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All Routes Lead to Romance - Katarina's Seven First Dates

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“Well, of course.  After all, everyone in this room is stupidly in love with you, Lady Katarina.  It’s almost a little embarrassing.”

The silence that hung after Rafael’s words was so loud that Katarina could almost hear the heartbeats of everyone in the room.  She blinked, a macaron frozen halfway to her still hanging open mouth, eyes flicking from one face to another in the room.  There were a lot of stony, stoic, and just plain not looking quite at her faces around the suite right now.

Rafael, for his part, looked completely unperturbed, sipping at his tea as though he hadn’t just sent the entire room into a strange silence.  Katarina waited for someone to say something.  No one did, so she opted for a nervous laugh.

“Don’t joke around like that, Rafael,” she said, waving her free hand.  “It’s not like that at all!  You shouldn’t tease everyone.”

She stuffed the macaron into her mouth before she could be asked to say anything else.  Rafael sighed into his tea.

“I’m not joking,” he said.  “Katarina, you’re the only one here who hasn’t realized it yet.”

“Rafael-san?” Keith said suddenly.  “Please shut up.”

Mary let out an angry huffing sound, bending at her fan almost enough to snap it in half.  Maria’s face was so red she looked almost the same shade as her dress, staring down at the table.  Sophia had pressed her book against her face, and Nicol had turned around to face the wall.  Alan was trying, and failing, to look stony, but he only succeeded in blushing harder.

Katarina looked from one to the other.  Jeord was the only one who didn’t seem too surprised, taking a sip of his tea as calm as ever.  A few crumbs escaped Katarina’s mouth as she felt her jaw drop open again.

Well, no, of course Rafael was joking.  Right?  No one was in love with her .  She was the villainess!  Maria was the protagonist, capturing everyone’s hearts.  They were in Maria’s harem ending, right?  That was how the game worked.  Well, not that this was a game.  This was real life that just happened to be a lot like the game she remembered from her past life.  But then again, even so, why would anyone look at Katarina twice when Maria was in the room??  Rafael was joking, of course.  No one was in love with the villainess.

But then why wasn’t anyone saying anything?

Katarina shot Jeord a look, as the only person in the room that didn’t look like he was on the verge of a meltdown.  He glanced up at her, and a smile flickered at the edge of his lips.

“What?” he said.  “I believe I’ve been trying to tell you as much for the last eight years.”

“Don’t tease me, Jeord,” Katarina said.

“I never tease.  I speak only the truth.  I’ve been in love with you since we were children.  I don’t know why you keep trying to convince me to break off our engagement.”

“H-huh??  But isn’t that just an excuse to keep other girls from coming on to you??”

Jeord let out the most long-suffering sounding sigh Katarina had ever heard.  Her heart was pounding so much that she felt like it was in her brain, rattling her back and forth.  What???   What was happening?  She looked frantically to Keith, but as soon as their eyes met, he flushed and looked down at the floor.  No way.  Him too??  She looked at Alan, who still wasn’t even looking at her.  She looked at Nicol, who had turned back away from the wall, but was currently running his hand through his hair over and over again.  She looked at Sophia, still pressing her book against her face.  She looked at Maria, who had suddenly busied herself stacking macarons.

Mary stood up so suddenly she almost fell over, dragging all eyes towards her — but she stared only at Katarina, her eyes fierce and her body trembling ever so slightly.

“I was going to tell you!” she said.  “But I had a plan for it!  I’ve loved you just as long as Prince Jeord has!!  And there’s no way I’m going to just sit here and let him sweep you off your feet without a fight!”

“Ooh?” Jeord said, smiling that dark-prince smile over the top of his tea cup.  “Is that a fact?”

“H-huh??  But what about — ” Katarina said, shooting a frantic look at Alan.

Her head spun.  She felt like she might fall out of her chair.  It was like her entire world had just turned upside down, inside out, and then fractured into little pieces.  She had no idea how to wrap her head around this!! What...wait.  All this time?  All this time they’d been — had she never been in danger of her bad ends to begin with??

She looked wide-eyed to Rafael, the beginner of all this chaos, who for his own part, looked rather pleased with himself, smiling a mischievous little smile.

“Oh my,” he said.  “And here I thought you all would start denying it to save normalcy.”

“Rafael-san, I want you to know, no one here likes you,” Keith said.

Rafael only stuck his tongue out with a huge grin.  He slid his gaze over to Katarina.

“Well?” he said.  “What are you going to do now, Katarina?”

“H-huh?”

“Who are you going to choose?” Rafael said.  “After all, even if they haven’t said it out loud, they’ve all pretty much admitted it.  Seven suitors! Aren’t you so lucky to have so much choice?”

Katarina blinked at him, her mouth hanging open.

“Now hold on,” Jeord said.  “I’m already her fiance.  I should think that counts for something.”

“She didn’t even know you were actually in love with her!” Mary said indignantly.  “You were engaged as children!  Her feelings might have changed!”

She looked around the room with a fierce look in her eyes, and her gaze fell on Maria.  She reached for her arm, hauling her up from her seat.

“And you!  Are you going to sit there and just let Jeord say what he likes?  What about the rest of you?  Are you not even going to try?”

Maria’s eyes widened, and she mumbled out something that Katarina didn’t catch.

“It’s not our decision,” Nicol said suddenly, his voice low but even, catching the attention of the whole room.  “It should...it should be Lady Katarina's choice.”

And then all eyes were on Katarina again, and she gaped, feeling like a fish.  

“You’re overwhelming her,” Keith said, glaring at them.

“Don’t you have an opinion?” Rafael said, clearly enjoying himself too much.  “Come on, Lady Katarina.  Don’t leave them all waiting.”

“I...uh!”

Katarina could only flap her mouth open and closed.  She was still trying to wrap her head around the idea that one person could have fallen for her, much less all of her friends!!  And now that she was still trying to swallow that revelation, she had to choose one of them?  She ran her mind back to her days as a seventeen year old otaku.  Back then, if she could have chosen from any of those otome characters, who would she have picked to be with?  No, who was she kidding — she’d never been able to pick just one.  That was why she’d always spent hours trying to do all of the routes!

And besides, that was so totally different.  She’d liked the game characters for different reasons than she liked the people she actually knew.  Like, Jeord in the game was so bored and kind of mean, and, well, Jeord in real life could be kind of mean and was still definitely a dark-hearted prince, but...well, he was softer, too, and always doing nice things.  Game Keith had been a total playboy, and her Keith blushed at the very thought of a girl asking him on a date.  Game Alan was competitive and even a little annoying sometimes, but real Alan was confident in what he could do and didn’t feel the need to prove himself.  And, well, she hadn’t done any of Nicol’s route, so she couldn’t compare, but — any way!  The point was, she couldn’t use the game to figure it out...

Gah!  What was she supposed to do!!  Damn you, Rafael!!  If he hadn’t said anything, she could have gone along the rest of her life never knowing....

But...wouldn’t that be unfair to them?  All of them loving her all that time, and her never knowing, so that she could never really understand their feelings, or return them?  But...but in that case, wouldn’t she be leaving everyone else behind if she picked one??  Oh, gosh, her head was just going in circle after circle!

Rafael clapped his hands together softly, drawing Katarina out of her frazzled mind.

“Maybe it is too much to expect you to choose right now, when you just realized,” Rafael said.  “So why don’t you go on a date with everyone?”

“H...huh?” Katarina said.

“Go on a date with each one of them,” Rafael said.  “And then you can decide who you like to be with the most.”

Katarina shot a look around the room.  Mary looked triumphant.  Jeord glowered at Rafael, well, glowered in that way he did where he was still smiling, but you could see the dark-hearted prince underneath.  Sophia had peeked up over the top of her book.

“That sounds fair, doesn’t it?” Rafael said, grinning as he looked from one face to another.  “Or at the very least, each of you gets a chance to have some rare one-on-one time with her, right?”

“You,” Jeord said, “are the worst kind of meddler, and I wish we hadn’t invited you.”

“Why thank you,” Rafael said.

He smiled at Katarina, then.

“How about it, Katarina?” he said.  “Will you give it a try?”

Katarina stared around the room again, at all the faces that she thought she’d known so well, only to learn that perhaps she hadn’t really been paying attention at all.  She swallowed.  Maybe...well, maybe she’d like the chance to really get to know them better than she had, anyway.

“Um,” she said.  “Sure.  I...if that’s what everyone else wants to do.”

“Excellent!” Rafael said.  “I’ll get them all organized then.  You can wait outside, Katarina!”

“H-huh??”

And before she could argue, Rafael had scooped her up by the arm, and bustled her out into the hallway, leaving her to stare at the closed door that immediately erupted with noise from the other side.  She stared at it for a moment, unable to pick out the words from the cacophony.  Well, she thought.  This was happening, one way or another...

She wished she’d brought some of the macarons out of the room with her.

Chapter Text

Jeord and Katarina sit at a table under a gazebo in a rose garden. There's a tea tray full of sweets between them, and Katarina is eating while Jeord looks at her lovingly.

Katarina looked at herself in the mirror for the tenth time.  Was she trying too hard?  Not hard enough?  You were supposed to dress up a little for dates right?  How she was going to put together a different outfit for all seven dates was anybody’s guess, but she figured she couldn’t just wear her normal outfit, right?  Or could she?  Would Jeord get the wrong idea if she wore something else?

She considered the two other dresses she held up against her regular dress, one a white and pink sundress, and the other a pretty green dress..  He’d told her they were going to be outside, so she should probably wear a hat, at least... 

“Ugh!!” she blurted, letting her arms drop to her sides, dress hems crumpling against the ground.  “This is too hard!”

She’d never even been on a date in her last life, so she didn’t know what to expect.  And with Jeord!  Well, it wasn’t as though she hadn’t ever hung out with Jeord before, even in contexts that could have been dates but...well, everything was different now, knowing that he actually liked her.  Oh, geez.  Just thinking that made her head spin.  What did he even see in her?  Thinking about everything he’d ever said and done in the past with this new context was enough to make her almost fall over.  All this time, and she’d never noticed?

A knock echoed against the door and Katarina yelped, dropping both dresses to the floor.

“Lady Katarina, Prince Jeord’s carriage has arrived and is waiting for you,” said Anne through the door.

“Already??” Katarina squeaked.  Shoot, there wasn’t any time to change dresses!  She’d have to just go with her usual look.  Sorry, Jeord! 

Katarina scurried through the door, brushing through her bangs with her fingers and wondering if they looked neat enough.  Gah, she was overthinking everything!  She had to calm down.  It was just Jeord!

She was a little out of breath by the time she made it to the front doors, something her mother certainly would have scolded her for if she had seen.  She wasn’t doing so well as a fine lady, that was for sure.  Especially today!

Jeord waited outside his carriage.  A winning smile came to his face, lighting it up, and he bowed as he reached for her hand.

“Lady Katarina,” he said, kissing her knuckles.  That was a normal greeting for him, but this time, it felt so much different.  Katarina couldn’t help but blush.  “Are you ready?”

“I — yes!” she said.  “Uh, where are we going?”

“You’ll see,” Jeord said.  “It’s a surprise.”

Katarina frowned, but she let him help her up into the carriage, and then he followed after her.  As soon as the doors closed and the horses started clopping along, Katarina felt stuffy and claustrophobic.  When was the last time she’d been alone with just Jeord, anyway?  Keith was always inviting himself along or appearing during their visits.  All that time she’d thought Keith just really wanted to go to the events they were going to, or even just liked hanging out with Jeord — now, of course...geez, just thinking about all of it was making her blush!  She glued her eyes to the window, uncertain if she could look at Jeord directly.

“You’re quieter than usual,” Jeord said.

“Am I?” Katarina said, her voice coming out squeakier than usual.  What was wrong with her?  Why was she acting so weird — it was Jeord !  He was her friend, and...and he liked her.  And for some reason that was scary and she didn’t know how to deal with it!  “I. Um.  I don’t really know what to say, I guess?”

She shot a furtive look towards Jeord.  He rested with his elbow on the window sill, head leaned against his hand, looking at her with an expression that she wasn’t sure how to read.  He was smiling, though, and it was a soft sort of look.  The kind of look that made her blush.  She looked quickly back out the window, and couldn’t find anything else to say until the carriage stopped.

“Here we are,” Jeord said.  He exited before she did, turning to help her down from the carriage. 

Her heel caught on the last step and she yelped, tumbling forward.  Jeord quickly scooped her up, and she fell against his chest rather than tumble onto her face.

“Careful,” Jeord said.  “Are you all right?”

So close!! Katarina’s cheeks were so hot she wondered if he could feel it.  He didn’t let go of her right away, either, and for a second, she thought she felt his fingers briefly run through her hair.

She bounced back, knowing her face was red, and laughed nervously.

“I’m fine!” she said.  “Anyway, where are we, then?”

Jeord smiled, and offered her his arm.  She took it more out of habit than anything, though she felt a little weird about how close they were.  Once he wasn’t standing in front of her, though, she could see quite clearly where they were.  Her eyes widened in spite of herself.

It was a very pretty outdoor restaurant.  Little pavilions wrapped in chains of flowers dotted the grass, a lake sparkling at the end of the green.  Hedgerows sporting huge red and pink flowers surrounded the garden, and their scent filled the air.  Many of the tables were already filled, with waiters dressed in black and white moving from table to table.  Jeord led the two of them to a pavilion closest to the hedgerows, set a bit apart from the others and clearly bigger than the rest.  A tea table for two had been set out and was already laden with a tiered tray of sweets.  Katarina’s mouth watered just seeing them — oh, but shoot, this was a date!  She had to be like...proper and polite and...oh, geez, she was overthinking everything !

“Wow,” she said as they approached.  “This place is...really pretty!”

“I’ve always wanted to bring you here,” he said.  “I just didn’t want any hangers on for once.  How lucky of me to have this chance, finally!”

He smiled at her, and she found herself blushing.  He pulled out her chair for her, and she sat on the very edge, more self-conscious than she had ever been in her entire life.  She clasped and unclasped her hands in her lap as Jeord took a seat on the other side of the table.  She couldn’t remember what she stammered to the waitress when she asked her what kind of tea she wanted, but before she knew it, there was a cup steaming in her hands, and she still hadn’t said a single word to Jeord, or touched the sweets.  Oh, gosh, but she wanted to eat the sweets.

“You don’t have to hold back,” Jeord said.  “I picked a selection of your favorites.”

“Oh, uh, thank you!” Katarina said.

Her mind still on date date date date date date this is a date what do you do when you’re on a date , she carefully reached for one of the pink macarons, her absolute favorites.  She wanted to just pop the whole thing in her mouth, and normally, it wouldn’t bother her to do so.  But Jeord was on the other side of her, and Jeord liked her, and she was so self-conscious she thought she might pass out.

She took the tiniest, most ladylike bite she could manage, trying not to get crumbs all over her face.

“They have boats out on the lake, too,” Jeord said.  “I thought we could take one out together after lunch.”

“Oh!” Katarina said, briefly excited by the thought of boats — which immediately flip flopped over itself several times as she realized she’d be in a boat alone with Jeord and she didn’t know what to say anymore to him, because she was so confused about her feelings and his and — “Um.  That sounds fun!”

Jeord smiled, but something about it seemed a little off.  Katarina’s heart leaped into overdrive.  Was she doing something wrong?  Was Jeord mad at her?  Oh, no, did she have her toy snake??  Wait, but did she even need it?  Gah!  Her thoughts were everywhere!  She wished she could just stuff this whole macaron into her mouth to avoid having to talk!

She finished her first macaron despite the tiny, arduously ladylike bites she was taking, and immediately reached for another sweet.  This time she went for one of the chocolate cupcakes with the green frosting at the top of the tray.  

“Katarina,” Jeord said, and his voice sounded kind of stiff — was he mad at her?  Was she not supposed to take the cupcakes?

Her fingers fumbled on the cupcake, and it dropped onto the table on its side, rolling towards the edge of the table. 

“Ah!!”

She tried to snatch it before it hit the ground — not fast enough.  Normally, she’d shout “three second rule!” and snatch it back up, and honestly, despite her nerves, she still might have — except as she tried to grab it, she found herself face to face with an entire goose.

The goose stared at her.  Katarina stared at the goose.

The goose leaned down, grabbed the cupcake in its beak, and bolted.

Katarina was so off balance emotionally, that she didn’t even think.  She just leaped out of her seat.

“Hey!!” she yelled.  “Give that back!!”

She bolted after it.  She thought she heard Jeord shouting after her, and she almost stopped out of the sheer mortification of suddenly realizing how silly she was being for the first time, but she was too committed now.  She hurtled after the fleeing goose.  It ran around the hedgerows.  She careened around the corner after it, and saw it disappearing behind another set of hedgerows.

“You get back here!!” she shouted, waving her fist in the air as she hiked up her skirt with her other hand.  “Give it back!”

It wasn’t until she careened around a third corner that not only lost track of the goose, but, panting, turned around and realized that she had no idea where she was.  The hedges were higher than she’d thought, just high enough that she couldn’t peek over the top.  H-huh...was this...a hedge maze?

Oh no .  She was lost .

“Um...Prince Jeord?” she called hopefully.  No answer.  Stupid!  Stupid, stupid Katarina!  What had she been thinking!  Um...which way had she gone again?  She took a few steps back the direction she’d come, and looked both ways down the hedge maze.  Geez, how far had she run?  She couldn’t remember which direction she’d gone.

Gah!  There wasn’t anything for it.  She couldn’t climb the hedges, so she’d just have to pick a direction and hope she found her way out!  She marched off down the left path.  There was another fork up ahead of her, and she was pretty sure she had to take a right...

She swung around the right corner and smacked right into something person-shaped.

“Gah!”

“Katarina!”

Jeord grabbed her hands rather than let her fall.  Katarina still swayed a bit, almost tumbling, and she thought she felt something flop out of her pocket.  What did she have in her pockets, anyway?

“Are you all right?” Jeord said.

“I’m fine,” Katarina said, breathless.  “It got away though, and I got lost, and...”

She stepped back a little, trying to regain her balance, and she stepped on something.  She looked down to see what her foot was on, and Jeord followed her gaze.  Instantly, his face went white, and he let out the tiniest of sounds through his throat that might have been a squeal, leaping back.  He kept hold of her, though, yanking her forward with him as though to protect her from the....wooden snake on the ground.

Oops.  That was her toy snake — she hadn’t taken it out of her pocket.

“It’s not real!!” she said quickly, waving her hand around.  “It’s not real, Jeord!!”

She let go of his hands and quickly scooped up the snake, wiggling it once just to show him — that seemed to make him stiffen even more, so she stuffed it into her pocket.

“I’m sorry!! I didn’t know I had it, honest!  I...I...”

She shook.  Jeord pressed a hand to his chest as though to calm himself, and the dam on every single thought in Katarina’s head finally broke.

“This is why I don’t get it!” Katarina said, tugging at her hair.  “I don’t get that you actually like me!! I’m not ladylike at all!  Mother is always telling me how I definitely won’t make a good queen, and she’s probably right, cause I don’t have good manners, and I climb trees, and I scare my fiance with a toy snake!”

She knew she was babbling, but she couldn’t stop.

“I don’t think about things too hard before I do them! I don’t always listen when people are talking to me! I didn’t even know that you and everyone were in...” she couldn’t even say it without flushing.  “And I just can’t even begin to understand why you even like me!!”

With that, Katarina dropped into a crouch, covering her head in her hands and pressing her face towards her knees rather than look at him.

For a long time, Jeord didn’t say anything.  Then, to her surprise, he laughed.  It was a soft, almost giddy sound, as though he’d been holding it in all this time.

“Katarina,” Jeord said, and even Katarina could tell he sounded exasperated.  “I’m in love with you because you’re you .”

Katarina blinked, lips parting.  She chanced a glance up at him, still feeling her cheeks burning.  He smiling, softening his eyes in a nice way, and crouched down so that he was at eye level with her.

“All day I’ve been so nervous ,” he said, and for the first time, Katarina realized that his hand shook slightly.  “I try to be...strong, I guess.  And all this time I’ve loved you, and known you didn’t get it.  I thought once you understood the way I felt I’d be better but...knowing that you really know has undone me.”

Katarina’s mouth hung open.  Was...was that why he’d seemed so stiff and off?  He’d been nervous, too?

“You’re always bolting off from one thing to the next,” he said.  “You’re always talking about something or other that I don’t understand.  You’re always putting one hundred percent into whatever thing you enjoy, even if no one else understands.  You don’t care what anyone else thinks of you, no matter how silly or unladylike you act.  You eat sweets so fast that it’s as though you don’t even chew, because you can’t hold in how much you enjoy them.  You do... ridiculous things, like chase geese, and keep toy snakes in your pocket, and you don’t even think about it!  I...I suppose I admire you for all of that.”

Was...was he blushing?  She thought she could see a faint dusting of pink over his cheeks.

“You’re a light to me, Katarina.  Without you, I don’t think I’d be the person I am today.  I wouldn’t have the people in my life that I have now — even if I’m slightly peeved at them for trying to steal you from me.”

Katarina couldn’t help but let out a little giggle, choked as it was.  The effect seemed to soften Jeord even further.  She couldn’t remember ever seeing him this soft.  He reached for her cheek, and she didn’t jump away as he laid his hand against her face.

“I ‘like’ you because you’re just so much ,” he said.  “Because I’m excited waking up every day because I know you’re here, and you’ll probably do something ridiculous, like try to fight a goose for your cupcake.”

Katarina flushed, but she felt her lips curling in spite of herself.  Had she and Jeord ever spoken so openly to each other like this?  It was almost like she was really seeing him for the first time.

“So yes, Katarina, I love you,” he said.  “And I’m not particularly good at letting go of the people and things I love.  So...”

He swallowed, and then he held a hand out to her.

“I know...I know I need to give you time,” he said.  “I get the feeling that maybe there’s some things you haven’t been able to tell me yet, but I’m willing to wait, for as long as I have to until you can tell me.”

His fingers twitched, and he bit his lip.

“And as much as I would hate it, if...if in the end, you find that you don’t feel the same for me, I’ll...I’ll want you to be happy, more than I want you.”

His smile got crooked a moment, and he looked as young as he was for the first time since she’d known him.

“Though, since it’s in my interest to be honest, know that I’ll fight to win your affection for as long as I have to.  I’m not too keen on the idea of attending your wedding to someone else.”

Katarina couldn’t help but laugh.  It tumbled out of her like a balloon deflating, and she wondered how long she had been holding onto her breath.  This time, she didn’t hesitate when she reached for Jeord’s hand.

“I...I think there are some things I’d like to tell you,” she said.  “Maybe not yet, but...”

She swallowed.

“I do like you, Jeord,” she said.  “I don’t know...I don’t know how I like you, yet, because...honestly, the idea that anyone would ever think of me that way was so — it was so absolutely crazy to me that I never thought about how I’d feel if it happened!”

Even in her past life, she’d rarely gotten crushes, had never been confessed to, had always assumed that no one other than Acchan would ever pay attention to her, much less be attracted to a weird otaku girl like her.  This was all so much.

But the way Jeord smiled at her...it kind of made her wonder what her feelings really were, now that she knew others did care for her like that.

“I understand,” Jeord said.  “I guess, at the very least, that makes me feel a little better about my efforts all this time.”

He stood up, pulling her up with him.  He didn’t release her hand, though, and took her other hand as well, holding them gently as he held her gaze.

“I’ll wait a little bit longer, then,” he said.  “Though, I’m quite confident in myself.”

Katarina almost choked on her giggle.

“It’s nice seeing this side of you for real,” she said, almost without thinking about it.

It was as though her words were magic, because almost immediately, Jeord’s face changed from smug and confident, to beet red and flustered.  Oh, wow.  How had she been so dense as to not see this all along?

She let him compose himself, coughing into his hand, and then he took her arm.

“Well, then,” he said, still a little pink.  “Should we find our way back?  I’m sure there’s still plenty of sweets left at our table.”

“Right!  I have to compensate for what that goose stole!”

Jeord laughed, and Katarina couldn’t help but join him.  For perhaps the first time in her new life, she walked by Jeord’s side, and didn’t think about doom.

Chapter Text

 

Katarina checked her hair for the fourth time in the window of her carriage, feeling suspiciously like she had just gone through this.  Her date with Jeord had only been two days ago, and it seemed almost too quick to jump right into another one.  Her head was messy enough as it was trying to wrap itself around everything she’d learned about herself and Jeord and feelings and everything already!

Still, one way or another, she’d made this promise...so now it was time to meet with Alan.  He’d sent a carriage for her, with a message that he would meet her at his home.  Wasn’t going over to the guy’s house just a little too fast for a first date??  Not that Alan seemed the type to be that forward, but...then again, Katarina had found she hadn’t known all of her friends’ feelings as much as she thought she had!  Ugh!  She was so nervous.  She smoothed the folds of her dress for the millionth time.

The carriage rumbled to a stop, and Katarina’s heart leaped into the back of her mouth.  This was it.  Date, start! 

The carriage driver came around to open the door for her, and helped her down.  She’d been to Jeord’s and Alan’s house before, of course, visiting them for tea parties and balls and just in general when Jeord invited her over, but for some reason, the house seemed far more menacing than usual.  It was way bigger than even her own unnecessarily large mansion.

Alan was waiting at the top of the stairs, his thumbs hooked in his pockets and looking thoroughly uncertain.  He was dressed in a simple vest and dress suit, like he was about to put on a recital, rather than his usual outfit.  It made Katarina feel a little less bad about wearing a simple dress herself.  She wasn’t sure what to expect — Alan hadn’t really told her anything except to meet him there in the evening.

She lifted her skirt so that she could climb the stairs, and Alan hardly moved from his stone-still, statue-like position at the top of the stairs as she approached.  It wasn’t until she reached the top step that his eyes widened, and he quickly fumbled forward, offering her his arm, and then his hand, and then half flapping both hands up and down a few times before finally reaching out so that she could take his hand to climb the last step.

“...sorry,” he said.  “I’m...uh.  I’m glad you could make it.”

“Uh, yeah, thank you for inviting me,” Katarina said.  Oh, no she was just as nervous for this as she had been with Jeord!  She’d hoped that getting through that and relaxing with Jeord meant that she’d be a little more prepared for the rest of the dates, but now that she was with Alan, all her nervousness and awkwardness came tumbling back.  Had she ever spent one-one-one time with Alan since they were kids, actually? He was her friend but...did she not know him as much as she didn’t know Jeord, too?

Alan was still holding her hand, and they both seemed to realize it at once.  He quickly let go of her, a faint flush rising to his cheeks as he rubbed the back of his neck.

“Uh,” he said.  “I...thanks for coming.  Wait, I already said...well, whatever, just — just come inside!”

“Oh, uh, sure, yes, thank you!” Katarina squeaked.

Oh, wow, she thought as he turned, his back stiff.  He was probably even more nervous than she was... Somehow, the thought heartened her a little, and she felt herself relax.  She actually smiled when he quickly turned back around, flushed and flustered, to offer his arm to her so he could bring her inside.  It was...kind of cute, actually, how hard he was trying.  At least she wasn’t the only one forgetting decorum and stuff!

He was extremely stiff next to her as he led her into the house.  Was...he wasn’t going to take her to his room or anything, right?  She wasn’t sure she was ready for that...

He didn’t take her to his room, instead leading them down a hall and through a set of glass doors to an open air pavilion.  The sun was close to setting, and the cool night breeze brought the scent of distant flowers along with it.  The pavilion’s candles were lit, and a small table had been set out with two chairs.  A piano sat nearby, gleaming in the faint candlelight and the light of the setting sun.

Alan hesitated for a moment, so stiff that it was kind of like hanging on to a statue.  He coughed into his hand.

“I, uh, well, I guess I thought we could have dinner,” he said.  “But first I was....I wanted to, uh...I wanted to — to play something for you.  If you want to listen.”

“Of course I’d want to listen!” Katarina said.  “I love hearing you play!”

Alan’s cheeks got so pink that it reached his ears.  He coughed into his hand again.  

“Well, then, I...I’ll do that, then.”

He let go of her arm and walked stiffly over to the piano.  Katarina hesitated by the door for a moment, and then drifted over to the table and took a seat, folding her hands into her lap.  Alan settled on the bench, laying his hands over the keys.  For a moment, there wasn’t a sound, except for Katarina’s breathing, the wind through the distant bushes and hedges, and beginning chirps of crickets.

Alan picked out a few keys.  It was obvious how nervous he was, even Katarina could pick out the clunky way he chose the notes, the stumbling over a fingering.  His cheeks reddened, but he didn’t stop.  Then the notes smoothed out.  The music flowed easily from his fingers.  The air filled with each ringing, lovely phrasing, the magical spark of music that only Alan could put into his playing.  Katarina’s breath caught and held in her throat involuntarily, as though she couldn’t bear to breathe and disrupt hearing every second of his playing.  It wrapped about her, soft and gentle as a breeze, as subtle as the scent of flowers.  There were no words, and yet it felt as though it were speaking to her.  As though Alan’s heart was in every note.

When his fingers finally slowed to a stop, playing out the last few notes, Katarina was nearly out of breath.  Her hands clasped together in front of her, breathing in the ringing echo of the song.

Alan’s head was turned down towards the piano, so she couldn’t see his face.  Once she was sure he was done, she clapped.  What else was there to do?? That had been incredible, and it deserved all of the applause in the world.

“That was amazing!” she said.  “Prince Alan, you’re incredible at the piano!”

Alan’s shoulders hunched for a moment, and he mumbled something that might have been a thank you.  

“I’ve never heard that one before,” she said.  “Is it new?”

Alan finally lifted his head, and sure enough, he was blushing.

“....yeah,” he said.  “I...I wrote it.  For you.”

It was Katarina’s turn to feel her cheeks go red and warm.  She pressed her hands against her cheeks, and it burned against her palms.  She’d never had a song written for her.  What the heck!! That was just too much.  How was she supposed to act like a normal person after hearing that??

“Does...uh.  Did you give it a title?”

Alan nodded stiffly.

“It’s...well.  It’s just called... ‘What I Want to Say.’”

Oh...no wonder Katarina had felt as though it were speaking right to her.  Alan really didn’t know what to say through all of this, did he?”

“I don’t know...I hope something came out right,” Alan said, dragging a hand down his face.  “I...I worked on it for a really long time.  Before all of this...date stuff happened.  I’d been trying to figure it all out...I don’t know if it’s done, yet.”

His hands dropped into his lap, and his shoulders slumped forward.

“I’m no good at... talking , you know?” he said.  “That’s Jeord’s thing.  He’s good at saying stuff the right way.  I’m good at music, but that’s about it.  I can’t even...I don’t even know my own head.”

He sounded so small — and extremely relatable.  Katarina twiddled her thumbs in her lap for a second.  Then she rose from her chair, and walked around the piano, laying a hand against it as she stood near Alan.

“Well, I might not have understood everything,” she said.  “But...it made me really happy that you’d write something so pretty for me.”

She tickled a few of the keys.  They sounded nice, but she’d never be able to draw out as beautiful a sound as Alan did.

“I think it’s really amazing, that you have a way to...I guess, express yourself?” Katarina said.  “I mean.  I understand you, really!  I don’t know what’s going on in my head, either.  But you found a way to make something so beautiful out of it!”

She looked down at him, and found him already looking back at her, with an incredulous sort of look in his eyes.  A crooked grin split over his lips, and he pressed a hand to his head, closing his eyes.

“Man,” he said.  “You’re the same as ever, huh?”

“What’s that supposed to me?”

Alan smiled as he let his hand fall from his face.

“You can just say things like that, and you don’t feel embarrassed about it,” he said.

Katarina flushed.  She put her hands on her hips.

“Well, now I’m embarrassed!” she said.  “You didn’t need to point it out!”

“Sorry, sorry!” 

Alan actually laughed, and it was like some of the tension went out of him.  He wasn’t a statue anymore, but himself again.

“It’s...refreshing,” he said.  “I...”

He turned on the bench, so that he was facing her more head-on.

“The truth is, Katarina, I...I don’t think I really knew,” he said.  “I didn’t... know I... liked you.”

He clasped his hands in his lap, and his eyes dropped from hers as his thumbs began to twirl around each other.

“I mean, you’re...you’re my brother’s fiancee.  So...I was afraid to even think too hard about it, to begin with.  But the truth is, I...”

He groaned, running a hand through his hair.

“It’s so much easier when it’s music,” he mumbled.  “I don’t know.”

He looked back up at her again, and he looked younger, somehow.

“I just know that whenever I’m around you, I feel good,” he said. “I like the way you just face everything head on.  I like the way you feel everything so hard.  I like the way you say and do things without thinking about them.  I like the way I feel when I’m around you.  But, putting words to that feeling...”

Katarina’s heart fluttered in spite of herself.  She felt warm and fuzzy in ways she didn’t really understand...the way she’d felt when Jeord had explained why he liked her, when she’d started to see him for real.  Did that mean she was in love with Jeord?  Did it mean she was in love with Alan?  Was being happy when you were with someone a sign of being in love?  Was she in love with both, or all of them?

She turned, and sat down on the bench next to him.

“I like being around you, too,” she said.  “And...and I don’t know that I know what words I can put to it.  I don’t know if I’m just not ready, or if I...”

She bit her lip.  She ran one hand across the keys, feeling the cool smoothness of them beneath her fingers.  The sun had dipped below the horizon, now, and they were in the dark, with only the candles to illuminate them.

“I like the way you don’t give up,” she said.  “I like how peaceful you look when you play music, when you love playing music.  I like the way your music sounds, like you’re in it.”

She turned her head, her ponytail sliding back over her shoulder, and Alan met her gaze.  They were so close, sitting on the bench together like this.

“And...and I don’t know what those feelings really mean either,” she said.  “Because...I like being around all of you, so much.  So I don’t know how to put words to it.”

She looked back down at the keys, and put her hands against them.  She played a few notes, one plink at a time.

“But...I really want to figure it out,” she said.  “And until then...I’d really like to still be with you, and everyone.  Is that selfish?”

Alan didn’t respond for a long moment, and Katarina was almost too scared to look at him.  Then she heard a few notes played across the piano, and she looked to see his hands on the keys near hers.  She looked up at him.  His eyes crinkled with a smile.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I think that sounds great, honestly.”

Katarina felt a smile grow in her heart.

“Thanks,” she said.

“No,” Alan said.  “Thank you, Katarina.”

He smiled again as he turned back down to the keys.

“Since words are hard,” he said, “want to play with me for a while?”

“Sure!  You can teach me how to make it as magical sounding as you do!”

He laughed.  The sound was so freeing that Katarina felt like she was losing a weight from her shoulders.

“Then you can teach me how to defy gravity when you climb trees,” he said.  “I’m still going to beat you at that someday.”

“You wish!”

The tension dissipated with the evening breeze, as the sound of their shared music plinked and twinkled up into the evening sky.  And Katarina thought, breathing out as she followed along with him across the keys, that maybe, just maybe, everything would come together at the end of this.  Maybe, just maybe, now that she was learning more about the people she loved, now that she was having this chance...she’d find a way to put words to the feelings in her heart by the end.

Chapter Text

At the end of her date with Alan, Katarina had really thought that maybe, just maybe, she was sort of getting the hang of this.  Maybe this was all going to work out, and she was going to figure out her feelings and everyone else’s, and get to spend some great time with her friends in the process!

But...well.  Today, she was going out with Keith.  And to say her thoughts about it were a mess was putting it pretty lightly.

She smoothed out her skirt over and over.  Normally, Keith would scold her for something like that, telling her to sit still, that she was going to wear a hole in her dress.  But he didn’t say anything at all.  He was busy staring out the window, sitting opposite her in the carriage.  His glasses from his merchant’s son disguise were sliding down his nose, but he didn’t seem to notice, as though he were completely somewhere else.  

Her mind was a total mess.  Keith must be nervous too, but...this was somehow a lot different than it was with Alan.  Because — well, because Keith was her little brother.  Sort of.  Right?  She’d always seen him as her brother.  But had Keith not seen her as his sister?  It wasn’t as though they were really related biologically at all but...she had no idea how to get her head around this!!  

And she didn’t know where they were going, either.  Keith had just told her to put on her outfit from when they’d gone to visit the farms.  Were they going to look at fields again?

The carriage clattered to a stop, and as though he’d been loaded with a spring desperate to launch, Keith leaped from his seat and out the carriage door. 

“We’re here,” he said.

“Uh, yeah, guess so!” Katarina said.

Keith hesitated before offering her his hand to help her down from the carriage steps.  It had always been so natural for him to do so before, but now it felt...different.  She didn’t know if it was a good or a bad or a neutral different.  She took his hand, though, and let him support her on the way down.  As she lifted her gaze, pushing the brim of her hat from her head, her eyes widened, and instantly, all of her nerves and complicated feelings vanished.

“Oh my gosh!!” she said.  “Look at that !!”

She let go of Keith’s hand and bolted over to the biggest pumpkin she had ever seen.  It was even bigger than the one they had seen when they had visited the farms!

“You could hollow this out and fit like, maybe ten people inside this!” she said.

“Why...would you?” Keith said, blinking.

“You could make a house out of this pumpkin!” Katarina said, pointing wildly at it.  Didn’t Keith see how cool that was??  “A house, Keith!!  You could live in a pumpkin this amazing!”

“Why thank you, my dear,” said the farmer standing next to it, puffing out his chest proudly.  

Katarina’s mind tumbled with questions.  What had he used for fertilizer?  How often did he water it?  Was there a difference in the seeds to get it that big?  It took everything she had not to pounce on the farmer with all of them, but she managed to resist for long enough to dig her notepad and pencil out of her pocket before she started.

The farmer, for his part, was amiable, and seemed to enjoy Katarina’s enthusiasm for farming.  She came out of the conversation with a whole five new pages of notes and ideas for her next little farm.

“I can’t believe how big it was!!” Katarina said, waving her hands up and down excitedly.  “It was huge, Keith!  Huge!  I want to grow one that big!”

“Mother would probably murder you if you did,” Keith said, smiling.  “But it would be pretty interesting to see you try.”

It was like they were back to normal all at once, and Katarina beamed with excitement.  Keith had gone out of his way to take her to see this giant pumpkin — he normally got so put-upon by Katarina’s interest in farming, and going behind their parents’ back to pretend to be merchants.  But he’d done this for her!

“You know, there’s still a whole market behind the pumpkin,” Keith said.  “Do you want to look around?”

“A what?” Katarina said.

Her eyes slid around the pumpkin, and her jaw dropped open.  Whoa, wait!! It wasn’t just the pumpkin — it was a farmer’s market!!  A whole cacophony of booths laden with produce spilled out beyond the pumpkin.  She could smell baked goods, and flowers, and there were people with baskets filling up on vegetables and fruits, and kids running around with what looked like food on sticks. 

“Oh my gosh!!” Katarina gasped.  “Keith, Keith, Keith, we have to go look!”

She grabbed him by the arm, and he chuckled as he let her drag him towards the booths.

There was just so much to look at!  So many questions to ask!  She beelined for the first booth, picking up a tomato and marveling at how red it was.

“How do you get them to stay fresh?” she asked the lady at the booth.  “My tomatoes just aren’t growing recently!”

“Have you been overwatering them?” the lady said with a smile.  “You have to be careful not to spoil tomatoes.”

Katarina asked her a few more questions about the rest of her produce, and then started debating over which ones to buy — because she couldn’t just leave without buying some of these delicious looking vegetables!  But she also didn’t have anything to carry them in, so she couldn’t take too many...

Something bumped her lightly on the shoulder, and she blinked, turning to find Keith holding a basket out to her.  She brightened up.

“Where’d you get one?” she said, taking it from him.

“They’re selling them at a booth a bit down,” Keith said.  “I figured we wouldn’t be able to leave without you buying a few things, so I thought you’d need it.”

“You’re the best, Keith!  Thank you!!”

She threw one arm around him in a hug, squeezing him.  Then, almost all at once, she remembered what they were actually doing here, and a blush grew over her cheeks.  She let him go and turned quickly towards the vegetables.  Ugh, oh no, all of her excitement over the vegetables was dissipating and she was overthinking things again!

Keith seemed to remember, too, as he got very quiet all of a sudden, coughing into his hand and looking away while she picked out the vegetables she wanted to buy.  She filled her basket about halfway — there were other booths, too, so she didn’t want to spend everything here!  She just had to try to think about the market, and not her complicated feelings.

“Thank you!!” she told the lady at the booth, and the lady smiled and waved them goodbye as they moved to the next booth.

It took Katarina less time than she thought it would to once again forget about her nerves.  As soon as they got to the next booth, she beelined in on the fresh baked goods and how nice they smelled.  Keith relaxed again too, smiling and shaking his head while she debated over buying cinnamon rolls or apple fritters.

“Honestly, you always think with your stomach,” he said.  “Buy both of them, and we can split them.”

“Keith, you’re a genius!!” Katarina said.  

They were a little too hot and fresh to eat right away, so they wandered through the rest of the market.  Katarina asked more questions about vegetables, fruits, farming, and anything else she could think of.  Keith actually seemed interested when they found a small booth selling a few books, thumbing through the pages of one about herbs.

They found a little bench in the center of town right about the time Katarina was getting hungry.  Her stomach rumbled loudly, and Keith rolled his eyes, smiling.

“Time to eat?” he said.

“Absolutely!”

Katarina flopped down onto the bench.  Keith took her basket before the vegetables spilled out of it, setting it carefully aside before taking the baked goods out of it.  Katarina sighed with delight as she took her half of the apple fritter, enjoying the scent washing over her face.

“What a great day!” she said.  “This was a great idea, Keith!”

“I thought you’d like it,” Keith said, nibbling at his own half of the apple fritter.

Katarina finished off her apple fritter much too quickly, and she was wishing that she’d bought two.  Keith passed her half the cinnamon roll before she even thought to say anything, and she forgot about her regrets.  She stuffed a large bite into her mouth and groaned with delight.  It was so soft and fluffy!  Just like the sweets in her old life.

She started in on another big bite.

“Katarina,” Keith said, his voice halting.  “Are you...are you having fun, today?”

Katarina hesitated, her mouth still full of cinnamon roll.  She had to chew quickly in order to get it down, and as she did, she shot Keith a sidelong look.  He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his half of the cinnamon roll hanging loosely from his fingers.  His bangs had fallen over his face, so she couldn’t see his eyes.

She managed to choke the cinnamon roll down, coughing and pounding her chest a few times.

“Of course I am,” she said.  “This place is great!  I never thought I’d get to go to a farmer’s market like this.”

Keith’s head tilted even further down.

“Even...even though you’re with me?”

What kind of a question was that??  Was Keith okay?  Katarina didn’t get a chance to ask, though, because Keith suddenly started talking, the words almost tumbling over themselves in their hurry to get out.

“Because I...you must think there’s something wrong with me, right?  That I’m weird, or even creepy.  I’m...you think of me as your brother, and now I’ve...now you know how I feel.  Or, how I think I feel.  It must disgust you, right?  That’s why you’re having so much trouble looking at me.  I get it.  I’m...I’ve scared you, right?  I’ve ruined what we had.  Because I was selfish...because I...I don’t even know...I shouldn’t have ever said anything.  I never should have let you find out.  I shouldn’t be making you listen to me now...”

He lifted one hand to his eyes, covering them, and Katarina thought he might be...crying?  Her heart leaped with concern, and without thinking about it, she reached out to put a hand on his arm, squeezing it lightly.

“Keith, that’s not true,” she said.  “I don’t think you’re weird or creepy!”

Keith swallowed thickly, tilting his head even further down.  Katarina leaned towards him.  She tightened her grip on his arm.

“Keith, I...I want to hear it,” she said.  “I want to hear what you feel!  I care about you, Keith.”

She swallowed, looking down at her knees.  Was this how Keith had felt all day?  No, not just all day, but...who knew how long?  

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I’m — I’m not good at feelings!  I don’t even know what I’m feeling most of the time.  I try not to think too hard about things.  So I never could have guessed...”

“How would you have guessed?” Keith said, his voice sounding choked.  “I’m sorry, Katarina.  I...if you don’t want to be around me anymore, I understand.  I must be making you uncomfortable.”

He seemed like he was about to try to stand up, so Katarina reached for his free hand and grabbed hold of it, pulling him back down and making him look up at her.  She held his gaze as fiercely as she could.

“Don’t tell me that I don’t want to be around you!” she said.  “Are you listening?  I’m the one who’s supposed to be a bad listener!”

Keith’s eyes widened, and as she’d expected, they were glassy with tears behind his fake glasses.  Katarina squeezed his hand.

“I care about you, Keith,” she said.  “And I want to understand!  I want to listen to what you have to say.”

She pulled his hand closer to her.

“I don’t know what my feelings are, or what they’re going to be,” she said.  “But I want to understand yours.”

Keith’s lips pressed together, chin trembling slightly.  He closed his eyes and let his head sag for a moment, but he didn’t pull away from her.

“I...” he said softly.  “I guess...maybe I don’t really know, either.”

He chuckled softly, but it was a choked sound.

“I think that maybe what I feel for you is love,” he said.  “But I don’t know if I...if I can say what kind of love it is.  You accepted me so easily...you broke down all of the walls I tried to put up.  You held my hand when I was scared, when I thought no one would ever love me.  When I thought everyone would think I was a monster.”

He shuddered, and Katarina scooted closer to him, still holding his hand.

“I...I can’t even say what it is that I want from you,” he said.  “Because I don’t know.  Do I want to kiss you?  Do I want to marry you?  I don’t...think so, but I don’t know.  But the idea of you getting married to someone else...of you not being with me anymore...I get scared.  I get...lonely.”

He closed his eyes again, squeezing them tightly shut.

“I’m happy when I’m with you,” he said.  “I’m happy when you’re with me.  I want to be your brother — but I want to be with you, too.  I don’t know how to handle those two feelings.  I don’t know which one I want more.  Or if I’m just being selfish.”

Selfish...Katarina squeezed Keith’s hand again.  Was that what this feeling was?  Selfishness?  Was that what she felt, too?  The selfishness to want to be with everyone she loved?

“And then you go and say things like you ‘won’t get in my way if I fall in love with someone’,” he said, laughing softly and shaking his head.  “And I feel...like maybe you don’t want me in your life.  Like you can’t wait for me to go be with someone else.  When the only place I want to be is with you.  I don’t know how I want to be with you, but I know I want to be around you.”

Oh, no, had that really been what he’d thought??  She opened her mouth, but then closed it again, because it seemed like Keith wasn’t done talking.  He lifted his eyes back to hers again, and his hand wrapped around hers, squeezing softly.

“I love you, Katarina,” he said.  “And I don’t know if I’m saying that as your brother, or as something else.  All I know for sure is that...you make me happy.  I’m happy that I get to be a part of your life, somehow or another.

He smiled, even though his faint tears.  Katarina’s heart squeezed in her chest.

“I think I’m selfish too,” she said.  “I...I don’t know what kind of feelings I can give back to you, Keith.  Because I love you, too!”

She tilted her head down to his hand, smiling.

“I always wanted a little brother, you know?” she said.  “I was always the — the only child.”

She stumbled over her words — she’d almost said ‘always the youngest’, but she wasn’t, not in this life.  Her older brothers back then...she’d never see them again.  The thought made her heart feel like cracking.

But she lifted her eyes up to Keith again, still holding his hand.  She wasn’t alone.  Her family of another life may be lost to her.  But she still had a family, had friends, had people she loved, in this life, too.

“I always wanted someone I could dote on a little,” she said, laughing.  “Someone I could drag around on adventures.”

Keith’s eyes crinkled, and his eyes filled with tears again.

“You definitely did that,” he said.  “You still do that.”

Katarina smiled.  She let go of his hand and reached up to pat his head.  He was taller than her, now, even sitting next to her.

“I don’t know what kind of feelings I have, either,” she said.  “But...I’m happy being with you, Keith.  I’m happy because you always go along with me when I do things you think are silly.  I’m happy because even if you don’t get it, you brought me to a place like this because you knew it would make me happy.  I don’t think I ever really understood just how much I was loved.”

She took his hand with hers again and squeezed it.

“No matter what, I don’t want to leave you behind,” she said.  “And I don’t want you to disappear from my life, either.  I’m glad I get to be with you, no matter what way that is.  No matter what your feelings are.”

Keith’s eyes bubbled.  He had to close his eyes and turn away, tucking his face into the crook of his elbow. His fingers tightened on Katarina’s.  Katarina scooted closer to him again, wrapping one arm around his shoulder and patting his head like she used to do when they were children, when she was taller than he was, and he’d had a bad dream.

“Thank you,” Keith whispered.  “I think that’s all I ever wanted to hear.”

Katarina smiled, and let her head rest against his shoulder.  She still didn’t know anything, really.  But knowing more about Keith, and his feelings...she felt closer to him, now.  And she felt...happy.  Happy to know just how much the people in her life really loved her.

“All right!” she said, jumping to her feet and pulling Keith up from the bench.  “There’s still plenty of farmer’s market to look at!  We have to seize the day!”

Keith sniffled, but he smiled, quickly wiping his eyes with his handkerchief.

“You never change,” he said.  “Thank you, Katarina.”

Chapter Text

Three dates down!  Man, she was getting to be a natural at this, wasn’t she?  The rest would be a cinch!

Or, so Katarina thought, until the carriage door opened to Nicol waiting for her, and he once again hit her full-on with every bit of his devilish charm at once when he smiled at her.  

It was practically a one-hit knockout — it wasn’t even that big of a smile, but it was a lot for Nicol.  His charm was a devilish power to begin with, and now, knowing that he was smiling because he saw her , and because he liked her — Katarina almost fell over in her seat before she could take his hand.

“Are you all right?” Nicol asked.  “Are you feeling unwell?”

“No!” Katarina squeaked.  “I’m fine!”

“You’re very red,” Nicol said, his lips flattening in a faintly concerned look.  “You don’t have a fever, do you?”

He stepped up on the carriage step so he could reach her, but as soon as he put his hand to her forehead, already so much closer than she was ready for him to be, she felt woozy all over again.

“I’m fine!” she squeaked again.  She tried to jump up before he could get too much closer to her, and her forehead smacked into his.  She fell back into her seat with a groan, cupping her forehead in both hands.  Nicol winced a little too, pressing his hand to his forehead.

“Oh my gosh, are you okay?” Katarina gasped.  “I’m so sorry!  I can’t believe I just headbutted you like that!  I’m so sorry!”

That tiny, barely there smile pulled at Nicol’s lips again.

“It’s all right,” he said.  “I’m fine.  Are you all right?”

A perfect gentleman!!   Katarina was gonna swoon again if she didn’t get a hold of herself.  This time, she let him take her by the hand, and guide her out of the carriage.  It was a wonder she didn’t step on the hem of her dress — she wasn’t using to dressing so fancy.  Her usual dress was high hemmed enough that she didn’t have to worry about it, but her ball gown touched the ground, and the last thing she needed was to step on it and careen into Nicol again.

“I hope I’m not making you nervous,” Nicol said.

“What?  No!  Of course not!” Katarina lied.

He smiled that tiny smile yet again — three Nicol smiles in the space of just five minutes!! If she didn’t have her arm in his, she might have fallen over again.

Other finely dressed nobles were making their way up the stairs ahead of them, illuminated by the light of the fancy torches in between the sets of doors.  She could hear the faint strains of music whispering through the doors, and distant, polite chatter between nobles greeting each other.  A few raised a hand in greeting to her and Nicol, and she wondered if it looked weird that she was here with him instead of Jeord.  No one seemed too perturbed though — probably it was just normal, or something.  After all, she was engaged to the third prince, and Nicol was next in line for prime minister, so maybe it was natural that the two of them would be making connections?  That was too much thinking about something other than sweets and gardening for Katarina for one night, though, so she put the thoughts away and just thanked her lucky stars that the rest of noble society probably wasn’t going to find out about her weird situation.  It was rough enough being noble as it was!

Nicol took her up the steps and through the doors.

“Have you ever been here before?” Nicol asked.

“No,” Katarina said, gaping up at the high, golden-leaf ceilings and fancy chandeliers.  “It’s beautiful!”

“I’ve always been partial to it,” Nicol said.  “But that means you’ve never seen an opera here before, have you?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opera, period,” Katarina said.  She wracked her brains, but nope, it hadn’t been the kind of thing on her radar in her old life, and her mother tried very hard to keep Katarina from too many social events.

“I hope you’ll enjoy this one,” Nicol said.  “It’s a classic.  Much like the novels you and Sophia enjoy so much.”

Oooh.  Well, it had been a real long time since Katarina had gotten to watch an anime.  Maybe an opera would be kind of like that.  Seeing the stories she liked playing out in motion was something she’d always loved back in her old life, but she’d never thought she’d see it happen in this one.

Nicol took them to a set of stairs off to the side, away from where most of the attendees were filing through.  The doorman nodded to them and smiled, waving them through.  Katarina had to focus even more on not stepping on her dress as they went up — if she fell here, she’d pull Nicol down with her!

Once they reached the top, however, Katarina’s stresses briefly poofed away.  Her mouth hung open with awe.  Staring down at the stage from the balcony, she could see just how grand and massive the opera house was.  And even from way up here, they had such a perfect view of the stage!  Katarina couldn’t help but scurry over to the balcony, leaning over it to see just how high they were.

“Careful,” Nicol said, putting his hand against her arm lightly, enough to grab her back if she started to fall over the edge. 

“Ah, sorry!” Katarina said, leaning back from the edge.  “It’s just so beautiful!”

“It is,” Nicol said, his eyes softening.  “I’m glad you like it.”

A soft chime played through the opera house, and the faint chatter of people settling into their seats below began to fade as the lights went down.  Katarina let Nicol guide her back into her seat, and she couldn’t help but sit on the very edge of it, watching with anticipation at the drawn curtains below.  It was kind of like going to the movies back in her old life!  She’d forgotten how much she missed things like that.

Music began to play sweetly from the orchestra pit below, wrapping around the hall.  Katarina felt her breath catch in her throat as a sweet voice rose up from behind the curtains to meet the music, rising and falling with such grace and poise that it took her breath away.  It was so beautiful she almost didn’t catch the words, which were singing something about a pair of star-crossed lovers.  The curtains pulled back, and the singer was revealed, standing at the center of the stage in a beautiful white dress, her hair long and loose against her back.  She raised both hands up as she continued to sing, somehow without needing to breathe.  Katarina seemed to have forgotten how to breathe, too, so intent was she on listening to the music.

The scene changed slowly, as other singers and actors moved onto the stage, rolling out set pieces with them.  Katarina leaned forward even further in her seat.

The story unfolded before them in beautiful song — a pair of star-crossed lovers, kept apart because of the feud between their families.  It was almost a little familiar, actually, as though she’d read something similar in her past life.  That didn’t stop her from getting totally hooked on the story and the way it was told, though.  No one ever stopped singing throughout the whole performance — that was what made it an opera, she supposed.  But that didn’t stop the actors from really making her feel every single thing they sang about, the sadness of the lovers kept apart, the anger of the feuding families, the joy of the lovers getting to meet each other for a brief moment, and the sorrow of their eventual tragic ending.

Katarina was in sobbing hysterics by the time the curtains rolled shut.  It was a good thing Nicol had gotten them these balcony seats, because she probably would have had people staring at her.

“Are you all right?” Nicol asked as the lights came back.

“It was just so SAD!!” Katarina sobbed.  She took the handkerchief he offered her and blew her nose loudly into it.  “I can’t even handle it!  It was so beautiful and so sad!”

Nicol’s lips parted — he, at least, was dry-eyed.  His eyes softened a bit, though, and he held out a hand to her to help her from her seat.

“So you liked it?” he said.

“I loved it!” Katarina said, trying to stop crying so much, but it was really hard to stop!  She just couldn’t stop thinking about that last scene...she’d been the same way with those emotional anime she’d liked to watch.  Acchan had always teased her for getting so worked up when it was only fiction, but it still made her feel things!!

“I’m sorry,” Katarina said, wiping at her eyes again.  “I’m going to make a huge scene!  Give me a second and I’ll be okay.”

“It’s all right, take your time,” Nicol said.  “I have a reservation for us at a restaurant, but we have plenty of time.”

Katarina blew her nose into the handkerchief again.  She knew her make up was pretty much shot, and everyone was gonna see just how puffy eyed she was when she got down the stairs.  Nicol didn’t seem to mind as he finally took her arm and took them down the stairs again, back to the carriage to go to the restaurant — but then again, Nicol didn’t ever look like he minded about anything.  He was hard to read!

At the very least, Katarina had pretty much gotten a hold of herself by the time they reached the restaurant, and she didn’t look too bad when she checked herself out in the carriage window.

“What was your favorite part?” Nicol asked while they waited for their food.

“The song the two lovers sang right before the last scene,” Katarina said.  “It was so moving!  I just couldn’t help but cry...”

She blushed, quieting as their food arrived — man, this looked so good.  She could hardly wait to dig in.

“I...hope I wasn’t a bother,” she said.  “I mean, I must have been pretty loud.”

She blushed again under Nicol’s devilish, charming gaze, and quickly grabbed her fork to hide her embarrassment in a big bite.  But Nicol’s eyes crinkled at the edges in a way that Katarina was starting to realize was his way of smiling.

“I...I think I envy you somewhat, Lady Katarina,” he said.

Katarina blinked, swallowing down her bite.  Huh?  For what?  And hadn’t Jeord said something a little like that before?

“Me? Why?” 

Nicol looked at his plate, putting his fork down for a moment.

“I...it’s not very easy for me to...express myself,” he said.  “I feel as though...my words come out wrong.  Or my tone, or...or I cannot get my face to display what I’m feeling.”

He laced his fingers together on the table, looking at the backs of his hands.

“I...envy how openly you feel things,” he said.  “That you can simply let them out of you, without any inhibition.  The way you wear your heart on your sleeve...I’ve always admired that.  It’s not a bother at all.  I find it...refreshing.”

Katarina fiddled with her fork.  She didn’t think being so emotional was such a good thing.  If they hadn’t been up in the balcony, everyone probably would have stared at her for the scene she made!

“I wish I could be more like you, Lord Nicol,” she said.  “Sometimes, it’s exhausting feeling things!  And everyone always knows what you’re thinking!”

Nicol’s eyes crinkled again, and his lips turned up in that way that brought a heat to her cheeks.  No one could avoid falling for his charm!  Including...maybe her?  Was that why she always felt so off balance around him?  Was she...in “love” with him, the way that the others were all in love with her?  She didn’t know.

“And just cause you feel everything, doesn’t mean you know what that feeling is,” she said, the words blurting out of her before she could think about them.  “Sometimes you feel everything so much that it all blends up together, and you have no idea what’s going on anymore.”

“That does sound tiring,” Nicol said.  “Still...I wish just once, I could feel that way.”

He smiled ever so slightly again, turning his hands to look at his palms.

“I’ve cared for you for a long time, Lady Katarina,” he said.  “But I’ve taken great pains to hide it.  To try to forget it.  You’re...you’re my best friend’s fiancee.  My feelings aren’t right.”

Katarina twirled her fork around her food without scooping any of it up.

“I don’t think feelings are really right or wrong,” she said.  “I think maybe they just are.”

Nicol’s eyes lifted to hers once again.  For the first time, Katarina didn’t swoon or melt when he caught her gaze — for the first time, she felt like she could really see him.  And...oh.  He was only a little older than her, she realized.  Maybe...maybe that charm of his wasn’t devilish at all.  Maybe he was just as confused and uncertain about himself as Katarina was about herself.  How could she not have seen that before?

She smiled at him, almost involuntarily.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way you feel,” she said.  “Or the way you show it, either!  Because...I think the people important to you will understand.”

Nicol’s eyes softened, but he looked down at his plate.  

“Does...that include you?” he said softly.

Katarina’s cheeks burned so hot she felt like she was about to overheat.  He’d said it in such a soft, sweet, and awkward tone that she could hardly handle it!  Now this was why feelings things sucked!  She was almost completely unable to talk without stumbling from just one sentence!

“Of course,” she managed to get out.  “Because you’re important to me, Lord Nicol!”

She bit her lip, then, looking at her plate.  She pushed some peas around with her fork.

“I...like I said, I don’t think I really know what my feelings are most of the time,” she said. “But I do know that you’re my important friend.”

Nicol didn’t answer for what felt like an agonizingly long time, and she resisted the urge to look up and see, worried she might understand too well what he might be thinking if she did.  When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she looked up — and found Nicol looking at her with the softest expression she’d ever seen on him.  Oh, she thought with her breath catching in her throat.  That was what real happiness looked like in Nicol’s eyes.

He slid his hand across the table and put his hand on top of hers.  She felt a heat rush from the touch all the way up to her brain, and was pretty certain that steam came out of her ears.

“That’s enough,” he said.  “I’ve been prepared for my feelings to amount to nothing.  But this isn’t nothing.”

He shook his head when her mouth fell open.

“I don’t need you to return my feelings the way I have them for you,” he said.  “But if you could allow me to be with you, to be in your light for a while longer...then that is all I will ever ask of you.”

Katarina definitely felt steam pouring out of her ears, and it was hard to focus on anything he was saying when his charm was dialed up to eleven.  But she struggled through it — Nicol deserved having her really listen to him, the way she had for the others.

“I think I can do that,” she said, smiling.  “I like being with you, too!”

She hadn’t thought Nicol could get any more charming.  But the smile that broke over his lips was so different from the usual devilish charm — in fact, it was perfectly angelic.  She nearly swooned in her chair.

“No matter what decision you make at the end, Lady Katarina, I will always support you,” he said.  “So I thank you.  For letting me be at your side, even here.”

“Uh...yeah,” Katarina said, swaying slightly from the aftershock of Nicol’s angelic charm.  “I mean —”

She composed herself, cheeks still warm.  His hand still laid atop hers, and she focused on that sensation to bring herself back to the moment.

“That’s all I could ask,” she said.  “I’m lucky to have someone like you in my life, really!”

She smiled.  And this time, when Nicol smiled back, she didn’t feel like she needed to swoon.

Chapter Text

Every one of these dates had been their own special brand of uncertainty, Katarina was finding.  She’d thought that maybe she’d get the hang of them at some point, that she’d become a dating expert, like when you get enough experience points in a game you used to suck at!  But the truth was that the experience didn’t stack, in this case.  It was new and different every single time, something to relearn.

And Katarina’s nerves over that were in a total tizzy as her carriage came to a stop at Mary’s mansion.  She clutched her handbag and unclutched it, over and over again, while she waited for the footman to open the door.   Unbidden, her mind replayed every moment she’d ever spent with Mary — everything Mary had said to her.  “You’re the most important person to me, Lady Katarina!” “I care about you the most, Lady Katarina.” “I want to be with you always, Lady Katarina!”

All this time, Katarina had seen those words through the frame of friendship, of the kind of thing you say to your female friends...but they weren’t at all, were they?  Had Alan really been right all those years ago, that Katarina really had stolen Mary right out from under him?  It was hard to wrap her mind around — despite all of the novels she’d read, she’d...she’d really never let herself think about the possibility that she might like girls.  Who she liked at all really had never been on her radar, to be fair!  But now that she was thinking about things a little more clearly...

The door opened, and the footman helped her down from the carriage.  A servant was already waiting for her, and he bowed.

“Lady Mary is waiting for you in the rose garden,” he said.  “Allow me to escort you, Lady Katarina.”

“Oh, ah, thank you!”

Katarina’s nerves only swelled further as they got closer to the garden.  What would she say?  How could she say it?  Now that she was thinking about things, the more she thought about — how much had she simply dismissed her friend’s words?  Had she been hurting Mary all this time??  Gah!  She was overthinking everything !

“Lady Katarina!”

Mary’s voice broke through the haze of nerves, and Katarina blinked her eyes clear of her thoughts.  

Mary swooped towards her, the folds of her dress gliding across the grass as she seized Katarina by both hands.  Her eyes were alight — she looked so happy to see Katarina that it briefly thew Katarina off, after all of her spiraling thoughts.  For what felt first time, Katarina noticed just how well Mary’s dresses fit her, just how beautiful her hair looked with the roses braided so expertly into it, just how...how sparkly her eyes were.  Her cheeks flushed, as she briefly felt guilty for thinking about her friend that way.  But...but there was nothing wrong with it, was there?  She admired how beautiful girls were all the time.  Knowing Mary’s feelings, though...it felt like it changed something.

“I’m so glad you could make it,” Mary said, squeezing her hands and smiling.  “What do you think?”

Mary let go of one of Katarina’s hands so that she could sweep her hand to the decor.  Katarina’s eyes widened.  Mary had turned her rose garden into something even more beautiful than ever before.  A small tea table had been set out in the middle of a small glade enclosed by hedges heavy with orange blooms.  Beautiful arches strung with shiny ribbons opened on either side of the little circle, and the tea table was scattered with pink, orange, and white rose petals.  Tea was already set out, with a plate of macarons and other sweets piled in the center.  Katarina’s mouth watered a bit at the sight, but she tried to restrain herself — just a little bit.

Mary swept a bow to Katarina, smiling widely as she took Katarina’s hand.

“May I escort you to your seat, my lady?” she said.

It was just like Mary, but it was also a little different too.  Katarina couldn’t help but feel...almost a little relieved by it?  Even though it had a different weight to it, it was still Mary

“Why thank you,” she said, taking Mary’s hand and letting Mary sweep her around to her seat.  It was almost the same as they always were, and it put her at ease.  

Mary settled into her own seat across from her, elegantly smoothing out the folds of her dress so that it fell perfectly over the chair.  Everything about Mary was so...elegant.  She was the perfect lady that Katarina had never been able to be, to her mother’s great chagrin.  But Mary made it all look so easy, from the way she walked, to the way she sat down, to the delicate way she handled her as she moved it away from the dishes to the side of the table.  Katarina didn’t even ever remember to bring a fan with her. 

Katarina suddenly realized that she was staring at Mary with far more attention to detail than she ever had before, and she blushed, looking down at the table instead. 

“Your roses look beautiful!” she said quickly, before Mary could notice that she’d been staring.  “You’ve really outdone yourself!”

“You’re so sweet to say that,” Mary said, but she smiled with the confidence of someone who knew the compliment was well-deserved.  “I’ve been trying a new kind of fertilizer.”

“Oh?” Katarina said, eyes jumping back up from the table.  “What kind?  I know roses are more finicky, but my eggplants haven’t been doing so well.”

“It’s a mixture of bone meal and some seaweed sort of thing I ordered from the coast,” Mary said.  “One of the ladies visiting from the port told me about it, so I had to give it a try!”

Katarina itched to pull out her notebook and write down those tidbits, but that would be kind of rude to do on a date, right?  She remembered they were on a date, then, and her blush returned, making it hard to look quite at Mary.  What was it about knowing how her friends felt about her that made it so hard to look at them??

“Wow, I hadn’t thought of using seaweed,” Katarina said, trying to keep her voice level.  “I’ll have to see if I can get some!”

“I’ll give you the address I put in an order from later,” Mary said, smiling.  “But please, don’t hold yourself back, Lady Katarina!  I’ve procured some delicious treats for today.”

Katarina had been eying those cookies, and whatever those pink flakes in the bowl were.  Mary in fact pushed that bowl towards her, and Katarina lost what little self control she had left.

“Thank you!” she said, taking one of the little flakes and popping the whole thing into her mouth.  “Oh wow!  What is this?”

“They’re candied rose petals,” Mary said, taking one herself.  “I actually made them myself — I may not be much of a baker, but these aren’t too hard to make.”

Katarina popped three more into her mouth in quick succession — they were so good!  And they were so small, too, so it was hard to stop eating them.

“Wow, Lady Mary,” she said, between bites.  “You’re really so talented!  It blows me away sometimes.”

Mary’s lips parted, and she blinked.  Katarina felt a heat over her cheeks again, but this time, she couldn’t stop herself from babbling.

“You’re not just good at gardening, but at all sorts of things, too!” Katarina said.  “You set all this up, and it’s so pretty!  And you’re always so graceful and elegant...and you make yummy snacks like this even though you think you’re not good at making things...”

Katarina trailed off, wondering if Mary thought she was going over the top.  Katarina meant every word of it, though!  Mary was amazing .  Katarina wondered if she’d really, truly appreciated just how amazing Mary was until right now, if she’d ever told Mary that enough.

Mary, for her part, didn’t answer right away.  Her head tilted down, and Katarina couldn’t see her eyes behind her bangs.  Almost involuntarily, Mary reached for her fan, rolling it back and forth between her hands.

“That’s because...” Mary said, her voice more air than sound.  “Because...

Her eyes dropped down to her lap.  Katarina hesitated, her hand frozen in midair with a cookie still balanced on her fingers.  Had she said something wrong?

“Because...everything I’ve done, I’ve done it for you,” Mary said.  “Because, back then...you were the first person to ever think anything I had done was...amazing.”

Mary squeezed her fan tighter.

“I wanted...I wanted to keep being amazing for you,” she said.  “I wanted to be strong enough, good enough, to be able to stand at your side.”

Mary bit her bottom lip, not looking Katarina in the eyes.

“I did everything I could to become a lady worthy of standing at the same level as you,” Mary said.  “So that when you might not be able to do something, I could help you.  So that I could...”

She bit her lip even harder, and Katarina was almost surprised that it didn’t bleed. She picked up her fan and clutched both hands around it as almost a nervous action, so tightly Katarina thought it might snap in half.

“Lady Katarina,” she said.  “Please. I...I need to know.”

Her eyes lifted up to Katarina’s, and her gaze was shiny with unshed tears, despite her tense, stiff expression.

“Are you — are you only humoring me?” she said, her voice cracking.  “I love you.  I’ve always loved you.  But I...I’m afraid you don’t understand that.  I’m scared that my feelings are...that you might not even consider me as a real option, compared to Jeord and the others.”

She choked on her words, and Katarina’s heart fluttered.  She half rose from her seat, but then paused, her mouth hanging open.  For a moment, she forgot how to form words.

“Is it because I’m a woman?” Mary said.  Her throat was definitely choked, and she had to briefly press her hand to her mouth, shoulders shaking as she tried to recompose herself.  “Do you think that — is my love not the same as Alan’s, or Nicol’s?  Do you think I’m just a silly girl?”

“No!” Katarina blurted.  This time, she did leap out of her chair, running around the table to take Mary’s shoulders.  “No, I don’t think that at all!”

“I’ve told you how important to me you are, so many times,” Mary said, still not lifting her eyes to Katarina.  “You’ve always...I don’t think you ever understood what I meant.  Because that’s just what girls say to each other, isn’t it?  ‘I love you.’ It doesn’t mean as much.”

She was...she was crying.  The tears rolled silently down her cheeks, shoulders shaking underneath Katarina’s hands.  Oh...oh no.  Had she upset Mary?  Because she just hadn’t understood?  It made Katarina’s chest hurt, thinking that she may have made her dear friend...someone she loved ...feel this way.

“I...maybe I didn’t understand it, before,” Katarina said.  “But I didn’t understand it when Jeord said it, either.”

She slid her hands down to Mary’s, cupping her hands around them.  She crouched in front of Mary so that she could see her better.

“I’m really stupid, you know,” Katarina said, laughing slightly.  “I obviously don’t see anything that’s going on in front of my own face!”

She held Mary’s hands close.  They were still shaking, so Katarina pressed her hands tighter together, to try and still the shaking.

“It’s true that when you said you cared about me, I didn’t understand how you meant it,” she said.  “Maybe it was because just expected that’s what friends say.  But I think it’s mostly because...I didn’t think for a second that anyone would ever think of me that way.”

She smiled tentatively.

“I’m pretty dumb, huh?” she said.  “Not realizing just how blessed I was with people who love me.”

Mary choked softly on her tears.  She pulled one hand away from Katarina’s to press her hand to her mouth, still shaking.  Then she finally, finally, lifted her eyes to meet Katarina’s.  They were still wet with tears, but that was her friend’s determined face she was so used to.

“Then please,” Mary said.  “Will you listen to me when I say this?”

Katarina smiled, tightening her hands around Mary’s and bringing it closer to her.

“I’m listening, for real this time!”

Mary’s expression softened with a faint, teary smile.  She reached down with her other hand, cupping it against Katarina’s cheek.  Katarina felt a strange warmth spread from the touch, and she sucked in a breath.

“I love you, Katarina Claes,” Mary whispered.  “I wish we lived in one of yours and Sophia’s romance novels, where I could sweep you off your feet and run away with you, even as a woman.  I never want to give up on this love, even if it will never come to be.”

Mary smiled, and it was the shiest expression Katarina had seen on her since they were children.  Katarina’s heart fluttered.  Oh my goodness.  Mary was so good with words — it was like she had stepped out of one of those romance novels!

“Is that all right?” she said.  “Is it all right to be in love with you?”

Katarina immediately leaped to her feet, grabbing Mary’s hand and pulling her up from her seat.

“Of course!” Katarina said.  “It’s always all right!”

She blushed, then, still holding Mary’s hand.

“I mean...I...I don’t know what my feelings are yet,” she said.  “For anyone, really!  But I...I’m really happy.”

She smiled, blushing, and wondered if this was another selfish feeling.

“I’m...I’m glad I know how you really feel,” she said.  “I’m sorry I never listened before!  Even though I don’t know if I can return them the same way...ah, not that I think I can’t fall in love with another girl!  I just don’t know anything about...I need to figure out my feelings, for anyone ! And about myself, too, and...”

Mary laughed.  It was soft, musical, and the lightest sound Katarina had ever heard her make.  She laughed so much her cheeks grew red, and she had to bow over, still holding onto Katarina’s hand.  When she finally got a hold of herself again, Mary grabbed Katarina’s other hand too, lifting her face up inches from Katarina’s.

“It’s all right, Katarina,” she said.  “This is why I love you so much, you know!”

Katarina’s face flushed, and being so close to Mary’s face...she wondered if Mary might kiss her.  She hadn’t thought much about kissing, Mary, or Jeord, or anyone.  But she thought maybe, she might not stop Mary if she did.

But Mary only smiled, squeezed her hands, and then leaned her forehead against Katarina’s shoulder.

“It’s all right,” she said again, softer this time.  “Just knowing that you understand...I think it means more than you know.”

Katarina patted Mary’s back, a little awkwardly.

“Thank you,” Mary said.  “For accepting my feelings, Katarina.”

Katarina beamed in spite of herself, and hugged Mary a little tighter.

“Ah!” she said, suddenly thinking of something.  “Mary, would you like to dance with me?”

Mary lifted her head from Katarina’s shoulder and tilted her head.

“Dance?” she said.

“Yeah! Like we did on my birthday,” Katarina said.  “I didn’t get it back then, so...why don’t we dance now?”

She blinked, as something occurred to her.

“Wait!! Is that why you learned the men’s part?”

Mary’s laugh came out in a burst like a cough, and she covered her mouth with her hand.  But she couldn’t hold it in, and she began to laugh so hard that her forehead to fall forward against Katarina’s chest again, her hands clutching at Katarina’s arms.

“Honestly!” she said.  “I’ve been telling you all this time that I love you, and you only just made that connection?”

“I guess I’m really just that dumb,” Katarina said, blushing.

Mary shook her head, and hid another laugh behind her hand.

“You’re you,” she said.  “And that’s why I...why everyone... loves you.”

She tilted her head at Katarina with a determined sort of smile.

“You know I’m not going to give up on you, right?” she said.  “I’ll fight just as hard as Prince Jeord and the others — or even harder.”

She slid her hand down to Katarina’s, taking it and lifting up.  Katarina couldn’t help but smile.

“I know,” she said.  “You’re the most determined person I know, Mary!”

Katarina hesitated just a moment, and then she put her hand on Mary’s waist.  Mary tilted her head, her own other hand hovering over Katarina’s waist.

“I’m going to step on your toes,” she warned.  “But...let me try leading this time.  You could teach me!”

Mary’s lip parted.  And then she smiled.  She placed her hand on Katarina’s shoulder.  The smell of roses wrapped around them in their own little private garden as they settled into their dance positions.

“All right,” she said.  “I think I would like that.”

Chapter Text

 

Normally, Sophia would run to meet Katarina at the door, would take her hands, sometimes even hugged her when Katarina came to visit.

Today, though, Sophia hesitated a foot away from her, hands clasped tightly together, her eyes flitting to the floor, the ceiling, the wall behind Katarina, anywhere except at Katarina.  It was like she’d gone back to the shy, quiet girl Katarina had first met when they were kids.  It made Katarina feel off balance.  Once again, she wasn’t nowhere near as prepared for this as she thought she was.  Thinking about it in hindsight, Mary’s and Maria’s feelings for her were maybe...more obvious than Katarina had thought.  But Sophia...Katarina tried to wrack her brain to think of some clue she might have missed, and found it difficult.

Still, Sophia was acting really uncertain, so...

“Um, thank you for inviting me!” Katarina said, curtseying as her mother would have scolded her to do.  Was this the first time she had ever been to Sophia’s house without Keith chaperoning?  It was strange to think that she had rarely been with her friends one-on-one before now.

“Tha...thank you for coming,” Sophia said, clasping her hands over her chest and still not looking at her.  “Oh, I...I thought we could go into the library?”

A faint pink blush dusted her cheeks, and she ducked her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I mean, it’s the same thing we always do...I’m sure the other, uh, dates you’ve had were more interesting...”

“Oh, no, no, it’s okay!” Katarina said, waving her hands up and down.  “Sitting around and talking about books and reading...that sounds like a great way to spend the day!”

A faint, shy smile came to Sophia’s lips, the sort of uncertain expression she’d often worn during their first days of friendship.  She curtseyed, and then turned a little too quickly to head up the stairs.  Katarina followed, and they made their way into the wide, open library.

Katarina couldn’t help but breathe in a deep sigh of contentment as they entered.  The smell of old books...the almost dim way the sunlight passed through the windows to make everything glow as though it were sunset...the sight of the aisles upon aisles of books and the still air of the quiet library...it was probably Katarina’s favorite place in the whole world.  It was the closest thing she’d ever found to a place from her old life.  And of course, the books!

“My brother and I went out earlier,” Sophia said, taking them over to their usual reading nook, a big, plush couch under the window, nestled between shelves.  She picked up a book left on the couch, turning towards Katarina with it held against her chest.  “The new Devilish Count book isn’t out yet, but I got a few other new ones I thought you might like!  We could look at them together.”

“Oh, sure!!” Katarina said.  “That sounds great!  What’s this one?”

She picked up another book left on the couch.

“Oh, that one is about a girl from a bookstore falling in love with a visiting foreign prince,” Sophia said, some of the confidence coming back to her voice.  “I’ve only read the first chapter, but it’s so poetic!”

“Ooooh,” Katarina said, eagerly flipping to the first page just to scan it.  “What about that one?”

Sophia blushed faintly, clutching her own book to her chest.

“Oh, this one is...this one is about the secret love between a princess and one of the ladies of her court.”

Sophia normally didn’t blush to talk about any kind of romance book, so Katarina wondered what could possibly be in that one...oh.  Hang on.  Was Sophia blushing because...of the situation?

Katarina blushed, too.  She was almost getting tired of so much blushing!  She was going to overheat.

“Oh, well, that sounds like a good one!” she said, flopping down onto the couch.  “Want to read them together, then?”

It was something they did often; the pair of them sitting next to each other on the couch while they read chapters of their own books to each other, one after the other.  Eventually, they’d get so hoarse they’d have to go down for tea.

Sophia smiled tentatively.

“I’d like that,” she said, sitting on the couch beside her.

It was the normalcy of it that really helped Katarina to relax.  As they made their way through both romances, reading aloud one at a time, it was as though the barriers between them they’d started the day with began to break down.  Katarina scootched closer to Sophia to read along with Sophia’s voice over her shoulder, and Sophia only smiled when Katarina rested her chin on Sophia’s shoulder.  Sophia inched closer to Katarina while Katarina read aloud, until she was pressed up against Katarina’s side with her hair falling among Katarina’s, tickling Katarina’s neck.

It was...extremely familiar, Katarina thought.  As though she’d done something just like this a long time ago...hadn’t she and Acchan read manga together like this?  Or squeezed together on Acchan’s bed to watch videos on Katarina’s tiny laptop?  It was nice, how comfortable it was to just lean back and listen to Sophia’s soft voice spinning a romantic tale.

Eventually, though, Katarina needed a break.  She sighed loudly falling back against the couch with the book held over her head.

“I’m getting kinda thirsty,” she said.

“Me too,” Sophia said.  “Oh, my, is it already that time?”

She checked the clock sitting on a nearby end table.  Oh wow!  Already tea time.

“Should we go down?” Katarina said.

“We could have it brought up here, if you want,” Sophia said shyly.

“Oof, that sounds great, because I think I’m permanently attached to this couch.

Sophia giggled, hiding it behind her hand, and Katarina smiled.  Sophia was finally back to herself.  They were just hanging out as they always had.  And it was...it was really nice.  Katarina loved this quiet, comfy time.  She almost felt like she never wanted to leave it ever again.

Sophia briefly wandered over to the library entry so she could pull the tassel to call someone upstairs, and then returned to the couch.  She leaned back against it, looking up at the ceiling.  They were so close...and yet, they weren’t.  Sophia sat at one end of the couch, and Katarina the other.  The half foot of space between them suddenly felt like so much.

“Lady Katarina, when did you get interested in romance novels?” Sophia asked.

Katarina jumped a little.

“What brought that on?”

Sophia ducked her head with a faint blush.

“I just realized I’ve never asked you.”

Katarina hesitated.  Trying to come up with an answer that made sense seemed like a tall order.  She was interested in romance novels because, well, they were the closest thing she could get to shoujo manga in this world, and she really missed shoujo manga.

“I dunno,” she said finally.  “I just started reading one one day, and I was hooked.”

It was pretty much true.  Her mother in her old life had bought her a manga for her birthday when she was young, and after that, the rest was history.  

“What about you?” Katarina asked, turning her head against the back of the couch to look at Sophia.  “When did you get into them?”

Sophia didn’t turn her head to Katarina, still looking up at the ceiling.

“Well,” she said slowly.  “I suppose...when I realized I wasn’t going to make friends very easily.”

Her eyes got soft and sad, almost distant, as though she might be thinking of sad times.  Katarina frowned.

“You know, before you, not many people wanted to talk to me,” Sophia said.  “They thought I was...creepy.  Because of how I looked, because I was shy.  Do you remember I told you that?”

“I remember,” Katarina said.  “But I don’t get it at all!  Because you’re so pretty and sweet, Sophia!  I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t like you.”

Sophia’s cheeks grew pink, and Katarina’s did too as she realized what she was saying.  But Sophia smiled, and she hid a small giggle behind one hand as she leaned forward again.

“Saying things like that so easily,” Sophia said.  “That’s why I...”

She looked down at her lap, then her hair falling between her and Katarina so that Katarina couldn’t see what she was thinking anymore.

“I read so much before because I thought it might be the only way I could ever...have friends, or fall in love,” Sophia said.  “In stories, anything is possible, you know.  I even...well, I even started writing some, too.”

Katarina’s eyes widened, and she bounced forward, leaning towards Sophia.

“Really??  You’re writing romance novels??”

“Ahh, nothing so put together yet!!” Sophia said quickly, waving her hands up and down.  “Just little...scraps, and snippets.”

“Wow!!” Katarina said.  “That’s amazing, Sophia!  I hope you’ll let me read something you’ve written someday!”

Sophia’s cheeks were so pink that she looked like a strawberry.  She pressed her hands to her cheeks and crunched in on herself, bangs falling over her eyes to hide away.  It was such a cute reaction!!  And it almost seemed kind of familiar, too...

“I’m writing a fanfiction,” Acchan squeaked, immediately turning away with an uncharacteristic amount of embarrassment.

“Whaaaat?  Really??  Can I read it!!”

“No way!!  It’s not done yet!  And I’m not any good yet, either!!”

Sophia tilted her head forward and let out a breath somewhere between a gasp and a laugh.

“Ahh,” she gasped.  “You’re the first person I’ve ever told that, Lady Katarina.  I was always so afraid people would think I...would think it was silly.”

“Who could ever think that??” Katarina said.  “Writing is so hard!  That’s a lot of work!”

“But...most people think romance novels are...shallow.”

Katarina pressed a hand to her heart and leaned forward until she could see past Sophia’s bangs.

“You’re telling me that??” she said.  “Haven’t you heard me talk for hours about what two lines might have meant in a book??  Shallow, my butt!!”

Sophia burst into a bubble of giggles, pressing them into her hands even as her shoulder shook.  It was such a sweet sound that Katarina’s smile bloomed out of her almost involuntarily.

“You’re too nice to me, Lady Katarina,” Sophia said, wiping away the tears from her laughter.

“Well, because we’re friends!” Katarina said.  “Of course I would want to support you!”

Katarina fumbled, then, as she realized what she had said.  Oh, but...but Sophia was in love with her, wasn’t she?  It wasn’t just friends, maybe.  Had Katarina said something that might hurt her, the way Mary had felt like her feelings weren’t being understood?

Sophia faltered, as though the words had gotten stuck in her throat.  Her smile began to fade.  Katarina frowned.  

“Lady Sophia?” she said.  “Sophie?  Are you okay?”

Sophia’s eyes filled with tears again.  She turned away from Katarina, putting a hand to her mouth.  Katarina could only see her shoulders shaking.

“I’m sorry,” Sophia said.  “I’m so sorry, Katarina!”

“W-what?  What are you apologizing for??” Katarina said.  Wh-where was this coming from all of a sudden?  Had she done something wrong?  Had she said the wrong thing and made Sophia feel like she needed to apologize?  Oh, geez, oh geez!  Katarina waved her hands around aimlessly, uncertain of what to do with her anxiety.

“I...”

Sophia’s eyes shone with tears.  She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her mouth, closing her eyes for a moment.

“I’m sorry you found out,” Sophia.  “That you found out...how I feel.”

“H-huh?  Why do you need to apologize for that??” Katarina said.  “And — that’s not your fault, anyway!  I mean.  I wanted to...”

She trailed off, not really sure what she should, or needed, to say.  Sophia ducked her head again, pressing her hands against her eyes.

“I never wanted you to know,” she said.  “I never wanted to tell you my feelings.”

She hiccuped softly and wiped at her tears with both hands.

“Instead I...I always tried to help my big brother with his feelings for you,” she said.  “I was always trying to find ways to bring you two together.  Because...oh, it was so selfish.”

She pressed her hands to her mouth again, breathing through her nose before she could speak.

“Because I knew my feelings would never happen,” Sophia said.  “But I thought — if you and my brother were to get married...then we would always be together.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, tears tangling in her eyelashes.

“But that was so selfish of me, wasn’t it?  I used my brother’s feelings and told myself that it was for his sake.  But it was really for me.  Because I didn’t know how else I could be with you.  I...I’m ruining everyone else’s chances for happiness, I’m stepping all over their feelings — I should have stayed quiet, so that...so that I wouldn’t make things harder for you and everyone!”

She tried to stand, as though she might flee.  At the sight of her back, though, Katarina was seized with the sudden feeling of...sadness.  Of fear, that she would run away, and she’d see her disappear, and never see her again.  Almost without thinking about it, she snatched Sophia’s hand.

Sophia jumped, her hair whirling as she looked back at Katarina.  Tears flew from her eyes with the motion.  But Katarina couldn’t speak, not right away.  She could only cling to Sophia’s hand, leaning out of the couch, staring up at her crying friend with a strange, squeezing sensation in her chest.  She pressed her free hand over her heart.  Why did...why did her heart hurt so much?

She opened her mouth, but it took time for the words to come out.

“I...I don’t want that at all,” Katarina said.  “I didn’t — I didn’t want to never know!”

Tears pricked at her eyes too, and she angrily tried to hold them back.  She couldn’t cry, not yet!  Sophia needed her!  She squeezed Sophia’s hand.

“Sure, everything is really confusing, and I don’t know what to do,” Katarina said.  “Sure, it changed everything I thought I knew to find out about your feelings, and everyone’s feelings.  But — but I didn’t want to never know!”

She pulled Sophia’s hand closer to her, and almost involuntarily, Sophia turned towards her, letting Katarina continue to hold onto her hand.

“The idea that you might have been suffering, keeping it locked inside yourself,” Katarina said, holding Sophia’s hand with both of hers.  “That hurts me even more!”

“But I...I’m selfish,” Sophia said.  “I wanted to be with you...even if it hurt others.”

“But you’ve never hurt anyone in your life,” Katarina said.  “And I don’t think you’re going to start now!”

She gripped Sophia’s hand, holding Sophia’s gaze with everything she had.

“I...I don’t know how I feel about things yet,” she said.  “I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to figure it out.  But...I think it’s okay to feel selfish.  In fact, I don’t think you’re selfish enough!”

Sophia blinked, lips parting.

“Huh?”

“I mean, you’re the only one of everyone who never wanted me to know,” Katarina said.  “Everyone else was always trying to tell me, and I was just too dumb to notice.  If they’re allowed to be selfish like that, why not you?  Why aren’t you allowed to have feelings?”

Sophia’s eyes bubbled with tears.  She pressed her free hand to her mouth, shaking.

“Is...is that all right?” she mumbled into her palm.  “Is it really all right, to...to be in love with you?”

Katarina smiled.  She stood up, then, and pulled Sophia in.  Sophia melted into the hug, her arms tightening around Katarina’s waist and hands digging into her back.  Katarina stroked Sophia’s hair softly as she held her close, letting her tears stain her shoulder.

They stood there like that, just hugging, until the servants arrived with the tea table, and Sophia quickly stepped out of the hug, wiping her tears away.  Once they were alone again, balancing tea cups in one hand and books in the other, Sophia peeked over the top of her book at Katarina.

“Thank you,” she said.

Katarina smiled.

“Of course!” she said.  “No matter what, Sophia — you’re always going to be important to me.  That’s why I want you to be happy!”

Sophia smiled, a still shaky, teary smile, but a smile nonetheless.

“Then promise me one thing?” she said.  She put her book down and slid her hand across the couch, putting it on top of Katarina’s free hand.  Her hand was warm and so soft against Katarina’s.

“What’s that?” Katarina asked.

Sophia smiled.  And she was, Katarina thought, really one of the most beautiful people she’d ever known.

“Will you please be selfish, too?” she said.  “When you have to make a decision, pick the selfish one.  The one that will make you happy...not the one you think you have to make to save everyone’s feelings.”

Katarina’s heart dropped into her stomach for a moment, and she coughed, nearly spilling her tea.  But Sophia’s hand folded around hers, holding it gently.

“I love you,” Sophia said softly.  “But more than anything, I want you to be happy.  So please — don’t hurt yourself, okay?”

Katarina had been trying so hard not to think about it, that she was almost at the end of her dates, and almost to the point where she’d have to make the decision.  Her stomach twisted.  But Sophia’s smile was so sweet, and so soft, it put everything in the world at ease again.  Katarina smiled, and turned her hand over so that she could hold Sophia’s hand back.

“Okay,” she said.  “I promise.”

Chapter Text

“Oh wow!! You can see for so far up here!”

Maria smiled as she tucked some of her hair behind her ear, only for it to fly back free in the breeze that rolled over the hill.  It was nice and cool in comparison to the afternoon warmth, and Katarina sighed delightedly.  Up on this hill, you could see fields and farms and meadow hills for as far as the eye could see!  It was so beautiful!

“I didn’t know there was a meadow like this around here,” Katarina said.

“Not many come this far,” Maria said.  “Without access to a carriage, it’s quite a walk.”

She set the picnic basket down on the thick, soft grass, between a copse of flowers, and took the blanket out from under her arm.  Katarina trotted back over to her.

“Let me help out!” Katarina said.

Maria smiled again, and for not the first time, Katarina was blown away by just how beautiful she was.  It sent a flush over her cheeks.

“Thank you, Lady Katarina,” Maria said.  “Can you take this end?”

They unfolded the blanket together, taking it over to where the shade of the single tree on the hill fell.  Katarina poked around until she’d found a couple of rocks to weigh the corners down with, while Maria brought the picnic basket over and started to unpack.

Katarina’s mouth watered immediately from the smell that wafted from inside the basket.

“Did you make these?” Katarina asked, accepting the wrapped sandwich from Maria.

“Yes!” Maria said, blushing.  “I...I’m more of a baker than a cook, but I did my best!”

“It smells sooo good,” Katarina sighed with delight.  “I’m sure it’ll be delicious.”

“I brought tea as well,” Maria said, pulling out a tall tin that looked a lot like a thermos.  “And of course, I’ve baked some sweets.  Please help yourself!”

“Maria, you’re amazing,” Katarina said, biting into the sandwich and immediately almost falling over from the burst of flavor.

Maria giggled at Katarina’s somewhat dramatic expression of her contentment, hiding it behind her hand.  The light that came into her eyes when she smiled was so sweet, and it made Katarina’s stomach feel all funny — now that she knew Maria...Maria liked her — it was the same with everyone else, too!  The realization that the reason her friends smiled and laughed at what she did wasn’t just because she was silly, it was because they liked her...it made things so different somehow.

And this was so over her head, honestly!  The others were starting to make sense, but the idea that the protagonist of Fortune Lover would fall for Katarina ??  The villainess?  What a flip of the script!

Katarina flicked a gaze up at Maria, watching the way she pushed her hair behind her ears as she dug around in the picnic basket to unload the other treats.  Well...to be fair, Maria wasn’t the protagonist of a video game.  She was a real person.  And so was Katarina.  

Oh...had she let her memories of the past stop her from really seeing that?  Was that why it was so hard to imagine that her friends might love her?  Because she was still believing in the script of a game from another world, when this life she lived now...was real?

She swallowed an extra big bite of sandwich.  It was hard not to stare at Maria — everything she did was so elegant and pretty, even eating.  She didn’t get any crumbs on herself, and she looked so dainty when she took a bite of her own sandwich.  Her eyes lifted up to the sky through the leaves above them, and she smiled, running a hand through her hair.

“It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?” she said.  “I’m so glad the weather held out.”

“Oh, same!” Katarina said.  “We’ve gotten really lucky these past few days.”

Maria smiled, tilting back down towards her sandwich.  Then she turned her smile back to Katarina.

“I should thank you, Lady Katarina,” she said.  “For...for coming with me today.”

Katarina blinked, but her mouth was too full of sandwich to respond right away.  She swallowed, having to pound her chest a few times to get it down.

“Ugh, sorry,” she said.  “Um.  I mean — thank you for inviting me!  Of course I would come out with you!”

Maria ducked her head, blushing faintly.  She took a quick bite of sandwich, as though to avoid having to say anything else.  Ah!  She must be nervous.  Well, Katarina was nervous too...even though she’d had so many dates so far, every single one proved to be more nerve-wracking and difficult than the last. 

She should probably talk about something, right?  What should she talk about?  Before, she’d always tried to get Maria into a conversation about her love life, to try and figure out what route she was on...well, that question was answered now, even if it was in the way she least expected.

“Oh!” she thought suddenly.  Her outburst clearly startled Maria, because she jumped a little, and Katarina blushed.  “Sorry!  I just suddenly thought — how is your garden doing now?”

It took Maria a second to digest the question, and then her eyes lit up.

“Oh!  It’s doing wonderfully,” she said.  “My mother really does appreciate that you took the time to do it!”

Maria laughed then, lifting her hand in front of her mouth.

“You wouldn’t believe the look on her face when I told her you were the duke’s daughter.  She could hardly believe it!”

“Ahaha,” Katarina said, rubbing the back of her neck.  “I guess I’m a little weird for a noble, huh?”

Maria’s eyes softened — and Katarina wondered how she’d ever mistaken the look of affection in her eyes before now.  It sent a rush of heat through her chest and up to her head, almost to the level of Nicol’s ability to make her swoon.

“That’s exactly why I...why I care for you so much, Lady Katarina,” she said.  “You’re so... forward.

Maria giggled again, shaking her head.

“So few nobles are not only as kind as you, but as...well, as unflappable!”

“I feel like Jeord said something similar,” Katarina said.  “Well, more like something about me not thinking before I do anything.”

“But that’s sometimes a wonderful thing,” Maria said, leaning forward.  Her hand fell on top of Katarina’s, and Katarina felt heat bloom over her cheeks.  “The ability to jump forward without thinking...sometimes, thinking can stop you from doing what’s right, and what needs to be done.”

The way she said it sounded so sincere that Katarina could hardly believe they were talking about her.

“W-well it’s nothing compared to you!!” Katarina said.  “You’re so smart, and hard-working!  And you’re so brave, too!  I’m not really brave, I’m just too dumb to notice when something’s a bad idea.”

Maria laughed, her cheeks going pink from the simple exertion of laughter.

“You know, normally when people give me compliments like that, I feel...like I don’t deserve them,” Maria said, softening.  “But when you say them, Lady Katarina, they feel true.”

“That’s cause they are ,” Katarina said.

That only made Maria laugh again, but it was such a sweet sound that Katarina didn’t mind too much.  Maria’s hand still rested on top of hers.  Katarina didn’t want to take her hand away, even though eating her sandwich one handed was a little awkward.  She just shoved the last few bites into her mouth all at once rather than have to come up with a new solution.

The breeze rustled softly between them, the grass swaying beside their blanket, the scent of flowers floating up from down the hill.  Katarina breathed in the clear, fresh air.

Maria’s hand suddenly tightened ever so slightly on Katarina’s hand, and Katarina looked up.  Her face had tilted down, so Katarina couldn’t see her face.

“Maria?” Katarina asked.

Maria took in a deep breath.  Was she crying?  Had Katarina done something wrong again??

But no, when Maria’s head tilted back up, turned back to Katarina, there were no tears.  There was only a beautiful, shining smile.

“I just don’t know how I can possibly ever thank you enough,” Maria said.  “For everything you’ve done for me.”

Katarina blinked — she tried to think of what she had done for Maria, but had no idea.  Thankfully, Maria kept talking.

“I didn’t want to have magic,” Maria said.  “I didn’t... want to come to this school.  I was so afraid.  I...I was so tired of being ‘special.’”

She blinked quickly, but it was the only sign that she might cry.

“I knew if I came here I would probably be alone, or worse.  But instead...instead, I met you.”

She smiled so beautifully it was like the sun shone from her eyes.  Maria laced her fingers into Katarina’s, and Katarina didn’t dare break the moment.

“Because of you, I have friends,” Maria said.  “I have such wonderful people in my life whom I can feel close to, people who don’t treat me as any different for my magic or for my station.  Because of you, I haven’t been alone.  And so much more — because of you, my life has become filled with so much light.”

She took Katarina’s hand in both of hers, leaning forward.  Katarina was certain she was giving off steam from how hot her face was getting.  Holy crap...Maria really was a real otome game protagonist with lines like these!!

Maria tilted her head, hair bouncing, and smiled as she clasped Katarina’s hand.

“The last thing I want is to pressure you,” she said.  “But you are the most special person in my life, and I can’t imagine living a life without you.  I love you, Lady Katarina.  I’ll always love you.  No matter what decision you make, I will never leave you behind.  I will be your friend forever.”

Katarina didn’t realize she was crying until she felt the tear drops fall against the back of her hand.  She blinked, reaching up to her eyes.  Streams of tears rolled down her cheeks. 

“H-huh?” she said.  “I...I’m sorry, Maria, I don’t know why I’m...”

She hiccuped, and suddenly her throat and chest felt tight.  Her shoulders trembled.  Why — why was she crying??  In front of Maria, after Maria had said all those lovely things?  She was ruining their date, for sure!!

But Maria didn’t pull away.  In fact, she scooted forward, wrapping her arms around Katarina and letting her fall against her shoulder.  Almost automatically, Katarina clutched at the front of Maria’s dress, pressing into her.  The tears....the tears wouldn’t stop.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped between shaking sobs.  “I’m sorry, Maria!!”

“Sh,” Maria said softly, stroking her hair.  “Sh...it’s okay.”

Oh, Katarina thought, as the floodgates opened all the way and the tears flowed even more. She...she thought she knew, now why she was crying.  She pressed her face into Maria’s shoulder and wrapped her arms around her, clinging to her.

“I’ve — I’ve been so scared,” Katarina sobbed.  “That someday, everyone would — everyone would leave me.”

As the words come out of her, she realized how true they were— and how heavy they’d been festering in her chest.  She’d...she’d been scared.  All this time, she’d been so afraid.  Since the day she got her memories back, since the day she realized she was Katarina Claes and she was destined to unhappy endings...

It didn’t matter how often Jeord brought her sweets and invited her along on outings, how often he told her how much he cared for her.  It hadn’t mattered how many times Keith had gone out of his way to help her sneak out of the house to work on her farm, or how many nights they’d spent staying up late just talking about everything they’d ever felt.  The kindness of her friends — she’d never fully been able to accept it.  Because all this time, she’d still believed that one day they might turn on her — a small, niggling thought, one she’d never let herself pay too much heed to, because if she ever let herself think too closely about it, she’d be so overcome with the pain of the people she loved the most turning on her, and leaving her behind, that she wouldn’t be able to breathe.

She’d been living in a world that didn’t exist.  She’d still been believing in a world where the logic of a video game ruled everything, where a fluke of the script would take away everything she ever cared about.  But she’d never been in any danger at all.  She hadn’t seen the real world that was right in front of her — the people who cared about her, the people who wouldn’t abandon her so easily.  People who really... loved her.  The fact that she had been so loved all this time, when she’d thought there was no way anyone would ever care for her like that — not in her old life, and certainly not in this one — the reality of it was so much that she crumpled under the weight of it.

And then all of this had happened — an impossible choice put before her.  She’d only just realized that she wasn’t as alone as she’d always thought herself.  That the people she loved loved her back.  She’d only just begun to digest the idea, and now this — this impossible choice.  A choice that might put her back to that place she feared more than she could let herself feel, a place where her choices might cause everyone to turn away from her, when she’d only just gotten to realize what a precious gift she had — to be faced with losing it as soon as she knew it was in her hands.

She was sure she was babbling something.  She wasn’t sure exactly what she was saying, if she was spilling out the whole unexplainable story of otome games and reincarnation, or if she was only babbling out fragments that made even less sense than the truth.

But Maria didn’t say anything, didn’t interrupt.  She just held Katarina gently in her arms, and stroked her fingers through her hair.

As Katarina’s sobs finally began to die down, she still couldn’t let go of Maria.  She was almost afraid to leave this spot.  As soon as she left it, she’d have to think about this choice — and she’d have to face the consequences.

Maria’s fingers laced through Katarina’s hair, gently undoing wind-tangled knots.

“They all love you, too,” she said softly.  “I know for sure, that no matter what happens, Katarina...they’ll never leave you.”

Katarina’s eyes bubbled with tears, even though she’d thought she was all out.  She sniffled, and then was suddenly self conscious that she might be drooling on Maria.  She quickly sat up, wiping at her eyes.  Maria smiled as she offered Katarina her handkerchief, and Katarina blew her nose.

“T-thank you,” she said.  “I don’t know the last time I cried like that.  That was probably pretty annoying.”

Maria just shook her head, smiling.

“Honestly,” she said, softly.  She lifted her hand up to Katarina’s cheek, holding it gently, just for a moment, before her hand drifted away.  “How many times do we each have to tell you that we love you?”

Katarina was about ready to cry again .  She sniffled and blew her nose loudly.

“I think I wanna climb that tree,” she mumbled into the handkerchief.

Maria’s smile lit up her whole face when Katarina looked up at her.

“I think that sounds like fun,” she said.  “Should we bring the cookies up with us?”

Maria took the little wrapped cloth of cookies, and Katarina’s hand, and they wandered over to the base of the tree.  It was a big one, but there were plenty of handholds for Katarina.  Katarina shimmied up first, then took the cookies from Maria so that Maria could get up after her.

“You’re real good at tree climbing,” Katarina said, taking Maria’s hand to help her up onto the branch Katarina sat on.

“You’re the expert, it seems,” Maria said.  “You know, I’ve heard the others talk about your tree climbing, but this is the first time I’ve seen you do it!  You’re like a squirrel.”

A squirrel? Maybe that’s a little better than a monkey, at least .

Still, the way Maria said it, it really did sound like a compliment.  Katarina smiled.

They sat on the branch, looking out over the countryside as they shared the cookies across their laps.  They had to sit very close together because of the size of the branch, but it was...nice.  It was comfortable.  They sat pressed next to each other as though they’d been friends all their lives.

“Maria?” Katarina said.

“Hm?”

“....thank you.”

Maria smiled.  She leaned against Katarina, head against Katarina’s shoulder.

“Thank you, too, Lady Katarina.”

Katarina let her head rest against Maria’s, staring at the faraway horizon. All those tears had really tired her out. She rubbed her eye with one hand.

She would have to make a decision soon.  But right now, right here...everything was going to be all right.

Chapter Text

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.