The wind at her back begged her to get a move on. They’d been standing there, at the gaping mouth of an endless pit of doom for what felt like hours, staring out into the darkness that they’d been commanded to jump into. Well, maybe not ‘commanded’- Headmaster Holebrooke always spoke in a manner too gentle to warrant the strength of the word.
Atsuko Kagari was always up for an adventure, no matter how perilous. It was her signature move; jump into danger as often as you can, until eventually, something good comes from it. Everybody and their mother knew that. Knew about her, and the words, and what she did two years ago with Diana, in space. Looking up, she squinted at the early morning rays of sunlight dripping from the leaky overhang above them- the morning dew trickling down rows of stalagmites, a draw drop or two hitting her directly on the tip of her nose. She sneezed, wiping the water from her face. It wasn’t as good as a cup of coffee would have been, but it was enough to finish waking her up.
She wanted people to look at her, the same way they looked at Chariot- putting for the beauty of magic for all the world to see. Technically, she already had, on a much greater scale than her idol had ever managed. She knew that, and a part of her wondered if that as all the world had in store for her.
Apparently not, judging by how often she was being sent on missions, now. It would be incredibly short-sighted of Luna Nova to not use the new nine to their full potential- they each had their talents, they could see that now. Sometimes, Akko felt like she was doing a lot more grunt work than she was learning, but she couldn’t complain. She’d never liked classrooms, anyways.
A warm, featherlight touch brushed against her cheek, brushing off another fallen droplet for her, brought her back to life.
“Are you ready?”
Akko grinned, puffing out her chest under a baby blue gaze. I’d be a lie to say her bravado didn’t swell whenever she took her first step into the unknown, so she’d stopped trying to hide it a long time ago.
“Born ready. This’ll be a piece of cake! Don’t even have to fight any monsters this time.”
A short sigh, and her smile was returned, albeit in a softer, playfully doubtful way.
“Let’s try not to destroy any thousand-year-old historical structures this time- I’d like to document everything we see properly, without having to take note of giant craters blown into the side statue older than Professor Finnelan..”
Cheeky, her expression became, at the hint of a joke. Oh, how far her student had come. Though, Akko knew she’d never beat her mastery.
“Gee, Diana, was that a jab at a superior? Huh, wonder what’s gotten into you~”
The hand that had been tending to her features now pushed her head away, palm pressed against her mouth, covering the teasing look Akko wore with pride.
“Oi! Lesbians! Let’s get a move on, yeah? It’s freezing as fuck out here.”
Diana grumbled, less than pleased. She’d throw her shoe in Amanda’s direction, if the ground here weren’t so rough to walk around on. Her nose scrunched up the way it did when her companions said something ‘so dreadfully distasteful’, and Akko caught herself focusing on it maybe a little too intently. Pulling her arm back from its outstretched position, the blonde turned to respond to the smug American further inside.
Distracting herself, Akko readjusted the strap of the backpack on her shoulder. It was relatively light; the others had smaller packs of their own, filled with emergency medical supplies (Diana) and high-powered lasers that could cut through steel (Constanze). Akko had made sure her’s was as empty as it could be, though. This was a search and rescue assignment, after all, and she could hear the other’s internal complaints at the thought of carrying anything with their arms after hours of cave diving.
With energetic steps, she clambered down the first few ridges of stone, coming to stop where the rest of their team were waiting. Amanda O’Neill, with her shit-eating grin, was throwing a ball of light, catching it and tossing it over and over again. Despite her confident persona, Akko knew she only ever fidgeted like that when she was nervous. The details of this mission were… vague, and they all felt a little off about it- Akko couldn’t blame any of them for not trusting the Luna Nova faculty. For some reason, the older witches of the past felt the new generation, no matter how advanced, wasn’t ready for some truths.
Hannah and Barbara were pretty close by, the former chewing a piece of cherry red gum, the latter working at her nails with a file. Neither were particularly fond of dark, confined spaces- especially not Hannah- but they’d be damned if they let their idiot girlfriend run into a creepy old tunnel track by herself, unsupervised. Amanda looked over her shoulder at them, and winked. The way they looked at each other would be gross, if Akko weren’t so happy for them.
An apple flew across the empty space in front of her, and Sucy caught it with a quick hand, just before it could thwack against Lotte’s glasses. The freckled girl squeaked, and stiffened, looking at it with wide eyes.
“Wakey wakey, pumpkin- let’s get this show on the road!”
Sharp teeth and all, Sucy took a bite, chewing with unfazed satisfaction. Amanda was fast, a pro pitcher if there ever was one, but the mauve haired girl had the reflexes of a cat on Adderall.
“Now now, Amanda, no chucking perfectly good food at our friends.” Jasminka scolded lightly, helping Constanze up from her spot on the floor. The smaller witch still had her eyes closed, sleepy from the broom ride here. Say what you will about the beauty of flight- it was all fun and games, until you had to do it at three Am, after staying up all night tinkering on God knows what.
With renewed vigor, Akko hopped up onto a little ledge, just a head or two taller than she way, fumbling a bit with her footing. Straightening herself up, she took out her wand, pointing it towards the pitch black in front of them.
“Alright, team! Luna Nova Academy has tasked us with going into this cave system to find and return the Stardust Relic to the hands of the High Witch Council.”
She heard a boo (Amanda), and then what sounded like someone smacking the back of her head (Diana) with a clipboard.
“It should take us the rest of the day, so if all goes well, we’ll be home by nightfall!”
She could see Lotte perk up out of her peripheral vision.
“Not that kind.” Sucy hushed, giving her shoulder an awkward pat.
Akko huffed, mouth forming a straight line, unimpressed. The morale of her crew was at an all-time low. They were tired, fatigued, in need of a weekend to themselves. Thus was the curse of fame, on top of the pressure of living up to what that fame made them out to be. Scratching the back of her neck, Akko’s shoulders dipped a bit.
“I know it’s tough, guys, but we’ll knock this out of the ballpark, easy peasy!”
She was their leader, plain and simple. It was her job to pull them together. It was much easier said than done, but it’d happened before, and it’d happen again, a million times over until she didn’t have to lead anymore. Maybe… she could convince Professor Ursula to talk to the Headmistress about giving them a break, once this was over and done with.
Diana cleared her throat, catching everyone’s attention.
“We were given a map, though I’m not too sure how accurate it still is- there have been many collapsing tunnels along this particular route. The Headmistress has drawn out a clear path for us, but we were told to still proceed with caution.”
Akko’s smile perked up again at the sound of her voice. It fueled her drive, like fresh kindling exposed to a once dwindling fire. The way Diana bit her lip while scribbling something down was akin to four gallons of gasoline being dumped onto that same flame.
“Which means… Buddy system!” Red eyes cheered, pumping her fist into the air. “Buddy system, buddy system~”
She could hear Hannah pinching the bridge of her nose.
“We’re being led by an actual child. We’re doomed.”
Barbara bumped shoulders with her, giving her a fond, comforting look.
“At least we’ll get to hold hands?”
“That’s the spirit!” Akko stated with the purpose of a man on a mission. Which she was. Kinda. Diana looked up at her with a quirked brow, and she made it her goal to hold her hand the second they started their journey. By the looks of it, Diana could read her mind, giving her a hopeless eyeroll, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning like an idiot.
Ah. Now was not the time for shameless flirting with your… whatever she and Diana were. Those were thoughts for another time. She shook herself free from her mental constraints, leaping down from her vantage point. Tugging at the neck of her uniform shawl, she found herself wanting to catch her breath already. Man, she was getting pretty worn out too, huh?
“Alright! You heard the girl, up, up, up!”
Well, at least she had Amanda’s impatience to rely on, when she didn’t have the heart to say it herself. Squaring her posture, Akko marched forward first, one foot into the shadows, before that soft, angelic hand was touching her again. Diana had crossed the divide between then, clutching lightly at the back of her hood.
The chatter behind them faded into the background so quickly, Akko thought she may have gone deaf- until she heard Diana’s voice.
“Are… you sure we’re ready for this?”
Akko met her gaze head-on, her determination wavering. The unusually expression look of concern on Diana’s face made her doubletake. In all honesty? Akko knew they shouldn’t have come down here. But the professors made it sound so urgent, and it was their job to continue to be the heroes, the saviors of Luna Nova. It didn’t matter that they were exhausted, didn’t matter that they weren’t even old enough to drink, let alone traverse dangerous territories in search of something they knew nothing about. They’d don’t it before a hundred times- slew monsters, delivered cargo, stood up before their peers in the eyes of adoring, and scorned, audiences. The look Diana gave her reminded her of the way Chariot looked at her every time she said ‘yes, we’ll handle it’.
She knew they both worried. But it was Akko’s burden to bear, making sure they were alright. She just kept telling herself- one more, and we’ll be done. We’ll get to rest. One more and it’ll be okay. Akko couldn’t be certain, though, and when she looked past Diana’s head to the girls gathering themselves up for the trek, she saw them just like that- girls. Girls who should be waking up for breakfast, right about now, before rushing to homeroom, hastily thrown on clothes in disarray.
“Not really.” She whispered, uttering the phrase under her breath. “But this is it. We’ll bring the artifact back, and then we’ll be done for a while. No more. I promise.”
She felt bad, letting her eyes linger, especially when Diana steeled her face, giving her a sharp nod of affirmation. A part of Akko felt like she didn’t deserve her unwavering faith.
‘I believe in your believing heart.’
How would she feel, if her heart wasn’t in it this time?
What would she say, if she found out her heart hadn’t been in it for a while.
Maybe she already knew.