcibly led from the park.
Twenty minutes later, Akko found herself in the dank, run-down building Amanda and the Rebels called home. She was squished in between two girls on a worn down couch, a can of warm, untouched beer in her hands, and a plate of brownies that were starting to make her stomach hurt just from the smell off to the side. Amanda and another girl were on the floor in front of them playing the Switch and constantly shouting profanities at the other while trying to swat the controller out of their opposition’s hands.
It wasn’t Akko’s definition of fun by any means, but she also had nothing better to be doing either. Somewhere deep in the back of her mind, she heard Chariot telling her to walk out and go to the library or get her guitar or something, but she must have actually drank some—or a lot—of her beer because she soon could no longer discern what the woman was rambling on about. Were all those empty cans at her feet hers?
“Akko!” Amanda’s voice cut through the haze. “You’re up!”
“I… I-I’m good,” Akko managed to slur. “Really.”
Amanda guffawed at the look on the brunette’s face in that moment.
“Uh, yeah you are! Dude, when was the last time you drank?”
There was no way Akko was going to remember that—or admit to it even if she could.
“Brownie?” the girl sitting beside her—Jasminka, was it?—offered, shoving the platter into her lap.
Fortunately, Akko was still sober enough to shove them away.
“I’m good,” she repeated, trying to swallow back the bile that rose from the aroma. “Do you just have any…chips?”
“Wimp,” Amanda sighed with a roll of her eyes while Jasminka handed Akko a bag of chips instead. “Well come on, grab another beer and come play with me. Avery apparently doesn’t know her right from her left and is too easy to beat.”
“Hey!” Avery barked from the other side of the room.
“You know it’s true, dumbass!”
Meanwhile, Akko’s head continued to throb from the heavy mixture of the drink in her stomach, the raucous banter echoing through the empty building, and the nauseating smell that now seemed to be coming from more than just the brownies.
“I think I…s-should just go… I dunno if I’d be mu-much…help.”
Concern finally seemed to find Amanda as she observed the brunette stumble to her feet.
“You need an escort home?” the redhead asked as she steadied Akko. “You know you crushed like five cans of beer, right?”
Amanda chuckled. “See, this is why you wouldn’t last one day in this gang. You’re a freakin’ lightweight, dude.”
Akko just mumbled something under her breath before breaking out of Amanda’s hold. Slowly, she started making her way towards the exit.
“You know the World Cup finals are next week!” Amanda hollered after her. “It’s fifty dollars to get into the betting pool!”
Akko simply flipped her the bird before she was back out in the blinding sunlight. Grumbling as her eyes adjusted to the drastic change from dark to light, she raised a hand to massage her temple. Why did it feel like somebody had a jackhammer running in her brain?
Luckily, Akko knew she wasn’t far from home; that was one good thing about hanging out with Amanda. If she had gotten this plastered elsewhere, Akko was certain she wouldn’t make it back before Finneran arrested her for public intoxication, never mind underage drinking and whatever else the spiteful cop cold stick on her.
She was still tripping over her own feet five blocks later as she turned the corner into the alley where her little hole in the wall lay. She managed to move aside the heavy wooden board she used as a door before she all but collapsed inside. Not even bothering with the door again, Akko crawled over to the mound of blankets that composed of her bed and stilled with one final groan.
At least tomorrow had to be better, right?
Tomorrow was so not better.
Not only did Akko wake up with a splitting headache, but also to the sound of rain coming down in buckets outside. Akko rolled over on her bed and stared out into the alley—had she really been so plastered yesterday she hadn’t even bothered closing up? She remained shocked with each day that went by and no one raided her little hidey-hole. With it being uncovered all night with her inside, she was almost asking to be mugged. After all, it wasn’t like she could have found a spot like this on the nice side of town…
Yet another instance reaffirming that Amanda is a horrible influence, Akko chided herself. Underage drinking, reckless endangerment… Gotta make a mental note not to take part in that little betting pool of hers; no matter what she promises me.
When a crack of thunder had Akko’s head ringing in response, she winced before beginning to shuffle through her miscellaneous collectibles, hoping she had something for a headache left somewhere. When her search turned up fruitless, she huffed, adding some ibuprofen to her list of necessities for the day.
Next, she reached to the bottom of her pile of blankets for a plastic baggie that contained her ‘emergency funds:’ a hefty ten dollars and forty-seven cents. Nabbing five dollars from the stash, she figured that should be enough for a small bottle of medicine and some protein bar of some sort. At least her hangover was keeping her from feeling the effect of skipping every meal yesterday.
Even starving, Akko knew better than to accept Amanda’s special brownies. She still had nightmares about being on Chariot and Croix’s couch and puking up her guts. It was not a pleasant experience, but at least it made the older women relieved that if Akko couldn’t handle a simple edible, there was no way she would turn to the harder stuff on the streets.
Akko shuddered just at the thought of what possibilities were out there.
By the time noon rolled around, Akko’s headache still lingered, souring her mood and expelling any motivation to get into some kind of mischief. Even the fact that she hadn’t had enough money to buy herself something to eat—relief from her hangover had prevailed over the unappealing selection of granola bars the small convenience store had on display—was dispelled from her mind in favor of continuing to curse Amanda’s name for everything she was worth.
Grumbling, Akko fiddled with the measly thirty-seven cents she had left in her hoodie pocket as she followed a familiar route down the sidewalk. Still a bit rattled from being caught yesterday at Luna Nova, she didn’t dare head back there so soon. Instead, she turned a corner and came face to face with yet another large building and expanse of space before her.
The public library.
Akko hurried inside and immediately felt at ease, her headache even seeming to finally subside a bit. Whether it was the medicine finally kicking in, or the library’s magical powers, Akko didn’t question.
Perhaps a library was an unusual place for ‘someone like her’ to find solace in, but Akko didn’t care what people thought here. Unlike her trespassing on Luna Nova property, the library was a public space. They had to open their doors to people of every background. But more than that, the library was a place where Akko could momentarily forget her situation. Here, she could be anything she wanted, depending on what book she picked up. She didn’t have to be the homeless girl with nothing going for her; she could be a magnificent witch, surprising all with her own magical prowess, she could fall in love, she could solve crimes, or she could just do simple research and truly feel like what she assumed a normal girl her age would.
Plus, on a rainy day such as this, what better way was there to pass the time than curled up with a good book?
Perusing the aisles of novels, Akko decided she was in a science fiction mood today and picked the first interesting title at random before retreating to her favorite chair in a secluded corner. Tucking her legs up under her, Akko opened to the first page and was immediately sucked into the book’s world...
Akko opened bleary eyes to see an elderly woman in front of her.
The woman smiled before saying politely, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. It’s time for me to close up.”
Akko looked at the book in her lap and cringed when she noticed she had only managed ten pages before falling asleep.
So maybe she hadn’t been as absorbed in this particular book as she was with others…
"Uh, sorry,” she mumbled sheepishly. “I’ll just put this back and get out of your hair.”
Scurrying away, Akko quickly put the book back on its rightful shelf before she was back out on the front stairs of the library.
And the rain was still coming down. Akko huffed.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the library closed at 6pm, so it must be just a bit after that, Akko deduced. Still early, and with her sudden nap minutes ago, she wasn’t quite ready to just pass the rest of the day away tossing in turning in her bed.
When her stomach growled, Akko sighed. At least she had something to do now. Marking her next destination as the park—as the many food vendors there were easy to nab a bite from should she desire—Akko pulled her hood up over her beanie and set off.
It was times like these, walking in the rain and trying to figure out what to do for dinner that night, when Akko’s desire for companionship swelled to the point that she wanted to cry. This would be the perfect weather to just be able to lounge about the house all day with a friend, not spending it alone asleep in a desolate corner of the library. This would be the perfect time to order some food and then get wrapped up in a movie with someone, not mull over which store on the block you hadn’t stolen from in the longest time. Even when feeling down such as she did currently, having someone by your side to help cheer you up, or even just stew under a dark cloud of their own would be better than facing it alone, right? But who would want to hang out with her? What did she bring to the table that would be incentive enough for someone to befriend her?
Akko grit her teeth as her thoughts headed south, and with nothing around to help distract her, she continued to stomp down the streets, her own raincloud hovering over her and doing more damage than Mother Nature could herself.
Her saving grace, however, came in the form of one slow wail of a siren.
Looking up from the wet ground below her, Akko’s spirits immediately began to lift as they always did.
“Officer du Nord! Croix!”
Then, just like always, the fact that she was so excited to see two cops infiltrated her mind and she was overcome with a bout of nerves.
“Wait… Am I in trouble again? I haven’t even done anything bad today, I swear!”
Chariot chuckled softly as she got out of the car, while Croix hung back with a roll of her eyes.
“No, Akko, you haven’t done anything wrong…”
“That we know of!”
Chariot huffed as Akko giggled before continuing, “We were just on patrol when we saw you wandering around.”
“More like sulking,” Croix butted in once more as she stepped up beside her partner. “Seriously, I know it’s raining, but you look even gloomier than the sky.”
Akko retaliated with her own roll of her eyes. “Look, I just had a bad day yesterday, okay? I guess my crap mood just carried over to today too.”
“How was it a bad day?” Chariot asked, concern instantly showing on her face.
Akko couldn’t help but smile at the officer’s worry. “Nothing bad enough to worry about, Officer du Nord, I promise.”
Chariot didn’t seem too convinced, but allowed the matter to be dropped all the same.
“Well, we’re glad we caught you all the same,” she said next. “We…wanted to invite you over to our place tonight. For dinner, o-or just to hang out.”
“And before you try and worm your way out of this one,” Croix spoke as soon as Akko opened her mouth to respond, and no doubt to decline, “we insist. In fact, I’m quite happy to cuff you and drag you home with us if it comes to that.”
“Croix…” Chariot whined.
“What?” the taller woman shrugged. “You said yourself we weren’t going to let her talk us out of it this time. I figured we’d make sure she knows we’re serious.”
“What’s the occasion?” Akko asked. “It’s not a holiday or anything.”
“What, you mean we have to have a reason to see our favorite little delinquent?” Croix retorted. “C’mon, there’s free, hot food that’s been cooked with love and care, a hot shower and fresh clothes, and I can even drag the old Nintendo out if it’ll get you to come.”
Akko looked to the ground and bit her lip. She really did hate when Chariot and Croix doted on her like this. Coming over for a holiday was one thing, but for no reason? She didn’t deserve it.
Still, as she looked up at Chariot, looking so pitiful and pleading with her eyes, and Croix who was impatiently beckoning her over with her hand, yet still held on to a caring devotion in her eyes, Akko found it harder and harder to say no.
She had been feeling awful down today, maybe this was exactly what she needed to get her back on her feet.
Sending a grateful smile to her friends, Akko nodded with a happy sigh of, “Okay.”
A little over two hours later, Akko found herself on a familiar couch and quite literally butting heads with Croix, N64 controller gripped tightly in her grasp. Her stomach was full, she was fresh out of the shower, and Chariot was even washing her clothes for her. Even though Akko was intimately focused on demolishing Croix in another round of Mortal Kombat, deep down, she felt at peace, an even deeper sense of peace than she could ever hope to find at the library, in the park, or even back in her own ‘home.’ She knew she always put up a fight coming over, but man did she love it.
It made her feel like she actually had a family.
“God dam, girl!” Croix’s shout had Akko grinning triumphantly. “Stopping ripping my guts out!”
“Are you kidding?” she retorted. “That’s the best part of the game!”
“Can’t you two play something more wholesome?” Chariot piped up uncomfortably from the kitchen where she was still cleaning up.
Croix chuckled. “Yes, mother.”
Akko laughed along with her before they gave Chariot a much-needed break of brutality.
“What do you want to play next, kid?” the lilac-haired woman asked as she walked into the kitchen herself to replenish her and Akko’s drinks.
Akko shrugged. “I dunno. You pick.”
“We could always watch a movie,” Chariot suggested then as she came to stand behind the couch the two sat on, hands on her waist in a very mother-like posture.
“Pft, I know that trick,” Akko said. “You just want to watch a movie because you know I’ll likely fall asleep in the middle of it, and then you really won’t let me leave.”
Chariot simply sighed, Akko having seen through her plans as she always did.
“You know we don’t mind you spending the night, Akko.
The mirth dimmed in Akko’s eyes for a moment as she shrugged, her fingers fiddling with the buttons on the controller.
“I know,” she muttered. “But you all do so much for me already—cooking me dinner, letting me shower, even washing my clothes? I just…feel like a burden.”
“Oh, Akko,” Chariot cooed, coming to squat before the girl, had coming to cup her cheek fondly. “Please don’t think that. You’re the furthest thing from a burden.”
“Yeah, kiddo,” Croix added, placing her own hand on Akko’s back in hopes to soothe. “Why do you think that?”
“I dunno,” Akko responded weakly with a small shrug. “‘Cause it’s something I can’t return? Like, forget making dinner for you all in return, I can’t even afford to take you guys to McDonald’s or something…”
“Seeing you smile is all the payment we need, Akko,” Chariot told her with conviction. “Please believe that. We never expect anything in return.”
“We don’t ever mean to make you feel bad about it either,” Croix said. “If you truly want us to back off for a bit, we will, but never think that we’re going out of our way for you.” Smirking, and trying to get things back on track, she added, “It’s not like we invite all the little derelicts we know into our home.”
“But why me?” She looked up at them both imploringly. “I’m nothing special.”
“I’m going to ignore that last part,” Chariot said firmly, her eyes narrowing briefly at Akko’s self-deprecating tone. “But, we honestly don’t have an answer for you. There’s just something about you that we want to protect.”
"Did you guys…ever consider having kids?” Akko asked then, looking up meekly and hoping she wasn’t crossing any lines.
She saw Chariot and Croix glance at the other for just a second before Chariot finally stood, taking Croix’s hand and smiling lovingly down at the girl before them.
“We did, but…”
“…now we have you.”
Akko ended up spending the night that night, having come completely undone.
"Come on, Diana! It's Saturday!"
Diana cringed at the whine from the other end of her phone, pulling the device away from her ear to preserve her hearing.
"Yeah, Diana! You can't seriously tell us you plan to spend the entire, gorgeous day inside?!"
The blonde huffed away from the phone so Hannah and Barbara wouldn't hear. Despite how exasperated she was with their constant poking and prodding into her life—always trying to get her to tag along with them to gods know where—she did recognize they really just cared a lot about her, and that's why they were so persistent.
Then again, why couldn't she just spend a Saturday indoors?
"Look, girls, I appreciate the offer, but I'm just not feeling up to it," she replied as kindly as she could. "Maybe we can get together to do the last of our schoolwork tomorrow night or something, but I have a few things I'd like to do on my own, okay?"
Silence permeated the line then, and Diana could just picture the two looking to each other in disappointment. Diana would have laughed at the mental image if she hadn't been the cause of it.
"Okay…" Hannah finally mumbled. "Just…don't work yourself too hard?"
Diana scoffed, her usual substitute for a laugh, and rolled her eyes.
"And just what gives you the idea that I'll be spending the weekend working? I have plenty of ways to entertain myself that don't include any schoolwork."
"Yeah, but we know you," Barbara piped up. "If your aunt doesn't drag you into anything, you'll just stay in your room all day to avoid her, right?"
Diana sighed; these girls really did know her too well.
"Look, girls, I appreciate the concern, and I promise I'll take care of myself. If it makes you feel any better, I won't even touch my schoolwork until Sunday night. Then we can get together and you can see for yourselves that I'm telling the truth."
That seemed to placate them as Hannah, Barbara and Diana then decided to meet at Barbara's house at six o' clock Sunday evening. As Diana ended the call, she realized she really just signed her Saturday away, as she had been expecting to do her schoolwork just as her friends had guessed.
At least her aunt and cousins weren't around today. The best thing about Saturdays—aside from the lack of school, as surprising as that may be to hear from Diana—was the fact that Daryl and her daughters were always away from the house all day. Diana didn't know where they got off to, but after so many years, she didn't even care anymore.
Deciding she didn't have to hide away in her room all day, Diana decided an undisturbed breakfast would be a nice way to start the day. After glancing out her bedroom window, she saw the sun was shining and it looked to be a relatively warm, gorgeous spring day, just like Hannah had said. She would definitely have to make the most of the weather, so she quickly threw on the most casual outfit she could find.
As she finished her ponytail in the mirror, she grinned at her appearance. Daryl would no doubt give her quite the verbal and physical lashing if she were to see Diana dressed this way. She realized then that this outfit had been the star of her 'rebellious' years, so it was no wonder Daryl detested it so.
It was just a simple blue and purple plaid button up atop a white t-shirt, a pair of light blue skinny jeans, and white flats, but it was simply too 'common' for a girl of her status to be wearing.
Or so Daryl would screech.
It was comfy. It was the weekend. It was Diana's life.
The latter of which she was finally beginning to understand fully.
Giving her reflection one final nod in satisfaction, Diana grabbed her purse and headed downstairs. She could feel the surprised stares from her staff, and that only further spurred Diana on, giving her an air of confidence—and even superiority—she hadn't felt in a long time.
"M-Milady!" her personal maid, and head maid of the entire staff, Anna, gasped in equal shock as Diana walked into the dining room. "Your outfit!"
Diana simply raised a brow at the older woman's cry, waiting to see what else she was going to say.
"You… You look lovely, milady," Anna finally stated with a warm smile. "As a girl your age should."
"I figured I should take advantage of Aunt Daryl being away," Diana responded with a small chuckle as she sat down at the table, Anna immediately gesturing for the staff to bring out breakfast.
"I was hoping you would grace us with your presence," Anna said as she came to stand on the opposite side of the table Diana had sat down at. "I know Lady Daryl's tendencies, but it's not healthy for you to keep yourself locked away in your room. If you truly do want to usurp this family from under Daryl, you need to start conjuring a strong presence. Show the Lady that strength I and the other staff know you possess."
"I know, Anna," Diana sighed, looking down at the table in an almost ashamed manner. "Sometimes I get that surge of confidence and anger I need to be stronger, but then I just remember my past attempts and I retreat. Dressing like this is still all I can manage to rebel."
"Well, we know how effective this method is," Anna said with a wink. "I think Lady Daryl nearly went into cardiac arrest that one time you wore shorts when you were fifteen."
Diana laughed along with her maid. "Yes, her expression was certainly reward enough."
Smile fading somewhat, Anna crossed her hands before her. "Diana," she spoke softly, and Diana knew Anna only used her actual name on rare occasions, "you do know all the staff here feel your pain and share your desire to remove Lady Daryl from the picture, not just me. You have all of our support. You are the true heir to this family."
"I know," Diana assured her with a small smile. "I'm… I just don't know what more I can do sometimes."
"We can perhaps discuss some methods together at a later time," Anna said. "For now, enjoy your breakfast and take a day to yourself."
"Thank you, Anna."
The woman bowed before retreating with another, "Milady."
Diana poked at her breakfast as she mulled over Anna's words. She knew the woman was right. She couldn't continue to let Daryl tarnish the Cavendish name or run her family's image into the ground, yet she hadn't been lying when she said she was at a loss of what she could possibly do to fight back. Diana was certain there was more to her mother and father's wills, but of course Daryl kept those under careful lock and key, only furthering Diana's suspicions.
Even on a day such as this, when she knew without a doubt that her aunt and cousins wouldn't return until late in the evening, she didn't dare enter her aunt's bedroom or study. Her past experiences had molded her well, and some instances even still haunted her in her dreams.
Diana finished her breakfast in silence—which was honestly a welcome relief from any degrading comments Daryl usually subjected her to at meals—and soon she found herself in the backseat of her personal driver's Escalade.
"Where are you off to, miss?" the driver, an older man named Hank, asked pleasantly.
"Let's say the Wednesday Café, Hank," Diana replied with a smile. Sure, she may have just eaten, but she could always go for another cup of coffee.
A quick fifteen minute drive, and soon Diana was stepping out of the car, telling Hank she would call when she wished to return home. She didn't want the man waiting around for her when she had no schedule to adhere to.
The bell above the café door chimed as Diana walked in, and immediately the wonderful aroma of coffee and pastries hit her. She couldn't hold back and smile and pleasant sigh. This was one of her favorite places downtown; her safe haven when things became too much at home and even her bedroom was no longer her own.
"Hello, Diana!" a freckled girl greeted from behind the counter.
"Hello, Lotte," Diana replied as she stepped up to the counter, easy smile still in place. "Let's just go with a dark roast today."
"I heard, I heard…" the pink-haired girl down the line mumbled. "Don't have a cow."
Lotte just sighed, used to her coworker's drab behavior as Diana allowed herself a chuckle.
"So how are classed going?" Lotte asked as she rang the blonde up.
While Lotte and Sucy both attended Luna Nova with Diana, they were a year behind and had never shared any classes with her. Still, they knew her reputation simply by word of mouth; everyone did.
"They are going well, thank you. I have already begun preparing study material for my finals."
"Only you would do so with a good three months still left in the semester," Sucy said dryly, though with a smirk. Diana was fairly used to her teasing.
"Yes, well, you can never be too prepared," she retorted, the small twinkle in her eyes the only indication she had taken Sucy's bait.
"And that's something only you would say…"
Diana's lips twitched, Sucy's mirroring her seconds later.
"Touché." Then, with a small scoff of a laugh, Diana took her drink and headed for the door. "I'll see you guys."
She stood outside the café briefly as she planned her next move. This freedom was so rare for her to come by that she almost didn't know what to do with it. Following a set schedule day in and day out, being a mere puppet for someone else's show, the agency she now found herself with was humbling.
Deciding on a stroll in the park, Diana sipped her coffee as she crossed the street. She had no destination in mind, but with the weather this nice so early in the year, she wasn't heading home anytime soon.
What she didn't expect, however, was to start hearing music the deeper into the park she went.
The upbeat, lively tune peaked her curiosity and Diana found herself being pulled along by the melody. Rounding a few trees led her to a large open, circular plaza, a magnificent fountain in its center. Diana had honestly never been to this part of the park, and she couldn't help but fall still and admire the scenery and sense of peace that pulsed through the area.
It was then her eyes zeroed in on the single girl sitting on the edge of said fountain, strumming a guitar amongst all the people milling about—joggers going by, people walking their dogs, kids throwing coins in the water. A simple jar sat at her feet, should anyone be feeling generous, no doubt. She had obviously scouted the place earlier or was a regular to this area, as it was obvious she had picked prime real estate.
A small smile formed on Diana's face as she continued to listen to the music. The girl was very good, though her guitar did sound a bit off.
It was only under closer scrutiny that Diana recognized the girl.
Burgundy hoodie, gray beanie...
"The girl in the tree," Diana spoke under her breath.
Butterflies took flight in her stomach as she fought with herself over whether to approach or not. What was she supposed to say? Demand why she had been on campus the other day? That would go well... Still, Diana couldn't deny there was something about the girl that lured her in along with her haunting melody.
She chewed on her bottom lip, her hands clenching around the coffee still in her hands. She found herself having to muster up some courage before taking a tentative step, her mind still roaring with possible things to say.
In her approach, she realized that not only was this girl simply playing guitar, she was singing too, the lyrics becoming clear the closer she got. Diana gulped as the fluttering in her gut increased.
She was really good...
"...And I, I want you to know
Everyone's got to face down their demons
We can put the past away.
I wish you would step back from that ledge, my friend
You could cut ties with all the lies
That you've been living in
And if you do not want to see me again
I would understand
I would understand
I would understand..."
As the girl finished the song, she looked up at Diana now standing before her, those red eyes captivating the blonde once again. Recognition quickly dawned on the girl's face as well as those eyes quickly widened and she went rigid, her knuckles white on the stalk of her guitar.
"You..." she said on a breath.
Diana's brain flat lined and she said the first thing that came to mind.
"Your guitar needs to be tuned."
The familiar spark of indignation that set those rubies ablaze told Diana she had said the wrong thing once again.
"If I'm that bad then just walk away," the girl scoffed, looking away with a pout.
"I never said you were bad," Diana tried again. "I...quite enjoyed it actually. Did you write that yourself?"
Now the girl was laughing and Diana was confused.
"What, you've never heard of Third Eye Blind before?"
Diana shook her head, an embarrassed flush coloring her face as she mumbled, "I grew up on classical music."
The girl chuckled and rolled her eyes. "Of course you did."
Diana cocked her head then, not truly understanding the implication. The girl blushed.
"I-It's nothing," she quickly cast aside. "Was there...anything you wanted?"
Diana looked at the ground briefly before fully committing.
"I realize I never got your name last time. If we're to keep seeing each other like this, I suppose we should know at least that about the other, right?"
The girl blinked at her briefly before uttering, "I-I'm Akko."
Diana smiled then and replied, "It's nice to meet you, Akko. My name is Diana."
She saw the girl mouth the word "pretty" before the both of them were wearing identical blushes. Akko, noticing Diana saw what she had just done, nervously cleared her throat, her eyes now looking anywhere but her.
"I-I mean... Do you want to make a request?"
Akko gestured at her guitar and Diana's smile returned at the kind offer. There was no doubt, however, that anything she chose, Akko for sure wouldn't know. Instead, she indicated if she could join the brunette on the lip of the fountain. Akko was blushing curiously again as she shuffled over quickly to make room.
"Surprise me," she finally requested with a small shrug.
That was the right thing to say finally as Akko's face lit up in a blinding smile, Diana finding its warmth even reached her heart and caused it to tingle.
Diana can't say she had planned to spend her afternoon listening to a near-stranger play in the park, but it would be a lie to say she didn't enjoy it as much—and probably more, if she were honest—as anything else she could have done that day.
"...So hold on, 'cause the tide is strong
They can't erase the fire in our eyes
Let the walls break
What we have they cannot take
And if all that's left is you and me tonight
No they won't take us alive
And if all that's left is you and me tonight
No they won't take us alive."
As the final notes of Akko's latest song faded away, Diana opened her eyes—wait, when had she even shut them?
"I thought you had fallen asleep on me," Akko said with a small, nervous laugh.
"Not at all," Diana tried to reassure her—seriously, how long had they been closed? "I was simply immersed in the song is all. You really do have a gift for this; especially now that you've tuned that guitar."
Akko flushed with embarrassment, whether from the praise or the jab, Diana wasn't sure.
"It's really just a hobby," the brunette mumbled.
Diana's eyes widened. "You mean you're self taught?"
Akko's cheeks quickly matched her eyes in color.
They both fell silent then and Diana's anxiety started to rise. This was what she didn't want to happen, these miles of silence to separate them. But what did she say next? She really was amazed Akko seemed to have no professional training, but she also didn't want to further embarrass the girl, nor did she want to seem too...obsessed?
Diana huffed internally. This was why she didn't have more than two friends.
Choosing to instead watch the girl reach down for the jar at her feet, Diana figured that was a good alternative. The smile that kept blooming on the brunette's face was mesmerizing.
"I made almost ten bucks!"
Diana had never heard someone so happy over a mere ten dollars, but the girl's elation was contagious.
"That's great, Akko," she replied with a laugh.
Akko turned to her, still beaming, though she looked like she had something she wanted to say. Eyes flickering every which way, she eventually seemed to lose confidence as she instead looked at the wad of cash in her hands and whispered, "Thanks."
Another beat of silence.
"Do you play here often?" Diana asked, honestly simply trying to stall and keep the conversation going. She was enjoying this interaction as much as she had enjoyed their first and found she didn't want her and Akko to depart quite yet.
Luckily, Akko didn't seem to mind.
"Kinda," she said with a casual shrug. "It definitely gives me the biggest audience. I get chased away if I sit outside someone's shop or something."
"What about playing in the subway?"
"The subway creeps me out..."
They both dissolved into a fit of giggles then.
"I don't like the subway either," Diana told her conspiratorially.
"Yeah, don't you have like your own personal limo or something?"
That gave Diana pause and she cocked her head once more.
"What do you mean?"
Akko's face flared yet again as she floundered for words. "L-Like...you just...radiate this lavish lifestyle, I guess? It's not a bad thing! But you just seemed kinda...haughty when we first met, but today you're nothing like that, but there's still this air about you that makes me feel so inferior."
Diana looked away. "I... I won't lie; I do come from quite a wealthy background, but please don't think you're beneath me in any way, Akko."
Something dark flashed only for a second in the brunette's eyes then, but Diana saw it.
"Yeah, sure..." she mumbled. Then, with a shake of her head, she did a complete one-eighty and beamed once more. "Now you gotta promise to come watch me play again, you know!"
Diana hesitated to respond for a second, still caught off guard by that look Akko had tried to hide. It seemed so...empty, hate-filled; not towards Diana, but towards Akko herself. It made Diana's stomach twist into a knot, but she knew better than to breach the subject now.
"Well, I do frequent a café that is nearby, so you may see me around," she finally replied with another gentle smile, hoping to keep the girl at ease.
Diana felt herself laughing once more and basked in the feeling. This was great; exactly what she desired when she was brooding in her room or burying herself in her schoolwork. She didn't know what about Akko made being her true self so much easier, but if Akko was excited to keep her around, Diana definitely wasn't going to stay away.
Red bore into blue as smiles mirrored each other, and in that moment, a special kind of bond was formed.
First song: "Jumper" - Third Eye Blind
Second song: "Alive" - Arrows to Athens
Despite her best efforts, sleep did not come easy for Akko that night. She found herself tossing and turning consistently even though it wasn't a matter of getting comfortable; it was more like she couldn't shut off her brain. All it would do whenever she closed her eyes was replay the day's events over and over and over again, focusing on one specific aspect.
Diana, Akko reminded herself with a small smile. Her name's Diana.
Ever since they had parted ways hours ago, Akko couldn't get her out of her head. Despite having interacted twice now with each other, Akko felt like she only had more questions regarding the blonde, not answers. Like before, she had started off cold and closed off, like she was on guard about something, the first thing out of her mouth being something negatively critical of Akko. Then, the switch was flipped yet again and she was apologizing, immediately trying to make up for her snide remarks.
Akko smirked, rolling onto her back. She was almost as bad with people as Akko was herself.
Maybe that's why she wouldn't get out of her head?
It was a bit embarrassing, really, Akko had concluded when she had first lay down for bed, how she couldn't stop thinking about Diana. They were still mere strangers to the other, or perhaps acquaintances at best now, if she was being optimistic. Still, that didn't warrant someone plaguing your thoughts at night and keeping you from sleep.
I guess I just need to find out more about her then, Akko rationalized, her eyebrows furrowing as she tried to recall details about the girl. I guess for now I can just leave it as her being the first person to give me the time of day that's not Chariot or Croix; that's why I'm so fixated on her. She could potentially be the first friend I make my own age!
That final thought had Akko's heart thumping from excited anticipation only briefly before it deflated as she realized something horrible.
Tomorrow was Sunday. Akko doubted she would just conveniently see Diana on a whim in the middle of downtown, and school wouldn't be in session, keeping Akko from "running into her" on Luna Nova's campus for at least another day.
Huffing, Akko rolled onto her side, pouting at the far wall of her dwellings.
Well, maybe she could use the day to her advantage somehow anyway? If she wanted to become friends with Diana, they needed to have things in common, right? Besides being socially inept, that is.
Akko roved her eyes over her few belongings before they finally settled on her guitar. She grinned.
It had been music that had brought them together today, wasn't it? And it was knowledge that had been at play the first time. Perhaps a clever combination of the two would be enough to win over Diana's friendship.
"I grew up on classical music."
Akko grinned. "Bingo," she whispered, her mind already at work with the perfect plan as she curled up tight in her bed.
Tomorrow's day was now booked.
Akko had risen bright and early the next morning, despite her restless night. She quickly straightened up her things before grabbing her guitar and darting outside. In no time, she found herself back outside the public library's doors, only this time they were locked.
In her haste, she had arrived two hours before the library actually opened.
Stupid Sunday hours... Akko grumbled as she retreated to a nearby patio area and sat down at a table.
Figuring she should make the best of her spare time, Akko went over the plan in her head. It was quite simple on the outside; all she was going to do was impress Diana by playing some classical piece on her guitar. The kicker, however, was that Akko didn't know a single musical number or composer of the classical genre. She was able to recognize the genre when hearing it, but beyond that...
Beethoven didn't play the guitar, did he?
She huffed and chastised herself internally. No, Beethoven was the piano guy; Mozart was the one who played guitar.
"Ugh, maybe this plan was doomed to fail from the beginning," Akko bemoaned out loud.
Still, she was resolute in her ways, and so she waited diligently for the library to open. As soon as she knew it was noon, Akko rushed inside.
"Uh, do you all have a music section?" she asked the librarian behind the front desk, the same lady that had politely asked her to leave on her last visit here. Akko hoped she didn't recognize her.
"Down the stairs to your right," the older woman replied with a kind smile, making no indication she remembered Akko in any way. "Any literature and sheet music for the guitar will be to the left of the statue."
Akko very nearly asked the lady how she knew she was looking for books related to the guitar before she remembered the familiar feeling of the instrument against her back. She had to keep herself from face palming in front of the woman.
Damn it, Akko, get ahold of yourself.
She retreated with a sheepish smile and turned right at the end of the desk, taking the three steps down in a single jump. Before her was an abstract structure Akko assumed must be the statue. Sure enough, as she looked to her left she faced a bookshelf with a sign that said Guitar hanging from the ceiling above it. Glancing around, she saw signs for the piano, percussion, woodwinds, and even a few instruments she didn't recognize.
Akko remembered the librarian mention sheet music, and so she immediately started her search there. Luckily, the composition books were even organized by genre. Pulling a book at random simply because she liked the art on the front, Akko started flipping through the pages of the book to see if anything inside stuck out at her.
Why are all these songs so fast?! Akko balked, her mind trying and failing to follow the notes on the pages before her. There's no way I can learn these fast enough!
Finally, on the last piece in the book, she stopped. At last, there was a form she could understand, a melody she could hear in her head, scales and keys she was familiar with. It, in a sense, was perfect. Akko could already hear the composition in her head, and it was beautiful; maybe she could make it even more so.
A beautiful song for a beautiful girl, Akko thought with a shy smile, heat rising to her cheeks that she didn't have to worry about suppressing for once.
She dog-eared the page and closed the book, staring at the cover and sighing. She felt bad for having to steal the book, but she had no way of obtaining a library card. She didn't have any kind of photo ID, nor did she even have a valid address, so she didn't qualify for a free card, and she didn't have enough money to simply buy one.
A large cloud of guilt settled in her gut as she looked around to make sure no one was looking before taking her guitar from her back. Luckily, the book was thin, but unfortunately still thick enough that it wouldn't roll up well. Shoving it inside her guitar wasn't going to work.
Guess it was the old "tuck and run." At least the strap of her guitar would help keep the book from sliding out of her hoodie a bit. Still, as Akko hustled past the front desk, she crossed an arm over her stomach to grab her other arm, hoping the pose would make it seem as if she was disappointed she couldn't find what she had hoped. As soon as she was outside, however, she pulled the book out and grinned.
Step one was complete.
For step two, she decided to just head home to learn the piece. She wouldn't be disturbed, and she wouldn't annoy anyone while she was sure to make dozens of mistakes.
And that's how Akko spent the rest of her day, playing her guitar in some dingy hole in the wall. She sat right outside during the daylight hours so she could use the natural light before retreating in and practicing by flashlight for the rest of the evening. It wasn't the most luxurious way to spend a Sunday, but the music helped to ease her mind.
Akko decided she could cut Diana a break for only knowing classical music. She was slowly becoming a fan herself.
By the time she retired for the night, Akko had a good handle on the composition. She wasn't perfect by any means, and the unfamiliarity of it all didn't make it come as easy as the standard modern music she played. Still, she forced herself to think positive; it would definitely still catch Diana's attention.
She allowed herself to sleep in a bit the next day to recuperate from the day prior. Plus, it wasn't like she was going to go drag Diana out of Luna Nova. Even if she didn't get tackled by security, Diana would surely not approve of her interrupting her studies.
No, she would just have to wait until school let out.
Luckily, she knew from all her trips on campus that classes ended at 3pm. Still having several hours to kill, Akko decided snagging a bite to eat wouldn't hurt.
Maybe food would help to calm these annoying butterflies fluttering in her stomach.
Akko casually made her way down the busy streets, guitar on her back once again. She had grabbed the ten dollars she had made the other day on her way out, just in case she did end up getting caught shoplifting. She entered a gas station and began casually walking the aisles. Despite being high noon, the small mart was deserted, the man behind the counter seeming to be taking stock of the cigarettes behind the desk. Akko grinned. What luck.
Still keeping an eye out for cameras, she came to the rows of chips and protein bars. Feeling slightly emboldened at the lack of people around, Akko picked up a bag pretzels and a chocolate breakfast bar. She tried not to look back at the camera to avoid being obvious, and was able to see its position out of her peripherals. Angling herself just right that it would appear she was just putting the items back, Akko moved each to the shelf before quickly depositing them in her waiting hand in her hoodie pocket. She was lucky her hoodie was a bit too big for her, as the bag of pretzels wasn't as noticeable as it would be if she actually had clothes that fit her.
She approached the counter casually, though when she saw the man still with his back to her, she quickly shuffled the rest of the way out. Once she turned a corner, she burst out laughing; it was always such a high lifting things. Although part of her did always feel some kind of guilt afterwards, her overwhelming hunger had the shame retreating to the far reaches of her mind.
Munching on her rewards, Akko decided to go ahead and get to Luna Nova. She wanted to be there before classes let out, and she could always spend the time meanwhile practicing even more.
It was only as the school's large arch started looming in the distance did Akko hesitate.
Was she really doing this? Did she really think it was going to work? Were all the other students really just going to stroll on by and ignore her, rather than shoo her filth away from their pristine campus?
Ugh, whatever, she grumbled internally when she started to get a headache. I live life on the edge enough already, what's a little more?
It was with that mentality that Akko plopped herself down right outside the archway, leaning back against the cool brick of the structure. Settling in, Akko took in a deep breath and began to play.
The time passed fast enough, and eventually the chime of the campus' clock tower signaled the end of the day. This was it; show time.
She started the song from the beginning, putting all her focus into the melody as she played from memory, trying to put on her best performance. So engulfed in the music was she that she didn't pay attention to the girls walking past her. Most either paid her no mind or simply glanced at her curiously. Only a few scowled or looked turned off by her presence.
Startled, the chord Akko had been going into ended up a lackluster twang as she whipped her head up.
Her heart immediately leapt to her throat.
"Uh, heh... Hey, Diana?"
Was that a smile on her face? Akko's heart started beating so erratically it was creating a song all its own.
"That's Isaac Albéniz's Tango in D, is it not?" she asked, and Akko knew she had the blonde's full attention.
Crap... No, wait! Yay!
"Uh, y-yeah, it is!" she replied confidently even with her stutter. She had made sure to memorize the name of the piece and composer almost more than the music itself, and had almost even gone as far as write it on her hand.
If she had found a pen or marker, that is...
Diana took a step closer to let the rest of her classmates pass by more easily. Her smile turned more into a smirk as she continued to look down at Akko.
"And here I was certain you wouldn't know any classical music."
"I'm...full of surprises?"
The laugh that fluttered to Akko's ears then nearly made her shudder.
"That is quite a beautiful piece, not to mention a standard with the guitar," Diana continued with poise. "You are certainly doing it justice."
Akko's smile was so big by now she was sure her face would crack any second. Although, Diana's looked nearly equally as large, and even though her elegant, structured behavior and attitude seemed present once again, Akko was certain she could get those walls to come down once more.
"It probably helps that I remembered to tune the guitar this time," she quipped with a nervous chuckle.
Another small laugh came from Diana, and another crack in the dam was formed.
As another silence settled between them, Akko bit her lip. She had been so focused on this part of the plan that she had never thought about what to do next. She had caught Diana's attention again, but how did she hold it?
"Do you want to go somewhere else?"
"Are you hungry?"
Blushes of equal ferocity were flaring on both of their cheeks by now, but the embarrassment was minimal as they began laughing instead.
"Sorry," Akko giggled, able to compose herself faster. "What did you say?"
Diana's blush only grew as she looked to her hands twisting before her.
"I was asking if you were hungry," she nearly mumbled, the crack having spread and letting her true self spill forth. "I studied through my lunch period, and there is this really nice café right outside the park."
"The one you said you go to all the time?"
Another smile tugged at the corner of Diana's lips. "The very same."
Even though Akko had actually eaten just a few hours ago, there was no way she was about to turn down this opportunity. Diana was actually asking her to accompany her somewhere?
This is going so much better than I thought it would! she squealed, barely able to keep her glee inside.
Quickly hurrying to her feet, Akko swung her guitar onto her back before beaming at Diana.
"Lead the way!"
Diana's hands were trembling as she led Akko down one of the many downtown sidewalks. She was thankful for the small distance between Luna Nova's campus and their destination, for it gave her time think. The girl beside her was quiet as well, looking down at her feet with a studious look Diana was sure matched her own.
She wasn't regretting her offer at all, no; rather, she was just surprised she had done so at all.
What had she gotten herself into?
She hadn't come on too strong, had she?
The repeated scuff of sneakers next to her worked to quell the latter of her worries. Surely Akko wouldn't still be following her if she had felt coerced into doing so. Though, for some reason Diana found the alternative equally as unsettling.
Akko had leapt at her offer. Diana had never seen such a grand smile light up the girl's face before. It had been enough to instill sufficient confidence in her to start their journey, but now that confidence was severely dwindling.
The awkward silence that had settled between them wasn't helping, either.
"So, you told me you're self taught, but how long have you been playing?" she finally put out once she had gathered the courage to do so.
Akko looked up at the sound of her voice, but the blank look Diana received told her she hadn't fully heard her. As she blinked and the clouded look in her eyes vanished—and was replaced by an adorable look of confusion, Diana admitted—she knew her assumption had been correct.
"Huh?" Akko shook her head like she was trying to clear it before she blushed. "S-Sorry, what?"
Diana couldn't fight her smile. "How long have you been playing guitar?"
"Oh." Akko shifted said instrument on her shoulder. "Three years, I guess?"
"That is honestly quite impressive that you have become so adept at it in such a relatively short amount of time," Diana replied, making sure her surprise was evident. It was indeed no small feat; Akko deserved to know that.
Akko, meanwhile, simply shrugged. "I had a good teacher."
"So, you were taught?"
Akko chuckled. "In a way? Like, she taught me the basics of everything, but then any song I know I taught myself."
"I see. May I ask who your teacher was?"
A panicked look flashed in the brunette's eyes as she looked away from Diana, hurrying a few steps ahead in her haste to recover.
"Just... Just a f-friend..."
Diana found her reaction curious, though she knew better than to pressure Akko into revealing information she seemed uncomfortable giving. It was, after all, the girl's mysterious, alluring nature that had drawn Diana to her in the first place.
They finished the rest of their walk in another silence, though this one was slightly less stiff. Once Diana saw the sign hanging outside the Wednesday Café, her nerves calmed somewhat as she picked up her speed.
"Here we are," she announced with an easy smile, opening the door and gesturing for Akko to step on through. The girl did so with a bowed head and darkened cheeks.
The familiar chime of the bell sounded, and Diana watched with a semblance of pride as Akko looked up, taking in her surroundings with awe. Small wooden tables lined the two side walls, the counter and coffee machines were pushed against the back wall, and a few booths sat adjacent to the front of building, which featured floor to ceiling windows. A few plush couches and leather chairs were strewn about the center of the area, giving off a welcoming, cozy vibe.
Not to mention the smell of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and the miscellaneous pastries the café sold as well.
"I see why you like this place..."
Diana chuckled. "I'm glad you approve of the décor, but save your final judgement after you've ordered something," she responded playfully. "Though I'm confident you won't be disappointed."
Akko looked back at her with a grin. "That's for me to determine and you to find out!"
Diana gestured showily towards the counter, her smile and teasing tone never lessening. "Then by all means. It shall be my treat."
Akko stopped mid step at the offer, turning to face Diana with a look of confusion, though this look was more worrying than it was adorable.
Why did she look so guilty?
"I-I'm sorry," Diana quickly backpedaled. "I didn't mean to offend you or-."
"No!" Akko suddenly cried. "Diana, it's...a super nice offer! It's just...why?"
"Why?" Diana blinked.
The brunette reverted back to her shy demeanor, her attention focused on the hardwood floors beneath them. "Why are you treating me?"
"Well..." Because that's what a friend would do? Because she was trying to win the girl over? "I... I realize I never gave you any money the other day after you played that song for me. That was incredibly rude on my part, so I'd like to apologize by buying you something now," was what she eventually settled on, hoping it was the right answer.
"I wasn't expecting you to pay me then, you know," Akko mumbled, though there was a small smile on her face now as she looked back up. "I wanted to play for you."
Morale slowly on the rise now that Akko was smiling again, Diana smiled too, trying to look undaunted. "Then I simply just want to treat you."
A shade of pink dusted across Akko's cheeks again, though this time it was considerably lighter. "O-Okay."
As they stood in line, Diana pondered over her and Akko's behavior with each other thus far. Sometimes it was like they were old friends, making jokes at the other's expense and then laughing it off, and then suddenly the next moment they were fumbling over each other like high schoolers with their first crush. What did all of it mean?
Do I have a crush on Akko? Diana questioned in her head, grateful she was currently in front of said brunette so the girl of her musings couldn't see the furious red that had overtaken her face. I mean...that's preposterous! I've only known her a few days, and even then I still barely know anything about her!
Although, Diana also admitted begrudgingly, she had never really had any crushes before now, so how was she to know how they worked? She also had no real friends, so perhaps this was simply normal behavior between budding friends.
Hell if I know, she grumbled internally, forcing her blush to fade as the two of them finally stepped up to order. Lotte, of course, welcomed her with a smile.
"Hi, Diana!" she chimed, Sucy grunting her hello from behind the redhead where she was busy preparing orders. "Who's this?"
"You come here so much the people that work here even know you by name?!" Akko seemed absolutely astounded Diana was on a first name basis with the girl.
"Diana comes here all the time," Lotte explained. "Plus we go to school together. I wouldn't say we know each other well, but enough to be friendly with the other."
"Yeah, she's here enough, how could we not know her?" Sucy droned before hollering out an order for pickup.
Akko smiled brightly. "Well, I'm Akko!" she greeted jovially. "Diana's pretty great, huh?"
"A-Akko..." Diana groaned, bowing her head to hide her flush. She hadn't been expecting that. And in front of Lotte and Sucy too...
Within five minutes, they had their orders and had settled in at a booth by the window, Akko's guitar leaning against the table. She had insisted on ordering whatever Diana did, so they both currently warmed their hands on hot mugs of chamomile tea, Diana's favorite when she wasn't in a coffee mood.
"Didn't you say you worked through your lunch?" Akko asked after a brief unsure silence. "Aren't you going to eat something? That banana bread up there looked pretty tasty."
Diana found it quite annoying how often she found herself blushing in the brunette's presence, but she also couldn't deny the fact that her brain just wouldn't quite function like normal either for whatever reason. She indeed not had lunch earlier, and, at the mention of food, heard her stomach grumble to confirm the fact. She had been so distracted when ordering—she had to pick the perfect thing knowing Akko was going to have the same thing—that she had completely forgotten.
"I... I did, yes," she replied quietly, still quite embarrassed.
When she made no move to get up, however, she saw Akko cock her head.
"But you're not going to get anything?"
All Diana could offer in return was a weak shrug.
There was a brief sound of rustling before Diana saw a protein bar being pushed across the table to her. Looking up, Akko was smiling and gave a little shrug of her own.
"You can have this, if you want," she said.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah! I know you're hungrier than you're letting on. You need it more than I do at the moment."
Diana wasn't quite sure how the girl "knew" how hungry she was, but the offer was incredibly sweet and genuine, plus Diana couldn't deny the excited little shiver that went down her back as her fingers accidentally brushed against Akko's as she picked up the bar.
"Thank you, Akko," she said, still quiet, though this time from a different reason of embarrassment.
"Hey, you bought me a drink! I owed 'ya!"
Diana chuckled. "You most certainly did not. This isn't some kind of competition of who can do the kindest thing for the other."
A playful glint flashed in Akko's eyes as she leaned across the table.
"What if it was?"
"Pardon?" Diana asked with an arched eyebrow as she took the first bite out of the protein bar.
"What would you do next to outdo me?" Akko was nearly bouncing in her seat. Diana had no idea why she was so excited by this new...game?
Still, it was too captivating for Diana to not play along.
She smirked. "I'd go buy you a slice of that banana bread," she played.
Akko's grin widened, whether from Diana's response, or simply just the fact that she was playing along.
"Then I'd learn your absolute favorite song and play it for you!"
"Then I'd have to make sure to give you a tip this time."
"What if I don't want any money?"
"Then I'd take you out to lunch."
Both girls froze at the bold answer. Akko's cheeks were as red as her eyes, and Diana was certain her cheeks were clashing with her own blue ones. They both immediately looked down at their laps, although when Diana glanced up she saw Akko do the same. Their eyes meeting made them both come even closer to spontaneously combusting.
"You would?" Akko asked so meekly Diana wasn't sure she had even said anything at all.
Diana thought her answer over carefully, chewing on her lip as she did so, something Aunt Daryl absolutely abhorred.
"I would," she replied equally as delicately. Swallowing, she looked back at the brunette across from her and refused to look away. "I've really enjoyed all the time we have spent with the other, even though they don't amount to much yet."
"Yet?" Akko was looking a bit more recovered now, although her blush hadn't quite faded.
Now Diana rolled her eyes, though she made sure Akko knew it was in jest, not annoyance.
"I'm saying I like hanging out with you, Akko."
"So does that make us friends?"
"Yes, Akko, it makes us friends."
Diana was on such a high when she arrived home hours later that not even Daryl's normally intimidating glower could make the happiness fluttering in her heart dissipate.
"And just where were you?" her aunt growled, her typical aggressive, belittling tone she only used for Diana present. "I hope you realize school let out nearly three hours ago."
Had she really been with Akko that long? It sure hadn't felt like it. The two had just gotten so caught up in talking about everything and nothing that Diana paid no attention to the slowly darkening sky outside. She had been so at ease—so happy—that time had held no meaning for her then. It was only when Akko finally brought it up that Diana realized the sun had indeed begun to set.
"I guess I should let you get home, huh? A fancy school like Luna Nova, I'm sure you have tons of homework, right?"
Diana was usually grateful for the distraction homework provided her. It was always her card to play to escape a confrontation with her aunt, teasing from her cousins, or to avoid Hannah, Barbara, or other classmates.
Yet, with Akko, she found she was growing to despise homework. It was keeping her from her new friend.
"Diana!" Daryl barked, snapping her fingers in front of her face. "Are you even listening to me? Where have you been?"
Huffing, Diana leveled her aunt with a glare of her own.
"I was just out with a friend," she replied, remembering to keep her voice strong and her eyes on Daryl's. "Time just got away from me."
"Wow, Diana has a friend?" Merrill crooned with a sickly grin.
"They must be desperate for company if they're calling you their friend!" Maril added while sticking her tongue out at their younger cousin.
Diana just rolled her eyes. Her cousins always seemed to trail after their mother like newborn puppies. They also seemed to insult her any chance they got, so Diana had grown extremely thick skin against their snide remarks.
"They are far above hanging out with you lot, that's for certain," Diana spat back, perhaps against better judgement.
"Watch your tongue," Daryl seethed. "I should-!"
"Send me to my room without dinner, I'm headed that way anyway."
With another roll of her eyes, Diana stalked off, eventually heading up the grand staircase and off to the wing of the mansion that housed her bedroom. She could hear her cousins and aunts cackling—no doubt about her—until she shut the door.
Sighing heavily, Diana let her book bag slide off her shoulder and onto the floor. Normally she wouldn't dare to leave any of her school things strewn about her room, but she was simply exhausted and decided to let it go this one time. Her eyes had zeroed in on her bed, and now she only had one destination.
It wasn't ten seconds after she had collapsed on her bed that there was a quiet knock at her door. Diana recognized the knock however and bid the person entry.
"Milady," Anna greeted with a bow.
"Hi, Anna," Diana replied, her voice somewhat muffled as she refused to lift her head off her comforter.
"I...heard Daryl grumbling to herself and those incorrigible cousins of yours laughing amongst themselves, so I assumed you had skipped dinner?"
Diana chuckled, finally forcing herself to sit up.
"Even if I hadn't planned on skipping in the first place, I wasn't going to get anything after mouthing off to Maril and Merrill."
Though Anna's looked seemed stern and solemn, Diana was able to detect the small glimmer of mirth in the old woman's eyes.
"You know there are better ways to fight your aunt than acting in defiance like a typical teenager."
"That's something everyone here seems to forget," Diana mumbled under her breath then. "I am a teenager. Typical or not, I shouldn't have to be someone I'm not."
"But you are the head of this house," Anna told her gently, setting the tray with Diana's dinner on her desk. "Daryl can deny it all she wants, but one day, the truth will come out, and you'll take your rightful place here."
"But what if I don't want that?" Diana asked, looking to her maid with imploring eyes. "No, I don't wish to see my aunt control this house any longer, but that doesn't mean I particularly want the job myself."
Diana huffed, looking away from Anna.
"I apologize," she automatically said, even though they both knew the lie behind it. "I guess I'm hungrier than I initially thought."
Anna watched her drag herself over to her desk before sighing, looking at Diana one last time, and departing.
Diana's hand clenched around her fork as she heard her door shut. With one final resigned sigh, she gazed out the window, feeling more trapped in her house than she ever had before.
She missed Akko.
She missed feeling free.
So... Remember when I said there'd be some angst???
Akko felt like she was on top of the world as she nearly skipped down the sidewalk, garnering quite a few looks. But that didn't matter; she felt so free!
Diana had said they were friends! Akko may not come from much, but she was sure the surge of emotions she was feeling at the moment was the equivalent to having all the money in the world. Hell, she was above the world! She was on cloud nine!
That went so much better than expected! Akko reaffirmed as she continued her gaily gait. I really wasn't aiming to get anything out of Diana, but she bought me a drink anyway! She's so sweet!
She really wanted to brag about the blonde, so she was currently hustling to the police headquarters, hoping to catch Chariot and Croix.
And avoid Chief Finneran.
She stopped across the street from the precinct and hid behind a bench, peering over to see if Finneran was outside the building for any reason—the woman did like to patrol, Akko had learned that several times in many different ways. When she failed to appear, Akko sighed in relief, quickly dashing across the street, ignoring the horns blaring at her.
She stopped and crouched beneath a window she knew looked into the main area of the headquarters. She had been inside this particular building so many times, she basically had the blueprints engraved in her mind. The center of the main floor was where all the officers' cubicles were. Processing was to the left of the offices, and the holding cells to the right. There were two bathrooms in the back left corner, and the interrogation rooms took up the rest of the back wall. Finneran's office was on the second floor, and the rest of the second floor, as well as the third and fourth floors were where the city's prison was. Akko figured it made sense that the main police office shared a building with a prison.
While she had been in Finneran's office many times, she had luckily avoided anywhere else on the upper levels. She had stayed more nights than she could count in a holding cell on the first floor—most of the time trying to befriend anyone sharing the cell with her for the hell of it—but her simple misdemeanors weren't enough to actually jail her.
To Finneran's greatest detest, of course.
Akko pulled her hood up to hide her face and signature ponytail, though she was sure every cop in the city knew to be on the watch for a girl in a burgundy hoodie anyway. Still, she took extra precautions as she peered just the slightest bit in the window.
There was no flash of red or purple. Akko huffed.
Knowing there was one last place she could look, she quickly ran the length of the building before turning left behind it. Halfway down she slowed, emerging only slightly from a corner.
She squinted to make out the numbers on the few cars parked, and sighed once more when she didn't see the familiar numbers of 625430. That meant the two were either out on a call or were patrolling an area of the city.
Even though Akko was bursting at the seams, she wasn't about to go up and down every street looking for the two officers.
She loved Chariot and Croix, but not that much.
"Well, I'm sure I'll see them around sooner or later," she told herself as she shrugged. Chuckling, she added, "Probably sooner."
She turned around to head anywhere but the precinct when she hit something hard.
Something hard that let out a grunt and was glaring down at her.
Any shred of giddiness Diana had brought immediately fled in fear as her stomach dropped.
"Uh... H-Hey, Chief F-Finneran!" she shakily greeted, taking one step away from the woman. The chief's personal bubble was overflowing with disapproval.
"And just what are you doing snooping around here, Kagari?"
"Y-You know... Looking at the cars! I like the red and blue...lights?"
Finneran was not impressed, and only continued to sneer down at Akko.
"I could bring you in for loitering, I'll have you know. Though since you're thankfully not with that O'Neill character and smoking outside the police station, you escape the handcuffs yet again."
"Hey, that was one time!" Akko exclaimed. "And I didn't even enjoy it! I don't understand how people like that. Amanda's crazy for always having some on her. I don't even know where she gets the stuff."
At Finneran's raised eyebrow, Akko growled and added, "I swear I don't!"
"For once, I believe you," Finneran droned dryly. Heaving a great sigh, she waved her hand at Akko. "Now get out of here, and don't let me catch you here again; otherwise I will detain you."
Gulping, Akko saluted before turning on her heel and dashing away. She didn't stop until she was nearly four blocks away and Finneran was just a tiny figure in the distance. Akko wished she was always that small.
"I can't believe Finneran let me off!" she mumbled in awe. "She never does that! This has been the best day ever!"
"I can still see you, Kagari!"
Akko squeaked in surprise before turning a corner and ducking out of sight.
She really hated that woman.
Naturally, Akko found herself back on the outskirts of Luna Nova's grounds a few days later. She had decided to stop her search for Chariot and Croix in order to stay away from Finneran's wrathful gaze. Akko wouldn't have been at all surprised if the woman had planted officers outside the precinct specifically to keep Akko away after their latest encounter. After all, the two cops usually found her; apparently it was meant to be that way and that way only.
Akko was currently unable to get to her tree, however, as dozens of students milled about the lawn. Obviously they were making the best of the nice weather on their break period. One look at the sun's position, and Akko realized it was indeed lunchtime.
Her stomach growled.
"That doesn't include us," she grumbled, glaring down her torso disapprovingly.
She was so busy scolding her rogue stomach, she didn't even hear the footsteps coming up behind her.
"Still spying on others, I see."
Quickly doing an about-face, Akko spun around with another surprised squeak. The flash of terror in her eyes immediately morphed into joy, however.
"Diana!" She chuckled nervously as she fiddled with her beanie. "I was just...you know...in the neighborhood?"
The blonde rolled her eyes, albeit good-naturedly, with a chuckle.
"Somehow I doubt that."
Well there was no way in the seven hells Akko was going to admit she had come here in hopes to seek out the blonde. That would just make her sound like a stalker.
Wait, was she being a stalker?
"W-Well," Akko stuttered, sensing changing the subject may be her best hope. "What are you doing out here? Shouldn't you be in class?"
"This is my lunch period," Diana replied with a snarky smile, knowing Akko was hoping to catch her off guard. "Seniors are allowed to go off campus if they desire. I decided to head back a bit early to squeeze in some study time before my next class."
"Oh." Akko deflated. Of course Diana had the perfect, logical answer.
'Cause she's friggin' perfect, duh!
"What are you really doing here, Akko?" the blonde asked next, eyebrow raised curiously even though her easy smile was still present. "Shouldn't you be at your-?"
"I'm not in school," Akko quickly said, guessing what Diana was going to say and stopping her from having to embarrass Akko further. Her stomach filled with dread as Diana's eyes widened, confusion evident.
"Oh..." Diana echoed softly.
There was a beat of silence. Both girls looked anywhere but the other. Akko's brain was raging with different kinds of scenarios depending on what she was going to say next. There wasn't necessarily anything wrong with not being in school—for all Diana knew, she could be home-schooled. But the way Akko had just blurted that out with no other explanation or answer offered, she was sure the girl had questions now, if she hadn't figured everything out on her own already. They had seen each other four times now, and each time Akko had been dressed the same, too. Surely that had sent out red flags.
I should tell her, Akko struggled internally with herself, her mind telling her one thing and her heart arguing another. I can't keep hoping to evade the subject forever, and I don't want to continue to lie to her. But then, what if she's repulsed by me? She said herself she has a wealthy family; she's not going to want to continue hanging out with some homeless teenager...
With a resigned sigh, Akko looked up. Diana offered her a small smile, no doubt trying to put her at ease, but Akko could still see the churning oceans of blue over spilling with questions in the girl's eyes.
"Look, I promise I'll tell you everything later. Are you free after school?"
"Of course," Diana immediately replied. "Anything to keep me away from my aunt and cousins."
Akko laughed a bit at that, her spirits lifting along with her confidence just the slightest bit.
"C-Cool," she said. "Meet me outside the Tuesday Café?"
"It was Diana's turn to laugh as she corrected, "Wednesday Café, but yes, that is fine."
With a mild blush, lopsided smile, and whisper of "bye," Akko scurried away.
She had a lot to think about and get in order before three o'clock.
I hope Diana doesn't hate me for this...
By the time it was ten after three, Akko was a nervous wreck. She paced back and forth in front of the café doors, revising and practicing any possible thing she could say. She tried her hardest to keep the darkest of her thoughts with their worst-case scenarios at bay, but she knew in the back of her mind that an adverse reaction was highly likely. After making such progress with Diana, and especially after their amazing time in this very café just a few days ago, the last thing Akko wanted was to lose what she had.
When she spotted Diana just a block away, her started began hammering in her chest. She hoped she wasn't sweating bullets.
"H-Hey," she greeted, her voice cracking betraying any crumbling sense of confidence she had left.
"Long time no see," Diana returned with another kind smile.
She held the door open for Akko yet again, but this time the brunette was too overwhelmed with her rampaging brain to be caught up in the polite action.
"Did you want to get something to drink?" the taller girl asked as they stood awkwardly at the entrance.
Chewing on her lip, Akko decided to bite the bullet now and get it over with.
"Can we just...talk...first?"
The concern Akko could see fill blue irises then did little to assure her of anything.
Akko numbly followed the blonde to the same table they had sat at the last time and slid in across from her. She fixed her gaze on the wooden table between them and stared. Hard.
"What's going on, Akko?" Diana asked. "You're...beginning to worry me."
Akko took one final gulp before affixing her eyes on Diana's. She made every attempt to reach out to the girl across from her like a beacon; like she was her last saving grace. Akko was sure to drown without her assistance.
"Diana, I'm... I'm homeless."
She refused to close her eyes in fear of the girl's reaction, so she noticed the wide array of emotions flash momentarily in Diana's eyes. Noticed how her mouth opened and closed several times and her eyes darted away from her only briefly.
"That's why I'm never in school, why I ran away the first time you brought it up. That's why I'm always wearing this disgusting hoodie. That's why I play guitar in the park, why I learned how to in the first place. I... I never knew my parents and I grew up in an orphanage, but then I ran away and I've been on the street since I was fifteen and-!"
"Akko!" Diana's sharp, yet somehow reassuring cry had Akko clamping her mouth shut instantly.
For all of two seconds.
"I'm sorry, I know you must hate me and I promise I won't ever step within a ten foot radius of you ever again, and I know I should have said something earlier, but I was scared and then we became friends and you were so nice-."
Now her eyes were shut, and hesitantly, she opened them. It was a shock to her system to not find a look of disgust on the blonde across from her, but compassion; empathy.
"Slow down, okay?" Diana suggested. "I'm going to go get us some tea, and then we'll talk. But please, don't be scared about anything. You're still my friend, alright?"
Nodding in compliance, Akko didn't even argue against being bought another drink, instead staring after Diana as she walked up to the counter. Lotte and Sucy either weren't working today, or didn't come in until later it seemed, something Akko was thankful for; she didn't need anyone else possibly over-hearing all of this.
Well, so far so good, I guess, Akko fretted. She didn't immediately run away in terror or anything. ...Unless she's planning to let me down easily... No! She said I'm still her friend! We're still friends! If only for a little bit longer...
Just as her thoughts started going down the darker path, Diana returned.
"I can hear you thinking," she quipped as she slid a steaming mug to Akko and regarding her with another smile. "I know this must be intimidating, but please believe me when I say there's no judgement here, Akko. I want to learn about Akko; the real Akko. Even if she is homeless."
Akko swallowed, her throat burning from so many different emotions. Diana was still here. She wanted to hear her out.
She...really doesn't care?
"O-Okay," Akko rasped before taking a tentative sip of tea to soothe her throat—and, hopefully, her nerves. "You...want to know everything?"
Diana nodded, her inviting smile and warm demeanor causing Akko to shiver.
"Everything," she repeated, affirmed.
And so Akko told her.
She told the tale of a little girl growing up without any context of parents. She knew they existed, but why didn't she have any? She told the tale of that little girl finally learning on her tenth birthday that her parents had left her. For one reason or another, they didn't want her.
"Maybe it was something they couldn't control," Akko said with a shrug. "Still, the fact that I was just left on some doorstep at just weeks old hurt. It still hurts to this day."
She told the tale of a ten year-old girl then trying so hard to get adopted. She worked hard to be the best daughter possible, listening to all her lessons attentively and being as sweet as she possible could.
Yet no one ever wanted her.
She told the tale of that same girl finally becoming desensitized as a teen, watching those she grew up with leaving her with their picture perfect parents to go lead picture perfect lives. She told of the girl eventually becoming so fed up that she figured anywhere had to be better than where she was and always had been.
"I knew I'd be kicked out once I turned eighteen anyway. Why not get an earlier start?"
The girl struggled for a long while. Getting caught every time she tried to pickpocket or steal, having to resort to whatever she could find on the very top of the trash just to feed herself, being ignored or assaulted whenever she tried begging for money. Every time something went wrong, however, she learned something. Every time something went wrong, she hardened. She adapted. She got better.
There were still the few times she would botch something up. The girl would then end up spending the night in a dark jail cell, huddled alone in a corner away from the big group of intimidating people whispering about her on the opposite end of the space. These nights made her stronger as well though, and soon she learned to take these punishments as lessons. She broadened her horizons, and though it most certainly wasn't in an ideal way, it was enough to survive.
"You'd be surprised at what you can learn from one overnight in a holding cell," Akko recounted with a small chuckle. "Everything from how to break into someone's car with nothing but a piece of cardboard, to the most obscure facts about the War of 1812."
It was these "sessions" that kick-started the girl's desire to learn. Soon, each day she was at the library and getting her hands on any books that looked even the slightest bit interesting. She had been schooled in the basics before, but this... This opened her up to a completely different world. Not only to the world of learning, but the world of imagination and creativity as well. The girl spent so much time in the library that she saw two different librarians start and leave.
Even with her desire to learn, the girl couldn't stay away from the more daunting lures of the streets. It was one such trap that led her to learning about gang life; something she now wished she would have only learned about through books, not personal experience. While the idea of having some place to belong—something almost like a family—was deceptively alluring, it wasn't anything like she had expected.
"I got conned out of a lot of money," Akko admitted, swirling the remains of her tea as she stared down into the mug. "Amanda was good at keeping up with my fantasy, but eventually I realized this wasn't at all the paradise I had envisioned, so I left before I was every really 'initiated.' She still bugs me every now and then, but I've tried my best to wash my hands of her."
It was on a dark night coming home from Amanda's when the girl was stopped by red and blue flashing lights, and the slow wail of a siren she would soon become so acquainted with.
"I was so scared," Akko explained, a smile growing on her face unbeknownst to her. "Even though I had spent so many nights at the station already, this time was different. Besides associating with a gang, I hadn't actually done anything illegal all day. I didn't know if I should cooperate or run. But then..."
The voice that had called out to the girl wasn't a cop trying to assert their authority, but a red-haired woman with a tender smile, her purple-haired partner peering out the windshield from behind the wheel. The girl hesitantly approached the cruiser, and it was one of the best decisions she had ever made. The cops took the girl under their wings, care for her when things got too bad, covered for her when they knew she hadn't eaten all week an the stolen bag of chips was her last saving grace. The girl finally had idols; people who cared.
"It sounds so weird to say out loud, but they're my best friends, ya know? I...could very well not be here today if it wasn't for them."
The story ended with the girl still getting into mischief on a regular basis. She gradually left the confines of the city and widened her area of operations to the outskirts. It was then the girl found Luna Nova Academy. Its wide archway and sprawling campus drew her in upon first glance, and she eventually grew bold enough to step inside the gates. She had watched from afar so much she learned the class change schedule. At first she would huddle outside any open window she could to listen in on whatever lessons was being taught that day. Even on days when the students simply took a test all period, the girl grew to love the sound of pencils scratching away at paper. It gave the girl the feeling of being included, of attending the kind of school she had started dreaming of as her own private studies in the library grew. It gave the girl a sense of camaraderie she had never experienced and likely never would.
It made the girl feel like she belonged.
"Every times classes would switch, I'd duck into a nearby bush. It was only after maybe a dozen trips that I even considered the vantage point I'd have from the tree."
As adept as the girl had become at scrambling up chain link fences and vaulting over walls, she possessed finesse for climbing. Gradually reaching higher and higher, she eventually came to the branch should would later deem her throne.
"I went undiscovered for well over a year." As the faraway look faded in Akko's eyes, she met Diana's gaze and grinned. "Then some prissy princess just had to see me."
Diana scoffed with a grin of her own. "Forgive me for traversing the grounds of my own school."
Akko's smile grew briefly at the retort before melting back into an unsure frown. Nerves overcame her once more, and she looked down into her empty mug.
"That's everything," she mumbled then. "My sob story laid bare. My pathetic life in summary."
"Nothing you just told me is pathetic, Akko," Diana said, her eyebrows knitting together, giving her an imposing look. "I know it must be hard to look at the positives and redeeming qualities when you feel so low, but Akko... You've...overcome so many adverse odds. Maybe not in the most respectful of ways, but you can hardly be faulted for it in my eyes. Obviously Chariot and Croix feel the same if they have let you off the hook as much as you implied."
"But you're rich," Akko blurted before cringing at how rude that sounded. "Shouldn't you be revolted to even associate with me?"
Diana surprisingly chuckled. "Why in the world should I be? I'll admit, there is quite the stigma against the homeless, but I think it's misplaced the majority of the time. Maybe my aunts and cousins would be repulsed, as they live and breathe the rich stereotype, but please don't even think I'm defined by my wealth, Akko. I may come from money, but that doesn't automatically make me heartless."
Akko winced and mumbled, "Sorry, I didn't mean to-."
"I know," Diana reassured her, even going as far as to reach her hand across the table to take Akko's. The brunette immediately blushed. "I'm just trying to express how much you don't need to worry. I'm not going anywhere, Akko. Especially not now."
Akko choked on a sob but couldn't hold back the tears, bowing her head as the droplets streamed down her cheeks. Diana didn't move from her booth, but the squeeze she gave Akko's hand was all the comfort she needed as she squeezed back.
They stayed like that a good while, Akko silently crying as Diana tenderly held her hand, eventually letting her thumb trail across the girl's knuckles. Patrons came and went as they stayed absolutely still. Even though Akko was really ecstatic deep down that Diana was still here, the fact that she couldn't stop crying in front of her just made her cry harder.
"You're okay, Akko."
With a great, unflattering sniff, Akko swiped her sleeve across her face before glancing up at the angel across from her. She knew she must look even more of a mess than usual, but she tried to smile anyway.
Gradually, she managed to calm herself down to the point where her face was dry, but red, the occasional snivel breaking through. Seeing her hand was still firmly in Diana's, her face heated even more and she carefully extracted her hand. Diana's slowly returning to her own lap.
They reverted back to silence, Akko analyzing her story and subsequent breakdown, thinking Diana was likely doing the same. She had never really had the chance to talk about her struggles and the effects they had brought on her; she had never wanted to talk about it. Even Chariot and Croix knew the bare minimum. But, for some reason, Diana was different. It had felt good to put everything on the table; it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Akko assumed her following cry had been a long time coming. She had always tried to mask her emotions, for they would only get in the way of trying to survive. Perhaps she took too many pages out of Amanda's book. Maybe she didn't have to be strong to be successful. Maybe weakness was needed every now and then...
Akko shyly looked back up to see unwavering blue looking back at her. Cheeks flushed in a mirrored pink.
...Because in this moment, Akko absolutely felt successful.
Chapter 8: Chapter Eight
Trigger warning at the end for abuse
"I'm sorry, you expect me to do what?"
After Akko's confession in the Wednesday Café, Diana had requested Akko pick out a favorite hangout of hers to go to. While Akko had repeatedly assured Diana she had recovered from her crying spell and was fine, the lingering haze that frosted Akko's eyes didn't do much to reassure Diana. Plus, she had meant it when she said she wanted to learn about the real Akko; shouldn't that include her favorite places?
Diana just hadn't been expecting to be standing before a large tree atop a hill in the park and looking up at Akko a good six feet above her.
"Come on, Diana!" Akko cheered her on, giggling with mirth surely at the confounded expression on Diana's face. "It's not as bad as it looks, I swear!"
"Akko, one could argue you climb trees as a hobby," Diana fired back although there was no malice to her voice, just poorly disguised fear. "I, on the other hand, cannot even remember the last time I attempted to climb a tree." Then, in a completely deadpan tone, she added, "I probably fell."
"I promise I'll catch you!"
Despite the harrowing situation, Diana felt herself smiling. "From all the way up there? That would be quite an amazing feat."
Akko chuckled and rolled her eyes before swiftly lowering herself one branch lower and then dropping gracefully to the ground. Diana winced as she came into contact with the grass; how in the world did the girl still have functioning legs?
"Fine then, silly, I'll help you up first," Akko told her. "Then I really will catch you if you fall. I promise I make a comfy cushion."
"Don't tempt me now."
Akko simply blushed and beamed as Diana hesitantly approached the imposing tree.
Come on, my aunt is more intimidating than a simple tree; even if it may very well be the biggest tree I've ever seen. Still, I've faced worse than this, and if I plan to sweep my family out from under Aunt Daryl, I still have even worse to face down the line. I can do this. Akko is watching.
Diana wasn't quite sure when she started giving herself internal pep talks, and she didn't knowing if it was those inspiring words or Akko's infectious energy behind her that had her gathering her wits about her and reaching for the lowest hanging branch.
"Yeah!" Akko cheered at the first movement. "Now once you have a good grip, just walk your feet up the trunk a little. Then you should have enough leverage to pull yourself the rest of the way up!"
Diana did as told, and with only one single slip—in which her heart raced, but not necessarily in a bad way—she found herself a couple feet off the ground. Even though it wasn't nearly as impressive as Akko's height just moments ago, Diana still stared down at the ground wide-eyed.
"You did it!"
"Can I get down now?"
Akko laughed again. Diana grinned.
"You need to go higher if you want to see why I chose this particular tree!" she shrilled, quickly clambering up to the same branch Diana was recuperating on. "It's just three more branches!"
"Aren't you ever afraid you'll fall?" Diana asked as she watched Akko ascend again, blushing when a hand was extended back down to help her.
Akko shrugged. "I guess I just taught myself early that I can't be too afraid of anything. If I was too afraid to steal, I'd starve. If I was too afraid of judgement, I wouldn't have gotten any sleep those nights I slept in the tunnel of the playground."
Diana gulped, her heart once again going out to the girl above her. "I used to play in that tunnel all the time as a child. The playground in the eastern section of this park, right?"
"Mm-hm!" They continued to climb as they talked, Akko leading Diana higher and higher until they were well past three more branches; but Diana found herself so engaged she didn't even bother to say anything. "That was before I found where I live now. I even tried sleeping on the curly slide once, and let me tell you, that wasn't fun."
"Because you slid down it in the middle of the night?" Diana cracked a smile.
Akko returned it instantly, though she added in a chuckle as she replied, "Because of the static electricity! I'm sure bed-head doesn't even come close to electric-head!"
"I would have paid to see that."
Akko just stuck her tongue out as she hauled Diana up on final branch. Despite how high they had climbed—Diana didn't dare look down—the branches were still comfortably thick. Even though Diana's gut was rolling with nerves, she still felt that the branches could hold the weight of both of them. As soon as she felt even the slightest twitch, though, she was out of there.
Her stomach leapt to her throat as she watched Akko lean forward, Diana's arms automatically almost reaching out to steady her before she remembered Akko was just as home up here than anywhere else. Still, that didn't mean she wouldn't worry.
"Ta-dah!" Akko exclaimed as she gestured showily through a perfectly convenient gap in the foliage, allowing them to gaze out on the land before them.
Diana had to admit it was quite the view. They were on the western side of the park facing east. They could see the fountain a little ways in the distance, several buildings jutting up behind it and the trees that served as the park's boundaries. The sun was high in the sky and everything was so green. It was a scene of pure tranquility.
Diana nodded, gaze never wavering as she answered, "Indeed. It is extremely 'cool.'"
Unnoticed, Akko went to chew on her lip, Diana only catching on once she could feel eyes on her.
"What is it?" she asked.
Akko looked away with a blush, mumbling, "I... I don't want to be rude."
The response only confused Diana more. "Rude about what?"
For a second, it seemed Akko wasn't going to respond, her eyes nervously darting back and forth between nothing while her knuckles turned white from her grip on the branch.
Finally, the brunette looked at her, eyes shimmering with a curiosity nearly adorable had it not been for the fear of overstepping boundaries shimmering beneath.
"I just... What's your family like, Diana?"
Diana blinked, and Akko immediately went into salvage mode.
"I-I mean, you don't have to tell me anything, obviously, I know that's a private thing, but you've dropped little tidbits while we've known each other like how you're rich and you mentioned an aunt and cousins, and I don't want you to feel pressured, but I am curious and I can't help wanting to know more about you."
The brunette said everything in one breath as she did when she was nervous and panicking, and Diana merely blinked once more as she tried to digest everything. One thing she knew off the bat was that she wanted to reassure Akko she wasn't made uncomfortable by the question, she just needed time to...get her story in order.
"I don't mind you asking, Akko," she said with a small smile. "I'm flattered you remembered the things I let slip and are interested enough to know more."
"Is there a 'but' in there?" Akko asked meekly with a nervous chuckle.
Diana shook her head. "Not really; I just need to get my thoughts in order."
"Oh. O-Okay. You know you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to, right? I don't want you to feel obligated to say anything just because I did."
Diana smiled warmly at the girl. Akko returned it hesitantly.
"I know, Akko."
Diana sighed and shrugged. "A bit, I guess. Some days the ache is worse than others, but, like you got strong from your bad days, so have I started to."
Neither girl said anything as Akko's hand came to rest next to Diana's, a tentative pinky reaching out and being graciously accepted. Blushes struggled for dominance on stoic faces, smiles trying to break free from their constraints, but eyes stayed trained straight ahead.
"My family has a lot of old money," Diana started. "All the women in my family have been doctors and practitioners as far back as the early 1800's. The women have always held the power, which is why we also have quite a bit of fame to our name in a highly patriarchal society. It was always the men who married in an adopted our name. And while they had a great variety of jobs from factory-line workers to lawyers like my father, they never held much power."
"What do you mean by power?" Akko asked, curiosity once again sparking a signature sparkle in her eyes as she hung on to Diana's every word.
"I guess the more appropriate word would be 'respect,'" Diana revised. "You know how men are typically seen as the head of the household, and it's their name that is supposed to be carried on by their children?"
Akko nodded and Diana smiled at her rapt attention.
"Well, my family is the exact opposite. The woman was the head of the house, and Cavendish was always the name given to any children, never the father's name. Even as time passed and societal standards changed, we remained firm in our traditions." With a brief chuckle, Diana said under her breath, "Though I'm not really talking about me now, am I?"
Akko laughed too. "It's okay. I actually really think it's interesting. Your family's stuck by their tradition for so long. That's something to be proud of!"
"It is," Diana agreed before her eyes glinted with a touch of sadness and longing, "and I suppose that's where my story starts."
The tables now sufficiently turned, Diana began her own tale. Akko shuffled closer.
Diana's background wasn't nearly as extensive as Akko's, but Akko did painstakingly learn how Diana had lost both her parents at a young age. The reason Diana had always seemed so closed off the initial few times they met had now come to the surface. While some of that façade was in place to please her aunt and her place in society, it was mostly because she was scared. There was still that happy, carefree little girl deep inside her that had so much love to give, but she was kept under lock and key out of fear of being hurt once again.
It was almost like Diana was afraid to love again.
Akko could hardly blame her, to be honest. Growing up without parents was one thing, but how would it feel to have had parents and then lose them before they had fully prepared you for the world that lies ahead? The thought was unfathomable to Akko.
"So, is your aunt like your guardian now?" she asked when Diana had fallen quiet for a moment, staring wistfully out at the park.
Diana chuckled, but it held no humor. "She certainly isn't family."
Akko frowned. Diana, seeing, looked her way with a small, hopefully reassuring, smile.
"I came to accept it long ago; before my parents had even passed. Aunt Daryl's never really fit in or even accepted our family ways; it was always simply about the wealth and her image. A lot of that probably had to do with my mother being the oldest, and therefore being the one more in the public eye. Once my father came into the picture, that popularity doubled as he came from his own esteemed family. She always felt like she was second best, and then when I came along, she was demoted even lower. She never did try to hide her ire for me from my mother."
"But that's...horrible!" Akko cried, not understanding how Diana could be retelling everything so nonchalantly. It was like she was simply a computer, running a program that retold her story monotonously. "Family's supposed to care about and love each other. You shouldn't mistreat a child just because it ruins your image!"
"Unfortunately, not all families are like those you read about, Akko."
Akko flushed. "I- I know that! B-But still..."
"It's okay," Diana assured her once again. "I believe I've grown stronger because of it. Aunt Daryl and her daughters may be a right ignorant lot, but I won't allow them to always be a dark spot on the Cavendish name."
"What does being head of your house mean?" Akko asked next. "Like...a queen?"
Diana truly laughed at that, and Akko grinned even if the sound was at her expense.
"Not quite," she chuckled. "It honestly doesn't mean much at all; it's just some generated pedestal in society created so people have something to talk about, like anyone rich or famous. There's no reason for them to be in the spotlight. They're not better than anyone else who may fall into the lower constructed tiers, it's just..."
"Society's a bitch?"
Another laugh and another smile. "Indeed it is." Diana sighed, adjusting her position on the branch. Her hind end was beginning to go numb; maybe they could get down soon. "That's why I really want to go against the norm and construe society's image. While I'm incredibly proud of the history of my family, I don't wish to continue the line this way. It's become expected of me to go into the medical field like all the other heads before me, but what if I don't want that? Or if I do, why should that matter, or be considered better than any other field?"
"What do you want to study then?"
"I don't know!" Diana exclaimed with an exasperated groan. "I gave up hope I could ever be anything else so long ago that I never took the time to think about what I really want. I just know I don't want this."
Akko's face twisted as she seemed to think, and Diana couldn't help but smile at the silly look. Still, she was incredibly surprised and warmed that Akko was so intent in learning about her and her family. She never got the time to lay everything out on the table like this. Not even Anna would entertain her this long. The discussion had helped her get her thoughts more in order and solidify the fact that this life she was living wasn't for her. She didn't want it. She saw now that she could still live up to her family name and bring honor to her house by breaking away from the status quo. The structure of society wouldn't collapse in on itself; the Cavendish name wouldn't be scorned. It would only be so if kept on top of the totem pole out of greed; out of vanity.
Like how Aunt Daryl was currently running things at the helm.
Diana ground her teeth before Akko snapping her fingers beside her provided a welcome distraction.
"Well, what's your favorite subject in school?"
"History," Diana answered without a second thought.
"See?!" Akko squeaked, beaming once more. "You could go to college for history!" She gasped. "You could be a professor! I can totally see it! You sitting in an office, some glasses on your nose as you grade papers; you'd be perfect at it!"
"I don't know if I'm cut out for teaching, Akko," Diana admitted though she wore a smile still.
Akko wouldn't back down though.
"Sure you are! You just basically gave me a lesson about your family history, right? Sure, it wasn't in front of a class of potentially bored students, but you still did it, and it held my attention!"
Chuckling softly, Diana asked, "So does that mean you would take my class?"
Akko beamed. "Are you kidding? I'd be your best student! Already knowing the professor ahead of time's gotta get me some brownie points too, right?!"
She said as much with a smile, but Diana still saw that same shadow from before flicker across Akko's face. Her usually shimmering red eyes had dulled to a subdued maroon, and once she let her smile drop, the person Diana was left with was just a shell of the girl she was getting to know.
Diana wanted so badly to inquire about the behavior. What troubled Akko so much that she felt she had to hide behind fake smiles and lackluster cheers? Diana had a feeling it all traced back to her homelessness, but hadn't Diana proved she would never judge Akko for that? Had she still not assuaged those fears? Swallowing a lump in her throat that became a knot in her stomach, Diana's brain kept churning out ideas.
Did their friendship really mean so little?
And how was she supposed to respond? Did she need to be the one to bring it up? Maybe Akko was just scared to do so herself. Diana already knew she felt unreasonable guilt about being homeless, maybe that guilt was still at play here as well? Or was Diana just supposed to play along and act like she couldn't see the demons circling the brunette in a cruel taunt; couldn't feel the longing in the girl's heart.
In the end, Diana took the easy way out.
She gave a weak laugh before clearing her throat and saying, "I guess I should be heading home. Aunt Daryl threw a fit last time I came home late; I can't wait to hear her screech this time."
Apparently still under her demons' spell, Akko simply mumbled in the harshest tone Diana had ever heard, "Just tell her to shove it."
Diana didn't even try responding to that, shivering instead from how cold Akko had managed to sound just then. It...was unnerving to hear the normally bright, upbeat girl sounding so hollow. So...defeated.
Still, Akko helped Diana back down the tree, and once they had their feet planted firmly on the ground, Akko looked up at her.
That dark shroud was gone, and all that was left was the twinkling of rubies. When Akko smiled then, Diana immediately returned it.
Because this time that smile was real.
Diana knew it.
Throwing caution to the wind, she closed the small distance between them and engulfed Akko in a hug. Though Akko initially went rigid with an adorable "eep!," the effect was near instantaneous as the girl all but sagged into Diana's embrace. Slender arms wrapped around Diana's waist and squeezed back. They held the contact for maybe longer than was usual for an exchange between friends, but both of them had such large grins on their faces as they pulled back, it was obvious neither of them cared.
"Thanks for today, Diana," Akko said.
"Well, thank you for showing me how to climb a tree. My inner child is forever grateful to you," Diana replied, her grin growing, hoping to get them back to that playful banter she had come to enjoy so much. Akko giggled as well before Diana's smile turned more somber, yet always still soft. "In all seriousness though, thank you for telling me what you did, and then listening so intently to my own story as well. It took a lot of courage to speak about something so private, and I'm honored you chose to tell me." Gathering a bit of courage, she added, "I...hope you know you can come to me about anything."
Diana found it promising when Akko's eyes didn't gloss over this time. Instead, her smile widened and she repeated in earnest, "Thank you."
"Y-Yeah," Diana stuttered on a breath, quickly turning tail and scurrying off.
What had that been all about? What had caused her to stutter suddenly? "Yeah?" What kind of response was that?
Still, the excited flutter that took flight in her stomach as she recalled Akko's smile caused Diana to do the same. With one final glance over her shoulder only to see Akko still staring after her and giving a small final wave, that flutter hastened and her smile started to become painful.
Facing back around with heated cheeks, she mumbled, though still with an affectionate look, "Damn you, Akko..."
Diana had been expecting Daryl to be waiting for her as she returned home, but she hadn't been expecting her aunt to be outside on the porch as she walked up the driveway. Diana could feel her aunt's discontent wafting from her body in waves, so she inhaled sharply and put her indifferent mask in place, prepared to take whatever verbal lashing that had become the norm.
"Diana," Daryl ground out her usual bitter greeting.
"Aunt," Diana fired back. "I didn't expect you to be waiting for me."
Daryl sneered. "Don't be coy with me, girl. You know you're expected home as soon as school lets out."
Diana made to step around her aunt as she replied, "I'm nearly eighteen, Aunt Daryl, I don't have to listen to your every whim anymore. You can't keep me from having a life of my own, even though I know you try your very hardest to do so."
She was almost inside when her aunt snatched up her wrist and yanked her back. Her icy eyes had hardened to that of a glacier, and Diana knew she had crossed a line.
Still, she refused to show any fear.
"I don't know who you have been hanging out with, but you watch your tongue. You are only under this roof because your mother requested it. I've done my best to comply with her late wishes, but if you continue to disrespect this family-."
As soon as her mother was mentioned, Diana snapped. Consequences be damned.
"Me disrespect this family?" she shrieked. "I am rightful heir to this family and you know it! You are the one who tramples over our family name and treats it as your 'get rich quick' scheme! Even if mother hadn't been older, there would have been no way in hell you would have become head! You don't have a shred of respect in your body for anyone but yourself and your selfish daughters made in your mirror image."
Diana didn't even have time to blink. One second her aunt's hand was in the air, and the next Diana could taste blood on her tongue. Tears sprang unbidden to her eyes as she stared up in shock at Daryl's red hand. Her aunt's ice-cold eyes glinted with blue flames as she let out an animalistic growl.
"Get out of my sight."
Akko smirked when she saw Diana blush softly as she retreated. She was beyond ecstatic that the blonde trusted her enough to let down her walls and truly be herself—never mind confiding her past and future troubles in Akko as well. A blushing, shy Diana was a much better look than stoic, closed-off Diana. Akko felt humbled that she was lucky enough to see Diana at her most vulnerable.
She's just too cute, Akko thought briefly before a blush of her own overcame her. Wait, what?
Shaking her head to rid herself of the weird fluttery feeling that was flooding her, Akko decided to see if Chariot and Croix were around; it had been awhile since she had seen them. Usually, that would be a good thing, but Akko couldn't deny that she missed her friends. She also hadn't gotten into much mischief lately and felt she was due to give Finneran another migraine.
Her stomach grumbled as she headed out the park and her fingers twitched anxiously as if they needed to nab something. The rapidly setting sun didn't help to mask how hungry Akko was. Still, she wanted to fight the feeling. Her brain went into combat mode as it always did when the desire to steal festered within her. The part of her that detested her thievery and trickery screamed out to resist, that she had other options available to her. Yet the "rational" side, which always prevailed, was firm in the belief that this is what had to be done to survive. This was also the side that was tied to her guilt. She couldn't always go to Chariot and Croix with every little thing; even though they repeatedly tried their damndest. Diana was out of the question as well. The girl had already done so much for her, Akko became nauseous at the mere thought of asking her to possibly do more.
No, Akko was very capable on her own; she had been for years now. Everyone who knew her knew she did what she had to.
Yet for some reason there was a part of her that refused to believe that.
Any reassurance she tried to come up with did little to comfort her as she trudged behind her next target, a man with his wallet hanging halfway out his back pocket. With a quick look around for witnesses and deft fingers, Akko snatched the wallet and scurried past the man. Her spoils only amounted to six dollars, but it was enough for a meal. She pocketed the cash and continued heading to the police station. To help alleviate some guilt, she always managed to return the wallet to its owner, whether she approached the person acting like they dropped it or handed it off to Chariot and Croix later.
Even then, she could still feel the bills burning a hole in her hoodie as her hands clenched them harder in a fist.
That small kindling grew to a fiery inferno of a warning as Akko turned the final corner to the station and saw Finneran standing out front talking to a few policemen.
"Really?" Akko groaned aloud. "Again?!"
She could always go one block further down and try to approach the station from behind the chief, but it was still the inconvenience of her being there and always in Akko's way that irritated the brunette. At least she didn't recognize the two cops she was talking to, so maybe they were rookies. Not all the cops at the headquarters knew her face, but the number was still probably over two-thirds.
Even though pestering Finneran was fun, Akko wasn't too keen on doing so in front of an audience. She decided to go the extra length to not get caught and so she turned left at the intersection instead of crossing. The plan worked as she quickly scurried inside the station behind Finneran's back, celebrating her victory internally. Upon entering, she walked past the receptionist with a nervous wave—the lady there had a kind of love-hate relationship with Akko—before immediately seeking out Chariot or Croix.
A flash of red hair was exactly where Akko was hoping it would be, although Croix didn't seem to be around. Grinning regardless, Akko approached.
"Excuse me," she said, attempting to disguise her voice, "I'd like to report a crime?"
Chariot turned in her chair and jumped with a start upon seeing Akko, although the affectionate smile she reserved only for her and Croix appeared on her face instantly after.
"Akko! What brings you by?"
"Just as I said," Akko replied with a chuckle as she pulled the wallet from her hoodie. "It's just...I guess, I'm the crime. Again."
Chariot fixed Akko with her sternest look, but Akko just rolled her eyes. She had become completely immune to it over the years. Chariot couldn't look or sound disappointed or scary in the slightest. Croix would back Akko up.
"How much did you steal?" she asked with a sigh.
"Only six bucks!" Akko retorted. "The guy will hardly notice. And he was just asking for it! His wallet was literally falling out of his pocket!"
Chariot just huffed and copied Akko by rolling her eyes as she spun back around in her chair.
"I'll make sure it gets back to him," she said.
Beaming, Akko sat down on Chariot's desk like always, tossing the wallet down before her.
"So where's Croix?"
"We've hired some new recruits, so Finneran asked her to take one on the beat for the afternoon."
"I was right!" Akko exclaimed, causing Chariot to look up at her curiously. Akko smiled sheepishly. "Finneran's standing right outside. I thought at first she was just being her usual petty self and keeping an eye out for me—she caught me here the other day—but she was talking to two cops I didn't recognize, so I figured they must be new!"
"You can't call the police chief 'petty,' Akko," Chariot reprimanded with a chuckle.
"Then what about mean? Vindictive? An evil spawn of Satan?"
"I personally agree with the last one."
Akko looked over Chariot's shoulder at the new voice and broke out into another huge smile.
"Croix! You're back!"
"I'm guessing you told her?" Croix asked her partner, leaning down to kiss Chariot's cheek as she rounded the desk to her own conjoined one.
"I was curious!" Akko replied. "I came to see both my favorite cops, after all."
"We're flattered as always, Akko," Croix supplied, an edge of sarcasm in her voice. Inclining her head at the wallet on the desk, she added, "I see you took another victim."
"It was only six bucks," Akko and Chariot said at the same time, one with quite a bit less enthusiasm than the other.
"Besides," Akko continued, repositioning herself so she was completely on Chariot and Croix's desks and sitting cross-legged, "I've actually been really good lately!"
"I could tell," Chariot told her honestly.
"Yeah, we haven't been called in to 'apprehend' you for a while now," Croix added with her signature smirk.
Akko stuck her tongue out at the lilac-haired woman who retaliated in the same manner.
"So what's changed?" Chariot asked, genuine curiosity in her voice as she did so.
"I dunno," Akko answered lamely, though her averted eyes and telling blush said all. "I...kinda made a friend? She knows about...me, but she doesn't seem to care, which is awesome. I guess I've just been trying to do better? I did play guitar in the park a few days ago too and made some money then. I've maybe only shoplifted once or twice since I saw you guys last?"
"That's great, Akko," Chariot praised with a big smile that made it all seem worth it to Akko.
"Yeah," Croix agreed, leaning back in her chair casually as she always did. "What's this girl's name?"
As Akko was getting ready to tell them, nearly filled to burst about Diana and how perfect she was, she felt someone come up to the desk. Turning her head slightly out of fear and dread that Finneran was going to quite literally kick her out, she was instead instantly on her feet. A different kind of dread filled her heart.
Chariot quickly spun in her chair, Croix letting hers fall to the floor as she leaned over her desk. Akko, meanwhile, was frozen in shock.
There Diana stood, heaving as if she had just run a marathon, fists clenched at her sides, head bowed, her hair an uncharacteristic mess, and...
Was she crying?
"D-Diana?" she repeated softly as she hesitantly approached the girl. The closer she got, she saw Diana begin to shake. "Are... Are you okay?"
Her wild hair swayed as she shook her head no, and once she looked up, everything Akko was feeling—anxiety, fear, sadness—was overcome by one feeling only.
Chariot gasped in the background before mumbling that she would go fetch an ice pack, but Akko hardly heard her over the ringing in her ears, the thumping in her head.
Because Diana was staring back at her, tears streaking down her normally flawless face, with a bleeding gash on her left cheek, and a quickly coloring purple bruise just above it by her eye.
Akko found she couldn't move again. She didn't know what to do. It was obvious who had done this if Diana's stories were any indication, but Akko didn't want to assume. Still, her blood continued to boil, especially when she heard Diana's breath hitch as if she was about to cry again.
Akko had finally managed a single step forward before Diana all but lunged into Akko's quickly scrambling arms. Arms were tight around Akko's neck as Diana shuddered up against her, the blonde's wet breaths against Akko's neck only further fueling the rage within her.
But that would have to wait. Diana needed her in this moment, and there was no way in hell Akko wouldn't help.
"I-I was...hoping y-you'd be here," Diana rasped as she tried to regain control of her breathing.
Akko still didn't—couldn't—say anything, but she did tighten her hold around the girl's waist in response.
"Diana, was it?" Croix gently butt in, having come around from her side of the desk. "Why don't you take a seat so we can tend to you and perhaps you can tell us what happened?"
Pulling away from Akko only slightly, she nodded in compliance. Akko offered her Chariot's chair before dashing over to the neighboring desk and snatching the chair there. As she plopped down beside Diana, her hand was immediately back in Diana's. She looked up and offered a small smile, of which Diana didn't return, but she did lace their fingers together tightly.
Chariot had come back with a bag of ice wrapped in a towel and a small first-aid kit. Kneeling down beside Diana, she offered her own comforting smile as she took some antiseptic and a band-aid from the kit.
"Is it okay if I clean you up?" she asked softly.
Diana nodded but clenched Akko's hand even tighter. Akko made sure to squeeze back equally as hard.
"So," Croix began as she cleared her throat somewhat awkwardly, "I'm just going to assume you're the friend Akko was just about to tell us about?"
Diana and Akko both nodded.
"Can we...ask what happened?" the older cop continued with just a bit of hesitancy.
Diana looked down at her and Akko's hands as Chariot continued to clean her cheek. She bit her lip, and Akko knew she was trying her hardest to hide how scared she was.
This would be a great time to actually grow a pair and comfort her, genius, Akko berated herself.
"It's okay, Diana," she was finally able to croak before clearing her throat and offering another smile. "These are my friends I told you about. Maybe they can help you."
Diana glanced to Akko before looking between Chariot and Croix; both women offered reassuring smiles of their own.
"My... My aunt...s-struck me," she finally revealed in a wavering voice.
As Chariot handed her the ice pack to place on her slightly swelling eye, Croix pulled out a notepad and began furiously scribbling notes.
"Has she ever hit you before?" Croix asked.
"N-No." Diana sniffed. "She's...always yelled at me and threatened to hurt me, but..."
"And how old are you, Diana?"
"S-Seventeen." Her eyes widened as she realized the implications of the question. "B-But you can't charge her with anything! P-Please!"
Croix looked dumbfounded, though Chariot seemed to pick up on the angle Diana was coming from as her smile turned sympathetic.
"But, Diana, she hurt you," Akko emphasized. Her brows furrowed in anger once more as she added, "She deserves to be punished."
"W-What would happen to me, then?" Diana asked, "I'm still not eighteen and-!"
"Don't you worry about foster care, honey," Chariot cut in, squatting back down to Diana's level. "I'm sure we can figure something out until then."
"You could get your family back!" Akko exclaimed then, another smile lighting up her face, her anger seemingly forgotten for the time being. "Diana, you could finally take your place as the rightful heir!"
"Heir?" Croix echoed, looking to Akko curiously.
"Becoming head of my house," Diana began explaining. "My mother was the last head, but when she died, the title went to my aunt because I was too young."
"And she only likes the title because of the power and popularity it gives her!" Akko added certainly, which caused a ghost of a smile to flicker on Diana's face. Akko grinned as she saw it.
"Well, we can make sure you stay out of foster care and help you reclaim your proper title," Croix reassured her with a confident smirk.
"And I'll help too!" Akko added, puffing her chest out proudly. "I'll cover any bases Chariot and Croix can't cover legally."
"Akko..." Chariot half-heartedly scolded with a sigh.
"What?" Akko questioned with a shrug. "You know I'll do it anyway."
"That's the problem," Croix muttered under her breath.
Akko noticed Diana watching the entire exchange with a soft smile on her face, her grip on Akko's hand loosening as she relaxed. Dian set the ice pack down on Chariot's desk and Akko felt some relief wash over her upon noticing the bruise already fading even just so slightly. Diana glanced back to Akko briefly before addressing the two cops once more.
"I, um... I know my aunt has taken several precautions to keep me from becoming head for as long as possible," she began trying to explain. "I don't know how much of those measures are illegal, but I know she isn't above bending the rules." Bitterly, she added, "She thinks she's untouchable."
"You'll have to forgive my ignorance in this, but is there any documentation from when your mother passed?" Croix asked. Chariot, meanwhile, had commandeered Croix's desk and was busy doing research on inheritance laws. "Even her will could shed some light on things."
"Aunt Daryl has that under tight lock and key," Diana answered with a frown. "She keeps anything about my mother, the family, anything she deems important enough, locked inside her office. I've tried to pick the lock several times, but have either had no luck, or she's caught me in the process."
"And she never hit you or anything then?"
Diana shook her head. "Honestly, I always ran before she had the chance to."
Croix continued to write on her notepad. "Then may I ask what happened tonight that was different?"
Akko felt Diana squeeze her hand again as she noticed the tips of her ears tint pink. Akko looked to Croix who just mouthed, "comfort her," back.
"I-It's okay, Diana," Akko was saying before she realized it. "You're not at fault here, and none of us will let your aunt get away with any of this."
Diana took a deep breath before she looked to Akko instead of Croix or Chariot and said, "I...stood up to her."
Akko smiled faintly, a small surge of pain bubbling in her before it faded to uncertainty. Part of her had a feeling Diana wouldn't have done any of this if she hadn't known Akko.
Was she a bad influence on Diana?
Had she gotten Diana hurt indirectly?
"Well, your coming to us should be enough to get a subpoena to at least bring you aunt in for some questioning," Croix explained, though Akko was only listening half-heartedly now, her mind still at war with her heart. "And don't worry," Croix added with a small smirk upon seeing Diana's fear flare, "we won't actually arrest her. We'll put that off for as long as possible. Though if she doesn't comply this time, arrest may be the only option."
"But you're so close to eighteen, Diana, I don't see why social services would put you in foster care for just a few months," Chariot spoke up to comfort. "Especially if we are able to prove your succession in your family, I don't see why anyone would have a problem with you taking up the title a bit early."
Akko managed to snap herself out of it for the time being as she processed all her friends had just said. It all sounded like a plan to her; a good one too.
The only thing left to take care of was where Diana would stay until her aunt was brought to justice. Nervous jitters took over as Akko mulled over one certain possibility.
"O-Okay," was all Diana responded with a small nod.
Croix looked between the blonde and Akko for a moment before finishing up with, "Do you...have somewhere you can go for tonight?"
Diana looked down, but not after flashing Akko a pleading look. "I... I think so."
Akko took the plunge.
"You do," she said confidently, protectively, and with another clench of Diana's hand. She looked to Croix and Chariot and gave them her most serious look. "I'll take care of her."
Chariot and Croix seemed comfortable with the idea has they didn't refute her. Soon, with just a bit more information on Diana's part, she and Akko were standing outside the police headquarters. The sun had completely set by now, and there was a slight chill in the air. Akko gulped.
"So..." she started, though unsure how to continue.
Diana beat her to it, though she seemed equally as unsure, as if afraid she was overstepping her boundaries.
"Can I...stay with you tonight?"
Akko shifted her beanie as she look down at the sidewalk. "I mean, of course, but I... You know I- I don't..."
Diana took a step closer to Akko and took both of her hands this time, the smile she gave Akko once she met her eyes warming Akko's heart and making any uncertainty retreat to the shadows.
"I don't care, Akko," she said with conviction. "I just..." Now Diana was the one to look away. "I'd like for you to stay with me for now."
"Don't you mean you stay with me?" Akko jabbed softly with a gentle nudge and wink.
Diana blushed and Akko's confidence grew as her body warmed.
"That too..." she mumbled shyly.
"I'd be happy to let you stay with me, Diana," Akko told her with just as much conviction as the blonde. When Diana looked to her and smiled, Akko felt one twitch across her lips. "Do you need...anything from your place? Won't you have school tomorrow?"
They had begun walking by now, and Diana simply shrugged as she looked down at their feet.
"I can miss one day," she said. "I've never skipped, or even taken a sick day, but it had always been out of fear. But now..."
"Your aunt doesn't have control over you anymore, Diana. I'm sure you'll be fine if you miss one day. If anyone deserves to skip a day, it's you."
Diana chuckled softly. "I suppose so."
"Have you...eaten anything?"
"No, but I'm...not really hungry."
Akko nodded silently and they continued their walk. Their journey was completed in silence, though at some point Diana had reached for Akko's hand once more. Akko let their hands slide together, and identical grins spread upon their faces as they shyly observed each other from their peripherals.
Soon enough, Akko was leading them around the final corner.
"So, I know you said you don't care, but...for my sake let me say something first," Akko spoke, bringing them to stop at the entrance to the alley where she lived. "While this might be an upgrade from the slide in the park, it's still quite literally a hole in the wall. But...it's always been enough for me. There's a roof, it insulates well surprisingly, and..."
Akko felt a gentle touch on her cheek, and let her head be moved until she was caught up in compassionate blue lakes.
"It's okay, Akko," Diana repeated. "It's enough for me as well."
Akko chuckled nervously as she started down the alley. "I hope you still think that in a second."
She could feel Diana curiously taking in her surroundings—though they couldn't amount to much, Akko thought—and observing her as she slid the wooden board aside, revealing the hole that served as her doorway. She turned back to Diana and gave an unsure smile.
"L-Ladies first?" She carefully led Diana forward until the girl was bending down ever so slightly to pass through. "Just...watch your head."
Akko quickly scurried inside after her and retreated to a corner to grab a flashlight. Praying its batteries weren't dead, she flipped the switch, thanking her lucky stars when lit emerged and worked to brighten the dark space. She quickly went to slide the door back into place before spinning to face Diana.
Luckily, though the hole made it seem otherwise, the interior was big enough to stand to their full height in, and spacious enough that they weren't right on top of each other. Still, Akko couldn't help worrying that Diana would judge her living conditions.
Then the better part of her decried that Diana had proven time and time again that she would never judge Akko.
"How did you manage to come across this place?"
Rearranging her bed of blankets to give herself something to do with her nervous energy, Akko eventually gestured for Diana to sit down.
"I just saw the hole one day and noticed it was big enough to get through without much effort," Akko replied with a shrug once she was sitting beside Diana. "I guess this room used to be some kind of storage or closet?" She gestured to a metal door that hid back in a corner. "I tried that door to see what else was out there, but it won't budge."
"It's cozy," Diana said with a smile. "And I'm not just saying that. You've simply made use with the resources you had again and I think that's admirable."
Now it was Akko to blush. "T-Thanks."
They looked away from each other briefly, both quite aware of the volatile energy surrounding them. Finally, Akko broke it.
"I wish I had some food or something to offer you. I'm...kinda a lousy host."
Diana giggled and Akko's cheeks heated even further.
"I suppose I can forgive you."
"But!" Akko chirped, fishing out the bills from earlier. "I do have some money! Maybe tomorrow I can...treat you to breakfast?"
"With six dollars?" Diana teased, and Akko knew she didn't intend it with any rudeness, so she just grinned.
Reaching between the gap between the blankets and the wall, Akko retrieved her emergency funds, jiggling the back before Diana.
"Um, excuse you, with eleven dollars, thank you very much."
"Forgive me," Diana replied with another titter. Her expression softened before fixing Akko with a look that had the brunette shivering. "I'd be happy to accompany you, Akko."
"G-Great!" Looking away only briefly, she focused back on Diana. "Are you tired? Or...I could play my guitar? Or we can just t-talk?"
Not like I'm hiding a TV or laptop in here or something... she grumbled bitterly.
Akko noticed Diana biting her lip and averting her gaze. She knew well enough by now that meant the blonde was insecure about something, and Akko found herself quickly becoming the same way naturally.
"Would it be alright if we just went to sleep?" Diana asked hesitantly. "I'm...a bit tired."
"N-No!" Akko immediately cried, her desire to make Diana as comfortable as possible taking her over. "I totally get it! Um...I have one shirt and a pair of sweatpants you can sleep in if you want... A-And there's plenty of blankets to share between us."
Diana was still chewing on her lip and the butterflies were still fluttering madly in Akko's stomach.
"I-I'm fine just like this, thank you." She peeked up at Akko the light and shadow from the flashlight accenting the pink on her cheeks. "B-But...could we...?"
Akko cocked her head and Diana's cheeks flared even more. Then she looked down to her lap with a defeated look on her face.
"Could we what?" Akko repeated softly, honest curiosity in her voice. "Diana, what is it?"
The blonde refused to look at her as she mumbled, voice shaking, "C-Can I...lay with you?"
Akko was certain steam had to be billowing from her ears by now. Her throat went incredibly dry as she tried to swallow against it.
"O-Of course!" she ended up squeaking, immediately squeezing her eyes shut in embarrassment from whatever kind of sound that just was.
Diana smiled and seemed to become slightly more comfortable. Akko, meanwhile, settled back on the mound of blankets stiffly. Every fiber of her being was on fire as Diana settled beside her, close enough that they were touching.
Unbeknownst to her, Diana was having a similar meltdown next to her.
They remained completely still beside each other for a moment, both fearing being the one to make the next move, unsure what the other was expecting or comfortable with. There was no way to know how intimate was too much to the other.
Eventually, it seem Diana threw caution to the wind as she rolled onto her side facing Akko and snuggled into her side. Akko didn't think she could go any more rigid.
"Is this okay?" Diana mumbled into her hoodie.
"V-Very!" Another squeak.
Akko felt Diana laugh into her side as she playfully poked her. "Are you sure about that? It seems to me you're trying to become one with the blankets."
Akko willed herself to relax. She peered down at Diana who was staring up at her with the most affectionate she had ever seen from the girl. With trepidation, Akko brought an arm to wrap around Diana, of which immediately burrowed back against her.
"Sorry," Akko whispered, her throat still incredibly dry. "I'm not u-used to..."
"Me neither," Diana finished, her fingers gathering the material of Akko's hoodie in a tight fist. "But...I-I like this."
The girl beside her fell silent, her breaths becoming even and heavy, and Akko assumed she had fallen asleep. She could see the band-aid on Diana's cheek and just the faintest purple from the dim lighting. Without thinking, Akko let her fingers trail delicately around the bruise, the arm that was holding Diana tightening protectively.
A gentle hum and amiable smile found purchase on Diana's lips. Akko retreated momentarily at the movement and sound, but when Diana didn't give any more indication that she was still awake, Akko found her hand got to stroke thick blonde locks absentmindedly, an easy smile overtaking her own face.
"Good night, Diana," she uttered on a breath to the dark.
Beside her, Diana opened on eye and grinned.