So, I've made a friend, Diana thought happily as she made her way through the huge back garden, Unbelievable. Pam and Lola would be shocked. Okay, so they might not like the tangled hair or the random story-telling, but so what? They're not here, Aiyana is. God knows I need a friend.
She stopped just before the back door, and laughed at herself. Even in her head, she sounded desperate. The back door opened and Lynnette, a large toy rabbit under one arm, leapt at her, chattering away in rapid French as she dragged her into the kitchen. Her dad, to her surprise, was sitting at the table drinking some coffee.
"Hi sweetheart," he greeted, putting down his cup. "Up early, I see. Did you like the garden?"
"Yeah," Diana answered, taking a seat and hoisting Lynnette onto her lap. "It's really pretty. And huge too. I was thinking of sketching in this afternoon, unless you had any plans?"
"No, that's fine - just be sure to come in for lunch and your tea as well," he said, waving a hand. "Scarlett would fuss."
"Will you bring me back a new doll, Daddy?" Lynnette piped up in halting English, blinking her big brown eyes at their father. Diana stared.
"Where are you going?" she asked him. Her dad sipped at his coffee.
"Just going up to the city for the day to run a few errands," he explained, before looking at Lynnette. "And of course I can get you a doll, princess. What kind of doll would you like?"
As Lynnette chattered on about the type of doll she desired, Diana felt her heart pounding.
He used to call me princess, she thought woodenly. Her mother's words echoed in her mind.
You're only setting yourself up for pain, my girl. He'll let you down.
She shook her head.
I'm over-reacting. My dad loves me and that's all there is to it.
"Diana?" She glanced across the table to see her father giving her a worried look. "You all right?"
"Fine," she said, pinning a smile on. "Just thinking."
"About what, sweetheart?" he persisted.
"Nothing." God, I'm such a bad liar.
Evidently, it showed too. Her father gave her a sceptical look before a knowing look appeared in his eyes. He stood, coming around the table towards her and extended a hand to her, a roguish grin on his face.
"May I have this dance, Princess?" he drawled, winking at her. Diana blushed and took the poffered hand, allowing him to pull her up and begin to waltz her around the kitchen.
"You know me too well, Dad," she giggled as he dipped her backwards.
"Of course," he said with a grin, pulling her up again, "What kind of father would I be if I didn't know how to cheer you up?"
"Point taken," she conceded as they drew to a halt.
"You know, I never asked if you wanted anything from the city as well," her dad said thoughtfully. "Is there anything I can get you?"
Diana pursed her lips in thought, trying to think of something she wanted. She smiled.
"I'd like a rose," she replied shyly. "There aren't any in the garden, and I'd like to sketch one."
Lynnette bounded over, demanding to dance next.
"Sorry love, but I've got to go now," he said regretfully, patting the pouting child on the head before sidling over to the door. "But Diana can teach you! Have fun, girls!"
Diana was partly amused, annoyed and astonished. She was drawn out of her stupor when Lynnette tugged on her arm. Glancing down, she was treated to a determined glare and an order of "Teach me!"
After an exhausting day of dealing with a clingy Lynnette, Diana all but collapsed into bed, asleep almost the second her head hit the pillow. She was drawn from softly-scented dreams to a noise downstairs. Sitting up in bed, she rubbed a hand on her face and glanced blearily at the clock. Nearly three am.
What on earth woke me up? she thought hazily.
Easing out of bed, she padded over to her door and opened it as quietly as possible.
"You can't be serious, Tom," she could faintly hear Scarlett saying. "There's no way that happened. You were dreaming, delusional maybe."
"It was very real, I'm afraid," her father answered quietly. Diana tiptoed out onto the landing, crouching down by the banister. "I made a mistake and I have to make it right."
Diana's heart leapt into her throat. What had her dad done?
"What will happen to the kids - to me? To Diana and her sisters?"
"Nothing will happen if I go, love."
She could practically see her father leaning back against his chair, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.
"And if you don't?"
"Then it's the end of us. All of us."
There was a long pause. Diana's heartbeat sounded loud in her ears. She positively jumped when Scarlett said with a half laugh, "A life for a rose?"
"When will you go?" Scarlett's voice was calm, a tiny tremor her only give-away.
"After breakfast," Thomas replied just as calmly. "I want to say goodbye to everyone. There's a horse outside - apparently he knows where to take me. He will also know where to come back if I don't go."
"Oh Thomas," Scarlett sighed. A chair was pushed back, its legs scraping against the stone floor. Taking that as her cue, Diana crept back into her room, closing the door quietly and sitting back on her bed, her weight sinking into the mattress as her mind raced.
While most of the conversation downstairs had gone right over her head, one point had lodged home. She had wanted a rose. Her dad had gotten her a rose but had angered someone while getting it; ergo, it was her fault that this had happened.
God I am so selfish, she berated herself as tears started slipping down her cheeks. I should've just kept my mouth shut.
She stayed silent as she heard her father and Scarlett make their way up the stairs and into their room. She heard their door close, and she sat quietly for a long time. When she was absolutely certain that everyone else was asleep, Diana stood and got dressed, scribbled a short note and shouldered her rucksack before leaving her room, closing the door with a soft click behind her. Getting to the front door was easy, though she froze when the handle squeaked very loudly. When no-one appeared, she relaxed and pulled open the door, leaving her note on the small table by the phone and went out into the pre-dawn air.
A large, midnight-coloured stallion was pawing its hoof by the garden gate.
"Hello gorgeous," Diana cooed as she drew near. She'd always loved horses. "Are you willing to take me where you were going to bring my dad?" The stallion snorted and pushed his velvety nose into her outstretched palm. "I'll take that as a yes," she said softly.
Diana drew the obedient animal over to the low garden wall, and he stood patiently as she used the wall as a make-shift mounting block and swung into the saddle, her feet searching for the stirrups. When she had the reins firmly in her hands, her guide set off at a trot towards the forest, their pace leisurely. Diana let out a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding. While she was terrified of what was in store for her, she was also relieved that she hadn't been caught. They'd be furious when they found out what she'd done, but they wouldn't understand why she'd done it. Diana loved her dad, but she was old enough to understand that there were other people in his life that needed him more then she did. She'd been hanging onto her memories and wishes for years - it was about time she let go and actually did something useful in her life.
They came across the little stream where she had met Aiyana barely a day before. Diana smiled a touch sadly as they passed.
Guess I won't be seeing you around after all, she thought.
Eventually, they came to a halt in front of a wall of trees and dense briar bushes. Taking a deep breath, Diana leaned forward in the saddle to whisper, "More then anything in the world, take me to the one my father struck a bargain with."
There was nothing but absolute stillness, and she felt stupid. After a moment though, a branch snapped, and the trees began to pull away from each other. The trunks twisted away from each other and formed a path that would (presumably) take Diana where she wanted to go. She could only stare in dumbstruck awe before her horse reared and took off on the newly formed path. Diana clung on like a burr, pressing her face into the horse's mane when branches whipped her exposed hands as they sped past.
Will this ever end? Diana thought dazedly, her hands and wrists stinging with pain.
Eventually they stopped, the stallion breathing heavily as he pawed the ground beneath his hoof. Diana slowly opened her eyes and peeled herself from the saddle. Her legs shook as she sucked in a breath, wide eyes taking in her surroundings.
She was in a very familiar meadow.
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