Katarina leaned face first into the wall with her entire weight and wondered what it might take to melt into it and become a part of the architecture.
It was a beautiful day, a lovely breeze and birdsong floating in through the open windows, and in the next room she knew there were teatime sweets, which normally would have been the only thing she needed to enjoy her day.
However, the other thing waiting for her in the other room was enough to keep her away from even her beloved sweets, too nervous to open the door into the parlor. So she stood against the wall, pressing her face into it, and wondered if the door was just so thick that she couldn’t hear anyone talking inside, or if everyone was waiting in total silence for her to get there. For her to show up, and tell everyone what she’d decided.
She’d felt so good after that last date — like everything was falling into place, and with just a good night’s sleep on it, she’d have the answer waiting for her in the morning. But it seemed ever out of her grasp.
She thought over every date over and over in her mind. Jeord’s admiration of her, and how gentle he was, and how his smile was so much softer for her than she’d ever noticed. Alan understanding just where she was coming from about not knowing how to really understand your own feelings, and his soft, assured confidence in what he was good at. Keith knowing her almost better than she knew herself, and how easy it felt to be around him. Nicol’s soft, gentlemanly charm, the almost boyish shyness hidden underneath his quiet exterior, and just how kind and respectful he was. Mary’s overwhelming determination and strength, the way she never backed down on anything. Sophia’s sweet gentleness, the way that she was the only one Katarina could really talk to about the things she liked, how nostalgic it felt to be around her. And Maria, with her gentle courage, and the soothing way she’d held Katarina so gently, reassuring her that her fears weren’t going to come to pass.
How could she possibly make a decision between them? Maria had reassured her that no matter what, no one was going to leave her behind and...and the more Katarina thought about it, the more she was sure Maria was right. Her friends would probably be hurt if she didn’t choose them, but...but they wouldn’t hate her. They’d still be her friends, wouldn’t they?
Katarina groaned, pressing her face harder into the wall.
“Not ready to head in yet?”
The voice made Katarina ricochet off the wall, bouncing backwards with her arms wheeling.
“I wasn’t — I wasn’t procrastinating!!”
Rafael smiled. He had a fresh, steaming cup of tea in one hand, cupped gently. He held it out to Katarina. Katarina blinked down at him.
“I almost feel a little bad,” Rafael said. “I really put you all in a tizzy, didn’t I?”
Katarina glanced at the tea, and then at Rafael’s smiling face. She raised her eyebrows suspiciously.
“Are you going to tell me that you’re also in love with me?” she said. Gah! Was that too forward of her to say??
Rafael only smiled. A faint chuckled escaped him.
“You know...” he said. “I don’t know!”
He tilted his head, drawing the cup close to him for a moment.
“I’m fascinated by you, more like,” he said. “But I’m not sure I’d call it love. Or maybe I would. I don’t know.”
Katarina could only stare at him, her mouth hanging open slightly. She didn’t know what to say, or how to make heads or tails of this.
“Why didn’t you...uh. I mean...”
“Why didn’t I go on a date with you?” Rafael said, smiling — for a moment, he looked exactly like the smiling president he’d been back when he was hiding all his feelings, and then it somehow took on a more mischievous glint. “I don’t know about that, either. I think I thought it would be more fun to watch it all happen from the outside.”
He held the cup out to Katarina again.
“If I find someday that my feelings are love, I’ll be sure to tell you, so you don’t have to guess,” he said. “But for the time being, I think...I think I just wanted to see one of you finally act.”
He lit up with a soft laugh, shoulders shaking just a bit, but not so he would spill any of the tea.
“It was incredibly frustrating, you know. Watching them all moon over you. And more importantly...”
He tossed his bangs back from his eyes so that he could look at her head on, his eyes unwavering from her.
“More importantly, I was tired of watching you seem to assume that you’re not important to everyone around you.”
Katarina’s lips parted. She finally looked up at him, really looked up at him. Her eyes met his. There was...well, she didn’t know what was in his eyes. She still wasn’t all that good at reading people, it seemed. But there was a strange softness to his smile, unlike anything she’d seen from him before.
After a beat longer, she reached up, and accepted the cup from him. Their hands lingered for just a moment on top of each others before he let go, and let her take the cup and saucer.
Had...had Rafael known all along? Had he noticed that that she’d spent so much of her time with her friends afraid that somehow, despite everything in front of her, they would eventually follow the rules of the game she remembered and turn on her?
She held the cup up to her nose, breathing in the soft, delicate scent. It was perfectly warm, not too hot to drink, and she took a long, deep sip. It took her only a few moments to finish the cup, and the warmth spread through her, making her feel....better. Like maybe, even though she still didn’t have an answer, she could still go in there and face everyone.
Rafael took the cup from her before she could think about what to do with it. He smiled. Then he reached out, and ruffled her hair lightly.
“Don’t ever forget,” he said. “They all love you.”
He drew his hand away, smiling at her with that soft look.
“And...I do as well.”
He looked as though he might reach out for her again. Then he only smiled, bowed slightly, and turned back down the hall. She watched him go, a little nervous that he was leaving her. He wasn’t joining them? But then, maybe that was for the best. Facing everyone else was going to be hard enough...
The warmth of the tea still strengthening her, Katarina took a deep breath. Then before she could think better of it, she shoved the doors open, and practically flung herself into the parlor.
Voices immediately stilled to a stop — so they had been talking before she got here! As soon as she arrived, though, everyone fell into silence. All seven of them turned to face her, with varying expressions — for just a moment, Katarina withered, thinking that they were all angry at her or something, because no one was smiling, and everyone looked actually, kind of upset or concerned!
Before she could let her thoughts run away from her, though, Jeord stood up.
“Katarina,” he said. “We were just...well...”
“You don’t have to make any sort of dumb decision!” Keith said, cutting Jeord off.
Jeord gave him a sort of annoyed look, but he sighed, and he nodded.
“This was...probably too much for us to put on you,” he said. “I’m afraid our selfishness has driven you into a difficult corner.”
“We were talking about it again and...we’ve been really unfair to you!” Mary said, clasping her hands together. “It’s true that I — I don’t really want to see you with anyone else, but...but we can’t expect you to be all right with all of this.”
“We’re so sorry,” Sophia said. “I should have said something earlier...”
“The thing is, when we talked about it, we figured...we’ve really kind of driven you against a wall here,” Alan said, rubbing the back of his neck. “And the last thing we want you to think is that...well, like you have to make some decision, and feel stuck with it, or...uh...”
“We don’t want to coerce you into anything,” Nicol said softly. “We’ve put all of our feelings onto you, Lady Katarina, and expected so much in return, when we should have thought of you.”
“No matter what, we all care about you, Lady Katarina,” Maria said, looking concerned. “And...we all still want to be in your life, so we don’t want...I don’t want...”
She looked down at her lap, fumbling for the words. Katarina, for her part, could only stare. It was as though they’d stolen all the air from her before she could think of what to say. Jeord stepped forward, taking her hand gently in his and resting his other hand on top of hers.
“In the end,” he said, sounding as though this was difficult for him to say, “I... we ...care about you. And if this whole...mess has stressed you...we want to take that stress off your shoulders. You don’t have to make any decisions. Not now...not... ever , if you don’t want to.”
“We just want you to be happy,” Maria said. “So we’re...”
“We’re all giving up,” Sophia said. “You don’t have to make a choice, Katarina!”
Katarina stared at them, one at a time. She knew her mouth was hanging open. Normally, Keith would probably scold her for it being unladylike, but this was as far from normal as possible. She stood there, simply gaping in the wake of everyone’s words. Jeord still held her hand, but after a few more moments of silence, he seemed to realize, and he gently let go of her, her arm falling back to her side.
So...what? They were just...saying she didn’t have to decide anything? That it was okay to just be with them? They were...giving up on their feelings?
Katarina would have thought that losing the pressure of the decision would be like a weight off her shoulders. Instead, it just left her stomach feeling a little queasy. After all her thinking...was this a good way to let all of this end? She looked from one face to the other again. This time, unlike when this had all started, they didn’t look away from her. They met her eyes, and she lingered over her gaze with each one of them, one by one.
Then she curled her hands up into fists at her sides. She felt her eyes bubble with tears, but she quickly blinked them back.
“N....no, it’s okay,” she said. “I...um.”
She had to wipe the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand quickly. She was already getting so emotional.
“I...well. I just need to — I need to say something, at least!”
Jeord looked like he wanted to say something, but Keith elbowed him in the side, and he closed his mouth. Katarina struggled for a moment to find the words. Geez, she’d lost everything she’d thought she might say because they were all trying to be so nice to her!
“I...I’m glad I found out,” she said. “I’m glad that I finally got to know how you guys really felt.”
Oohhh come on, she was crying already!! She pushed on, though, even as they started to roll down her cheeks.
“It’s — I’m a mess!” she said. “I’m weird, and impulsive, and I’m sure I’m annoying sometimes. And I’m totally oblivious! I always think I know what’s going on, and I fool myself into not seeing what’s right in front of me.”
She sniffled. Was she already starting to get sniffly? She didn’t want to be all snotty and gross!
“But...but because I know now, I finally...I finally know how loved I am,” she said, her voice trembling. “I’ve always loved you guys so much, but I guess it never occurred to me that you might all care about me back.”
Uuugh she could barely see them now for the blur in her eyes. She rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands. She blinked as quickly as she could to clear the tears away. She couldn’t lose it.
“Because I got to spend time with you.... really spend time with you...I feel like maybe for the first time everything feels really real.”
She bit her lip. Her eyes slid to Jeord, first, and his shoulders straightened automatically.
“Because of you guys, I learned that even as weird as I am, you guys still love me anyway...that it’s okay to be myself.”
Jeord’s lips parted. Then his eyes softened, and he smiled, nodding very slightly. Katarina looked at Alan, next, and he immediately began playing with his earring.
“I figured out that...it’s okay to not have everything figured out. That even if I don’t have it figured out, you’re still with me to help me figure it out, and I can help you guys, too.”
Alan’s lips quirked up at the corners, in a crooked, shy sort of smile. Katarina looked to Keith, and his eyes dropped to the floor, not quite meeting hers yet.
“I realized that...even if I don’t have it figured out, I still like being with you. That no matter what way it is, I want to be around you. I’m happiest when I’m with all of you.”
Keith’s eyes lifted from the floor. He looked like he might be about to cry, too, but his lips lifted in a tremulous, relieved smile. Nicol didn’t seem to react all that much when Katarina looked at him, but she thought she saw the corners of his eyes soften ever so slightly.
“I have so much more to learn about all of you,” she said. “I don’t know that I ever knew any of you well enough because I wasn’t looking. But I’m looking now! And I want to keep learning more about you.”
Nicol’s eyes definitely softened, and she even saw his lips press towards the faintest of smiles. It was the closest thing to a beaming grin she’d ever seen from him. When Katarina looked towards Mary, Mary’s cheeks flushed, and she buried her hands in the folds of her skirt.
“I’ve found out just how hard you’ve all been working, and how much you’ve done for me,” she said. “And I want...I want to work harder, too, for you, too! I want to respect your feelings, now that I really understand them.”
Mary’s eyes glistened for just a moment, but she covered her mouth with her hand, and only looked up at Katarina with shiny, emotional eyes. Sophia’s shoulders crunched up towards her ears when Katarina’s eyes moved to hers, but she smiled, tentatively.
“And...well...some of you have told me to be selfish,” she said. “That it’s okay for me to follow my heart.”
Sophia’s eyes shone, and her shoulders relaxed. She nodded. Katarina’s eyes flickered to Maria, last. Maria’s hands clasped together over her heart, but she was already smiling, a soft, gentle smile, like the first day Katarina had met her.
“And I know...I know that no matter what I say now, that...that you guys will stay with me,” she said. “That....that all of you were willing to give up on your feelings for my sake. And that it feels really selfish of me to expect you guys to keep sacrificing everything for me, and even mean for me to just count on your feelings.”
Maria’s eyes softened, and for a moment, it looked like she might come towards Katarina, but she leaned back on her heels and stayed where she was. Katarina inhaled. The breath didn’t feel like enough. She almost felt lightheaded from talking — and thinking — so much.
But she thought she had her answer now. It was on her tongue, ready to spill out — there was only one more tiny obstacle of anxiety, telling her that this wasn’t right.
“I’m...I’m always selfish,” Katarina said. “That’s the truth. You all want me to be selfish but...I am . I’m so selfish that I never noticed all of your feelings, and that even right now, I expect you all to stay with me even if I break your hearts.”
“Katarina,” Mary said softly. “That’s not...”
Katarina shook her head. She was crying so hard now.
“But...if it’s okay...I’m going to be selfish just one more time. Well, I’ll probably be selfish again. But I mean — ”
“It’s okay,” Keith said. “Take your time.”
Katarina swallowed through the thickness in her throat and rubbed wildly at her eyes. She didn’t want her vision to be blurred! She wanted to see everyone!
She let her hands fall from her eyes, and she blinked through the tears. All of the people she loved, looking at her. Waiting so patiently for her. She’d made them wait so long.
“I...” she gasped. “I didn’t know I could love so many people so much.”
Her shoulders and knees shook, but she managed to stay on her feet.
“Is it too much to say that I...that I choose all of you?” she said. There. The words were out. It was like gust of air left her all at once, the words hanging in the air. But at the same time, it was like the dam had opened, and more words tumbled after it. “I mean! I just — this isn’t just me saying I can’t decide! I really love all of you, so much! I can’t imagine living without any one of you! Which I mean...this is so weird, right? I’m sorry! I just...I love you guys...I love you, I love you.”
She couldn’t stop saying it now that it was out. I love them I love them I love them. I love all of them. I’m so full of loving for them that I can’t even stand it. There’s so much of it that it almost hurts .
“That’s the most selfish answer of all, huh? I — I don’t really expect anyone to —”
“Katarina,” Jeord sighed, and it was a deep, almost relieved sound. “It’s all right.”
It was that that broke the final lock. Katarina burst into full blown sobs.
Jeord was the first one to make it to her, wrapping his arms around her tightly. But Maria was close behind, throwing her arms around Katarina as well. And almost in a wave, all of them were suddenly around her, and she felt like she was going to be squished under the weight of all this love — but she wouldn’t have traded where she was for the entire world.
“I’m sorryyyyyy,” she sobbed. “I’m sorryyyy!”
“What are you apologizing for, numbskull,” Alan said.
“I really do think we’re the ones who should be apologizing,” Nicol said.
“No one needs to apologize!” Sophia said, though her voice sounded choked as though she were crying too. “We just need to hug!”
Katarina sobbed and sniffled, and snuggled ever deeper into the warm, safe group hug of the people she loved more than anything else in the world. She could not remember ever feeling so safe.
“Somehow,” Keith said with a sigh, “I saw this coming.”
“Oh? Are you upset?” Mary said, in a teasing sort of tone.
“Not at all. I’m a bit relieved. This means I can still keep finding ways of getting in Jeord’s way.”
“You know, legally, I’m the only one who’s going to be married to her,” Jeord said, miffed.
“Oh yes, yes,” Mary said, eyes rolling. “Whatever makes you feel better.”
There was such a lightness to their banter, though, that Katarina couldn’t help but giggle. She choked on it, hiccuping through tears and laughter all at once. Slowly, the group hug pulled apart, though everyone stayed close.
“Is...is this okay?” she said. “I’m — this is really selfish, right?”
“Lady Katarina, we wouldn’t have you any other way,” Maria said, squeezing her hand.
“We all want you to be happy,” Nicol said. “And...truth be told...I don’t know that I’m disappointed with the answer.”
“We can figure out how it works later,” Alan said, waving a hand. “It’s not all that important right now, right?”
“I have to say that I’m not particularly keen on sharing you,” Jeord said, but he was smiling. “But...if I had to be truthful...thinking about not being a part of this ridiculous group has a certain melancholy to it.”
“Aww, Prince Jeord! Are you getting sappy on us?” Mary said, lightly slapping him with her fan.
“Don’t test me,” he said, but he was smirking in a way that was more playful than sadistic.
Katarina hiccuped through her tears, feeling both exhausted and as light as a feather at the same time. Was it really this easy? Well, maybe someday it might not be. There would certainly be a normal amount of things they’d have to work through in the future. But for now...for now, she was the happiest she’d ever been. For now, she was surrounded by people she loved, and the fear of future doom was all but gone in the face of it.
Her stomach grumbled. Everyone briefly went quiet.
“Oops,” Katarina said. “I think....I ran out of steam.”
Maria hid her laugh behind her hand. Alan, however, burst out into a huge, gut-busting laugh, and it wasn’t long before everyone was giggling along with him.
“You never change,” he said, ruffling her hair gently.
“And we don’t want you to!” Mary said, hooking her arm into hers. “Now, there are so many sweets here that you haven’t even had a chance to look at yet!”
“I brought them, of course,” Jeord said.
“Except for the ones that Maria made!” Sophia pointed out.
Katarina giggled again as she let herself be swept to a seat. She blinked through the remains of her tears.
Who would have thought, she mused, as her loved ones surrounded her in a warm bubble of happiness, that after all this worrying about her bad ends, she’d never seen the happy end right in front of her.