She had been the one to suggest it in the first place and with such confidence nonetheless, yet, Mary could not shake that feeling off.
No, that feeling would not leave her alone.
At first, she had been so sure it was a remaining of the thrill she had felt from her gambling match with Yumeko, and though it was almost as intense, she knew deep down it was not that.
Something was off. Usually, she would have asked her masked partner and now friend about it, but for the first time in weeks, she was completely alone. No one was there to follow her to her next class, to scare her when she was leaving the bathroom or to analize her every move.
In fact, not so long ago, she would have considered that a blessing. But not anymore... She could not tell exactly when it started but she had gotten used to that presence by her side, to her. Somewhere along the way, this 'forced partnership' had become genuine. Mary and Ririka really cared for each other.
Of course, it was not the first time that the girl cared for someone, she cared for her parents, and her friends, Yumeko, Itsuki, Tsuzura, Yukimi and even (although she would rather die than admitting it out loud) Ryota.
So why was it so different this time ? Why was her heart beating so fast and her guts aching like that ? Maybe one of the Yobami sisters had played a last trick against her in a desperate attempt to win more votes ?
She had never been poisoned before, so she would not know. But this strange feeling made it difficult for her to breathe, she was hot as well and her stomach was hurting... It had to be poison.
It had to be it.
... Right ?
Some kind of poison that would somehow only activate when she was thinking of a certain someone she was currently missing more than she cared to admit, even though she had only been gone for a few hours...
Sadly, Mary was smart, she was logical and she knew what she was feeling was not poison, although it might as well have been...
Yes, maybe, just maybe, Mary was worried about Ririka, but mostly because she had left her with their shared 250 votes... Maybe Kirari was a fierce opponent, but Ririka was too, and Mary knew it would be an even greater challenge to her, the girl who wore a mask everyday and stayed in the shadow of her twin sister despite her incredible gambling skills.
She had no doubts in her partner's ability. In fact, she could not wait for her to beat the current president, the girl who had apparently never tasted defeat before. Not yet at least.
As she arrived in front of Kirari's office, Mary had to face it. She knew she was not simply worrying for a 'friend', in fact, she had a good enough taste of what worrying for a friend felt like after hanging out with that reckless idiot who risked her life every time she could for some stupid gambles...
Falling for a Momobami ? Really ? And the president's twin of all people ? What was wrong with her ?!
She had yet to decide what to do now... Why was she even here ? She knew the president's scary secretary could arrive at any moment to tase her, or worse, for lurking around Kirari's office without any apparent reason, protecting the office and the person inside like a lioness protecting her favorite toy... Or in that case the favorite toy protecting the lioness. But it did not matter now, it was too late to think of that and no one was in the hallway anyway.
What was her plan now ? Barge in and challenge Kirari herself ? As much as she wanted to be the one responsible for her downfall, she knew she could not. This battle was Ririka's, and Ririka's only.
It was absurd really...
Ririka could handle this... She was sure of it.
" Mary is always angry about something... ", a shy voice she recognized all too well interrupted her train of thought.
Why was she talking about her ?
More than worry, curiosity had now taken over, so the blonde girl decided to eavesdrop on what was being said inside of the room. Luckily, the sound was faint but still high enough for her to hear.
" … And she's much more vulgar and ill-mannered than I thought at first. She's clumsy, she's violent... And she flies into rages. ", Mary was very self aware of all of that, but hey !
To say she had originally come here out of worry for the girl... Even though Ririka was clearly not finished with her speech, Mary could not stop all of her past insecurities rushing right back at her. She was not angry, like she would usually be in that kind of situation, what she felt was closer to disappointment with a pang of sadness.
Had it all been a lie from the beginning ? Was she being played by yet another Momobami ?
No, it could not be... Ririka had already proven her loyalty and her friendship to her, and for some reason, as naive as it may seem, Mary trusted her. Still , the mere thought that she might have misread the situation entirely made her want to throw up.
" That and... ", there was more ?!
" She gives me strength. Thanks to Mary I've learned about purpose. I've learned about friendship. I've learned about will. Thanks to Mary, I have become myself... So... Kirari, I want you to gamble with me. "
Mary could not stop the violent blush invading her cheeks. All the worries she had felt seconds ago had now vanished.
People praising her was not something new to her, but this time it hit different.
She had noticed changes in the girl's behavior, of course, but she was not expecting to be the cause of that change. This declaration to Kirari alone was proof that she had been right to trust the girl. She had made the right choice. It was a gamble she had won.
Ririka was about to exit the building and head home to mentally prepare for her next game, probably the most important one she had ever played, when she saw a familiar blonde girl waiting for her at the entrance.
" Mary ? What are you still doing here ? ", she said as she reached her friend, not that she was not happy to see her, but she had gotten used to the girl almost running from her after school hours. Not so much anymore, though, sure they even hung out a few times after school lately but still, Mary's classes had been ended over an hour ago.
" I... I was waiting for you...to... you know, see how it went with Kirari ? "
Saotome Mary... Had been waiting for her ? To check on her ?
" Oh... Well, it went as well as you could expect I guess... We're gambling tomorrow. "
" I see... And that's it ? "
" Was there supposed to be something more ? ", Mary was acting strange... And was it a blush on her cheeks just now ?
" No, you're right, I guess I'm just nervous... You know this election has me on edge. "
" Me too... ", it was weird but the girl could sense that somehow, Mary was not telling her everything. They had spent enough time together for her to know when something was off, and something was definitely off this time. Still, she knew prying would not make her partner open up, so she decided against saying anything. The day had been long for the both of them, she was probably just tired. This election was draining for them, but she knew in the end it would be worth it. Nothing could stand against Saotome Mary's will.
" I should head home. Have a good evening, Mary. "
" Yeah. You too, Ririka. "
As she was walking away, Ririka reached inside her school bag to put on her mask again. She had agreed not to wear it around her partner but she was still more comfortable wearing it outside, although, thanks to Mary, she could see herself not wearing it at all someday, without it being for an impersonation of her twin but as her own person. Small steps. She was already not wearing it as much at school, which was a huge progress on its own.
" Ririka ! ", she heard the blonde girl call for her one last time from a distance, so she turned.
" You don't need anyone, you know ? You're strong enough on your own. "
Ririka froze. She knew perfectly what she was referring to...
But... how ? Did she hear her ?
Not that she was upset about it or anything, she just wished she could have had the chance to say it to her directly, when the time came. She knew honesty was key in every partnership, and friendship, so she would have told her eventually, but sharing her feelings was hard and there was so much more she wished to tell the girl.
Mary was already too far gone for her to add or ask anything more, and maybe it was a good thing. It would let Ririka the time to think on those feelings she could not truly explain yet.
Was it why she had waited ? What did it mean exactly ? And why was she even asking herself that in the first place ? Of course it meant Mary valued her as a friend. Nothing more. Yet, she could not stop her brain from imagining something more, something that somehow felt even more right than just a friendship with the girl.
The white haired girl eventually started walking again as her driver was waiting for her, however, after those last words from Mary, she decided she did not feel like wearing her mask right now, so she put it back in her bag and headed toward her car.