Graduation celebrations had died down, and Catarina and Maria found themselves alone in the young noble’s garden. Everyone else had returned to their dorms for the night, but the noblewoman and the commoner were still together. For Catarina, she couldn’t put a finger on why, but her friend didn’t seem ready to leave yet. Maria knew exactly what kept her rooted there, unwilling to let the day end. For Catarina, the silence seemed companionable—she was usually one to fill any empty space with chatter and bustling motion, but the long, eventful day and the gentle twinkle of the stars above, and pensive mood of her friend made her stay unusually quiet.
Catarina couldn’t quite shake her usual worry about death flags, though—earlier in the day she had felt confident that she had found the golden ending, for her at least. She had made it to graduation and achieved a friendship end with everyone together. But even though the day wasn’t over yet, she was already entering uncharted waters—when the credits rolled and the epilogue ended, that was it—back to the title screen. Obviously that wasn’t how real life worked, though.
Through all of her meddling to protect herself, she had consciously and unconsciously trampled all over relationships before they had a chance to even sprout. Mary and Alan, Maria and her potential love interests…although Maria had never shown outright interest in anyone before that Catarina recalled. She took that to mean her feelings were such a closely guarded secret that no one could know—least of all Catarina, which left…Geordo.
Of course, Catarina was still engaged to Geordo. A prince, engaged to another at that, with a commoner. A forbidden love worthy of a romance novel, but forbiddingly challenging when real-world stakes were on the line. Pain spiked through Caterina’s heart at the thought—despite her best efforts, she was still playing the villainess role to Maria’s protagonist by acting as a roadblock to her own happy ending.
“About what I said earlier today, Lady Catarina…” Maria began, jolting her out of her spiraling thoughts. “About how I…wanted to be by your side forever?”
“About that, Maria,” Catarina said. “You never need to worry about that, you know? I’ll always be here for you—you don’t ever have to be afraid of hurting my feelings. But I also don’t want to get in your way. You should pursue your own happiness--I’ll always be here to support you.”
Maria looked at her for a long moment. It was too dark even with the light of the stars for Catarina to make out what her complex expression was. “What? How could you ever get in my way, Lady Catarina?”
“You know—with, ah, hmm…well, you never really told me per se, but it’s Geordo, right? You’re in love with him, but with me and the engagement you feel like you can’t tell him your feelings. I’m sure you’re scared you’ll make me angry by going around me to get to him, but that just won’t happen. I’ve told him over and over he’s free to be with anyone he wants, but he’s still kept this old agreement up for appearances sake. If you told him how you felt though, I’m sure he’d—"
“As I thought,” Maria interrupted with a dry heat to her tone, “you are as dense as ever, Lady Catarina. But this has to mark a new achievement in misunderstanding.”
“I’m sorry I’m so slow on the uptake Maria,” Catarina said. “I’ve been trying to get along with everyone, but in the process I trampled all over your feelings.”
Maria stepped up close enough to peer into Catarina’s eyes through the dark. Catarina’s normally bright blue eyes were more grayish in the dark, but they still reflected some of that color back thanks to the light of the stars above.
“…No, you still do not understand, Lady Catarina. I have never once even entertained the thought of having eyes for Geordo. Or Alan, or any other boy here.”
“But a protagonist like you could have any boy you wanted here, you know? Don’t put yourself down like that—"
“You still do not get it—it has always been you, Catarina. I don’t want anyone but you. I love you, so so desperately,” Maria shouted.
“What…I—” Catarina was struck dumb. She staggered a couple steps back, and ran a hand over her face. “T-that’s not how this was supposed to work out--I’m the villainess, Maria, you can’t—”
“The what? ‘Villainess?’” Maria echoed incredulously. “I had heard you say things like that before, but do you actually believe yourself to be a villainess?”
“Of course I am, is it not obvious?!” Catarina asked frantically. “Look at these cold blue eyes slanted imperiously, with eyebrows always arched no matter how I try to work these dumb face muscles otherwise, this major forehead of doom thing I’ve got going on… I’m a textbook villainess—if I’m not careful I’ll end up stealing the happiness of everyone around me, they’ll hate me, and-and I’ll die!”
The words from Catarina’s mouth were almost too ridiculous to comprehend, and they escalated to almost a full-on shout as she got more frantic. Despite being thoughts almost too ridiculous to air even for Catarina, hearing them saddened Maria. She wasn’t being rejected—she gathered that Catarina didn’t even view herself as someone worthy of being confessed to. No wonder she had amassed such a group of admirers while still keeping them at arm’s length—for reasons Maria couldn’t quite fathom, Catarina saw herself as an outsider to them all. Maria didn’t exactly know how she was going to break through that barrier between them and Catarina, but she knew she had to speak from her heart while she had the chance.
“I do not know what may have led to you thinking that way about yourself, but what is obvious to me is how beautifully your eyes sparkled when you tried my baking for the first time. How your whole face lit up with a smile when you saved me from Sirius, and how fierce it was when you protected me from those bullies,” Maria said. “I have never once thought of you as scary, or an obstacle, or in the way—you are more precious to me than anyone else, Catarina Claes. I do not know what you mean by protagonists or villainesses—all I know for certain is that you are my heroine. I will say it as many times as it takes for you to believe me.”
Maria closed the distance between the two of them again and swept Catarina, who still seemed like a deer about to bolt, up into a tight hug. It took a long minute, but Catarina finally returned the embrace. Maria could feel the tension slowly melt away from the other girl’s frame. She leaned back to get a look at her face.
A couple tears were starting to trail down Catarina’s cheeks. “I never thought anyone—you—would…”
Maria leaned forward and planted a kiss on each of the tear drops. “Did I finally get through?”
“Haha—” Catarina’s chuckle was raspy. “Loud and clear.”
Maria planted a soft, lingering kiss on Catarina’s lips.
“Good,” Maria said. “I will keep saying it anyway, though, just so you don’t ever forget: I love you!”
“…I love you too, Maria.”