Maria Campbell is in love. This is painfully obvious to anyone who pays even the slightest attention to her words and actions, and Maria knows she isn’t fooling any of her many, many rivals. She’s never been one for deception anyway, she admits, preferring to leave Geordo and Mary to intellectually spar with their double meanings and veiled threats.
For a brief moment, she had even hoped that her honesty would have served her well — after all, how could one misconstrue her openly proclaimed desire to spend the rest of her days in Catarina Claes’s bright company? Surely she couldn’t have made her meaning plainer?
Of course, she’s come to realize, after repeated confrontations with Catarina’s (endearing) obliviousness, that even shouting her affections from the rooftops might prove insufficient to convince Catarina of the nature and strength of her attachment. Maria doesn’t quite understand why her dearest friend seems so incapable of even entertaining the possibility of being wanted, but her firm belief in her own lack of appeal baffles and saddens her in equal measure.
“Maria! Oh, I thought I’d missed you,” she hears from down the hallway, turning just in time to see the very girl that seems to dominate her thoughts quickly walking up to meet her, looking like she’s only barely managing to restrain herself from running.
“Lady Catarina, good afternoon,” she answers when Catarina reaches her side, an involuntary smile already on her lips. “Is there something you need?”
Catarina grins, cheeks tinted with the faintest blush (from hurrying over, Maria assumes). “Not really. I just wanted to ask if you’d like to study with me? It’s totally fine if you’re busy though!”
“Not at all! Should we go to the Student Council’s room? I left some biscuits there for you.”
“Alright, you’re the best!” Catarina says, linking her arm with Maria’s and promptly dragging her away towards their destination, chattering animatedly all the while.
As they walk, Maria lets herself look at her beloved from the corner of her eye. Catarina has always been beautiful, with her piercing blue eyes that might have looked threatening, were they not paired at all times with a wide, blinding smile, and though Maria is fairly sure such an open expression is considered improper for the crown prince’s fiancé, she can’t help but be glad for Catarina’s lack of interest in appearing tame or reserved in any way; the world would certainly be a frightfully desolate place without the ever-present joy shining in her gaze.
Catarina pokes her head into the Student Council’s room. “Prince Geordo? Excuse us,” she calls out, throwing the door open with far more gusto than strictly necessary, without bothering to wait for an invitation.
“Lady Catarina,” Geordo replies, perfectly-maintained posture somehow becoming even more impeccable as he smiles up at her from his seat at the desk.
“Good afternoon as well, Prince Geordo,” Maria chimes in, privately enjoying the way he wilts, almost imperceptibly, at the sight of her — she might not be the most belligerent of Catarina’s pursuers, but she’s by no means a saint, and Geordo, in the quality of Catarina’s fiancé, evokes more animosity from her than her other rivals do.
Geordo’s polite tone doesn’t at all betray the disappointment she knows he’s feeling when he nods his head at her and says, “Hello, Miss Maria.”
Catarina drops her books on the long, sturdy table at the center of the room. “We’ll study here for a while, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t. You know you’re always welcome here.”
“Yes, I’m really lucky to have friends in high places,” she laughs, sitting down.
“Lady Catarina, I feel like you’re forgetting you’re the daughter of a Duke…”
“And,” Geordo adds, a smug glint in his eyes as he looks at Maria, “my fiancé.”
“But that’s hardly relevant, Prince Geordo! You know I won’t hold you to it when you find someone you like.”
Geordo sighs in defeat. “So you’ve said.”
Maria sits down as well, trying to conceal her amusement and, unfortunately, her sympathy too. To her credit, Catarina’s lack of awareness seems to be remarkably egalitarian: any hints or outright confessions go completely over her head, regardless of who utters them.
“Well” —Catarina claps her hands— “shall we begin?”
As the hours slip by, Maria finds herself more and more incapable of taking her eyes off Catarina’s focused expression, so adorable with its slight pout and furrowed brows. When the girl groans and buries her face in her arms, she startles, frantically trying to school her features into something less besotted.
“Maria, I’ve tried three different times, but I can’t seem to get this exercise right,” Catarina whines, raising her head to look imploringly at her. “Please help me?”
“What’s giving you trouble, Lady Catarina?”
“This step right here. I think I’m supposed to multiply these two numbers together, but no matter what I do, the value I’m left with is never the one I’m intended to reach!”
“Yes, that’s the correct approach, I don’t see why— Hold on. I think you forgot to account for the light-to-fire energy ratio. Here, you see? You didn’t convert one into the other.”
Catarina smacks her forehead lightly. “Of course! I can’t seem to remember to do that,” she says, wrinkling her nose in a way that gives Maria heart palpitations.
She smiles back and pats Catarina’s hand gently, turning to her own notes once more with a reluctance quite unlike her. She’s a bad influence on me, she thinks, nearly laughing at how incorrect the statement is. Catarina changed her, yes, but irrevocably for the better.
A few minutes later, the pendulum clock begins to chime the hour, and Geordo breaks the momentary quiet that had befallen the room.
“Oh dear,” he says. “Is it six already? I must leave you for a moment — there is a professor with whom I must talk.”
He stands up from his chair in a single fluid motion, and steps out of the room with measured swiftness, but not before throwing Maria a warning glance that she resists the urge to frown at. So bothersome, that one, with his easy smile and easier passive-aggressiveness.
“Being the president of the Student Council sure seems tough,” Catarina comments, completely unaware of the tension now permeating the air. Maria hadn’t planned on doing anything, truly, but the look Geordo gave her nevertheless makes her feel as if she’s transgressing in some way, even if Catarina’s cheery disposition remains unchanged.
The light filtering through the windows haloes her in a fiery orange, and she’s never looked as untouchable as she does now, with the sharp eyes and soft smile that Maria impossibly, inadvisably, whole-heartedly loves. Despite her attempts to distract herself, to ignore the tidal wave of affection threatening to pull her under, she still finds herself unable to look away from her friend’s glowing presence.
“So, do you like anyone, Maria?” she now asks, falling back on the same conversation they’ve had too many times, and Maria decides, as she always does, to try to make her feelings heard.
“As I’ve told you, Lady Catarina, I adore you.”
Catarina blushes, yet huffs in exasperation. “Thank you, but that’s not what I mean.” She taps her foot on the floor. “In the romantic sense, specifically. Is there anyone you’re interested in?”
Maria doesn’t sigh or hit her head on the table, but it’s a near thing. “Lady Catarina, I understand what you meant, and I can confidently tell you it’s you. You’re the one I cannot bear to be parted from.”
This time, her confession is met with no interference, no distractions, and she can hear it sink in through Catarina’s soft gasp. The triumph she feels is short-lived, however, as the silence that follows her words grows, filling the room with its deadly still.
She rallies as best she can. “I don’t mean to pressure you to accept my feelings, but please, don’t throw me to the wayside because of them.”
“I would never!” Catarina replies, and why does she sound hurt? “You are my treasured friend; I wouldn’t abandon you even if I didn’t feel anything in return!”
‘Even if I didn’t feel’…?
Her hope is pointless, there is no universe in which Catarina would settle for someone like her, but… She hasn’t been rejected yet.
“Lady Catarina?” she prompts.
“Maria?” she gets in reply.
“You haven’t given me an answer yet,” she softly explains.
If before Catarina had been blushing, now she looks like she’s caught a fever, patchy redness spreading to her neck and even her ears as she stammers out sentences Maria has no hope of following, gaze frantic as it flies from place to place.
“But I’m the villainess, this isn’t supposed to happen; maybe it’s a secret ending? No, A-chan would have told me, so why?”
“Lady Catarina?” she repeats, concern creeping up her spine.
“Are you sure?” Catarina asks, stopping her nervous spiral and facing her once again.
“Completely,” she nods, voice as serious as she can make it.
Catarina sounds breathless as she says, “Great! That’s… really, really great.”
“I don’t understand, Lady Catarina, is that a yes?”
“Yes! Yes, it’s a yes! I just… didn’t know this was an option.” Catarina mutters, eyes falling to her lap as she toys with her skirt.
Maria tries to fight the euphoria threatening to derail her thoughts completely — she needs to be sure. “You’re not saying that to spare my feelings?”
“What? No!” Catarina laughs, sounding as frazzled as Maria feels. “I’ve been thinking about how I’d propose to you in a heartbeat if I were a man for upwards of a year now!”
“Really.” Catarina’s tone turns apologetic. “I hadn’t considered that I didn’t have to be one until now.”
Maria laughs as well, finally letting her glee overtake her. “Marriage might be too sudden, but I’d be overjoyed if I could date you.”
“That,” Catarina says, leaning in, “sounds like a stupendous idea.”
They do try to focus on their studying, afterwards, though neither can quite manage to do so for more than five minutes at a time, inevitably getting distracted by the sheer novelty and excitement of their situation.
After one too many failed attempts at reading the same paragraph, Maria gives up.
“Lady Catarina, could we adjourn this studying session for tomorrow? Somehow, I can’t seem to concentrate.”
Catarina is already closing her books.
They leave the room just as the prince returns, and though no words are spoken between them besides the usual greetings, Maria thinks her victorious smile and her and Catarina’s intertwined hands are enough to get the message across.
By Geordo’s sour expression, they are.