There’s a loud rush of noise in Katarina’s ears.
She can’t move, frozen to the spot, her eyes wide as she witnesses the scene in front of her. A male student she hasn’t really paid attention to is kneeling at Maria’s feet, pleading to go to the graduation ball with her. Maria’s eyes are wide, but her cheeks are flushed when she meets Katarina’s eyes. Her eyes grow wider, but before she can call out to Katarina, the male student takes her hand.
Katarina’s heart is pounding unnaturally fast and it’s getting awfully hard to breathe. Her knees go weak as her head whirls, but thankfully Mary’s next to her, her arms comforting as they hold her up, and Katarina forces herself to close her eyes and look away. She wants to be anywhere but here, where there’s a line of male suitors just waiting to take Maria to the ball.
“I – “ she starts, and then pauses to take a deep breath, “I’m fine,” she continues, albeit a little shaky, and then waves them back toward their original destination. Mary looks like she doesn’t believe her, but thankfully, Sophia takes her other hand and leads them away.
She’s given a quiet moment to herself when class finally starts, and Katarina spends that time trying to get her feelings back in order.
She doesn’t quite know why her heart is beating so erratically. Her heart had never beaten like this, not in this timeline and not in her past either, and no matter how much she thinks on it, she can’t come to a reasonable explanation.
Perhaps she ate something strange? She still hasn’t gotten rid of her urge to eat things that have only touched the ground for seconds, and she had eaten one of Maria’s sweets the other day… but even with the ground, there was no way Maria’s sweets would ever make her sick, that at least she is sure about.
She sighs softly in exasperation, resting her head on her hand as she gazes unseeingly at what the teacher is writing. She’s lucky she’s the daughter of the Duke, because even distracted as she is, the teacher does not call on her.
It’s only when class ends that her musing is finally interrupted. Maria is in front of her, and she looks as beautiful as ever as she gazes with concern at Katarina.
She looks nervous, but Katarina has never known Maria to look that way and is uncomfortably reminded of what had occurred before class. She wonders if Maria had accepted the other student’s confession, and the thought makes her heart ache.
She has to look away and misses the way Maria’s face falls when she does.
Mary is there in the next second, arm as comforting as ever as she slides into the seat next to Katarina’s. “Who was that earlier?” Sophia asks Maria, coming up from behind the other girl with books in her arms.
Maria hesitates to respond, and in that pause, Katarina gains the courage to look up. Her heart pounding, she can’t stop herself from blurting, “Are you going with him?”
“No!” says Maria, a little more forcefully than they all expected, and her silver curls bounce as she shakes her head to drive the point home. Talk dies down for a bit around them due to the vehemence of Maria’s answer before starting back up again. She looks even more embarrassed than before, and usually, Katarina would be enraged at whomever made Maria look like she does now.
But for some reason, after Maria’s answer, her heart is finally beating normally, and she feels like she can breathe. She smiles widely in exuberance, and watches as Maria tentatively smiles back.
“That’s great, Maria-chan,” she says, and ignores the way Mary descends into a coughing fit by her side. She’s much more fixated on the way Maria is smiling back at her. She’s so beautiful, and that random male student definitely doesn’t deserve her. She needs someone just as outstanding as her, and Katarina didn’t even remember that student’s name. Definitely not good enough for her Maria. “He definitely wasn’t good enough for you.”
Maria’s mouth falls open a bit at her proclamation, and then she’s looking at Katarina strangely. “He isn’t? Then who is?”
Katarina hadn’t expected to be put on the spot so she flounders for a response, her mouth open as she turns to look at Mary for help.
But Maria’s confidence hasn’t seemed to run out yet, because she reaches forward, both of her hands flush against Katarina’s cheeks as she forces her to look straight at her.
This close, Katarina’s mind goes blank at the way Maria is pouting at her. There are flecks of color in Maria’s luminous eyes she hasn’t noticed before, and she can hardly spare any brain power to think up a response to Maria’s question.
“Who?” she stammers, trying to think up of a response, and Maria holds her ground for a minute more before she suddenly deflates in front of Katarina, her shoulders slumping as she looks away.
“Never mind,” she murmurs, and Katarina’s heart aches at the sight of Maria’s obvious dejection. She doesn’t even wait for Katarina to say anything and instead departs without another word, her books left on the desk as if they didn’t mean anything to her anymore.
Katarina stands to chase after her, the pain in Maria’s eyes too heavy to ever forget, but Sophia moves in front of her, worrying her bottom lip.
“You saw her,” Katarina protests, “I have to go after her!”
Sophia shakes her head, and softly puts her hand on Katarina’s. “I’ll go. I don’t think she wants to see you right now.”
She looks like she regrets saying so for a second before she’s gone, chasing after Maria and leaving Katarina with Mary.
“I don’t understand,” says Katarina, more to herself than Mary, and plops back down onto her chair without any grace. She’s much too distraught about the way Maria had run off than to care about her image.
Mary sits next to her, but she’s silent, as if she’s still searching for the right words to say.
“Maybe Prince Gerald? He is the prince and Maria only deserves the best. Or my little brother! Keith will definitely take care of her…”
Mary holds up a hand, “Maria isn’t interested in them.”
“Oh,” she says, her eyes widening. “Then – if not – is she interested in you?”
Mary stares at her for a long second, and Katarina swears she sees pity in them. “Not me,” she says. “She only has eyes for one person.”
Katarina thinks back on the game and wonders just which route Maria could possibly be on. They’re way past the game’s story now, and Maria does interact with the other capture targets, but only because of Katarina.
But possibly Sophia’s brother? She’s definitely not around him enough to know whether or not Maria is in contact with him or not.
For some reason, her heart aches at the thought and she stares down at her hands. They’re shaking.
Mary covers them with her own hand. “I can’t believe I’m going to do this,” she murmurs, quietly enough that Katarina has to strain to hear it. “Why do you care so much about who Maria is going with to the ball?”
“Why?” she echoes, “Because Maria only deserves the best, of course. She’s so sweet, and kind, and people can really take advantage of her and I just want to make sure she’s happy.”
“Really? Then you would be okay with Prince Gerald taking her? Your little brother?”
“Yes,” she says slowly, she had said so earlier. But even as she admits it, the image of Maria dancing with either of them makes her sad for some reason.
“You’re not okay with it,” says Mary. “You’re not even okay with some student you don’t know taking her.” She squeezes Katarina’s hand once before standing. “You should think on it. And figure out what you want before someone asks Maria to the ball.”
She can’t believe Mary leaves her before she can ask more questions, but Mary doesn’t give her time to protest. She puts her head down on the desk, resting on the crook of her elbow, and wonders just what Mary was getting at. She really only wanted the best for Maria…
There’s a light touch on her hand, and she wakes up slowly. There’s only the dying sunlight coming in from the open classroom windows, and it lights Maria up in a soft glow when Katarina blinks her bleary eyes open.
“I brought you some sweets,” says Maria, softly, and she holds out a pastry to her when Katarina finally sits up all the way. “You didn’t come back to your room so I figured you were still here.”
“I fell asleep,” she says, lamely, still stuck on how the sunlight frames Maria perfectly. Maria’s cheeks are pink, and she wonders why because Maria doesn’t seem out of breath. Either way, it makes her look even more adorable and Katarina knows just how perfect Maria fits the heroine role.
She sighs, tilting her head and taking a huge bite out of the pastry Maria had handed her. Sweet flavor bursts in her mouth, making her take another sigh in content. “This is delicious, Maria-chan,” she exclaims and finishes the rest in a single bite.
Maria giggles at her reaction, handing her a napkin to wipe away the rest of the crumbs on her lips. With her stomach content and her heart full, Katarina smiles at her friend. Maria stares for a second before picking up Katarina’s books into her arms. “We should head back,” she says, and Katarina follows suit as they head out of the classroom.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” says Maria, quietly, “I don’t know what came over me.”
Katarina almost stops walking, reminded again of why she had fallen asleep in the classroom, lost in thought as she was. But she continues, just as Maria does.
“I don’t need a date,” says Maria, “I wouldn’t know who to go with, anyway.”
“But you only deserve the best,” she says, again, and Maria looks away from her.
“The person I want to go with wouldn’t go with me.”
Names flash through her head at Maria’s words, and then what Mary had said earlier about how Katarina wasn’t okay with anyone taking Maria.
She almost blurts out the words right then and there, as true to her nature as ever, but she pauses as she looks at the dejected way Maria looks.
Maria likes a certain person. Katarina may not know who it is but she can certainly make her own bid against this mystery person.
“I have to go,” she says, and Maria turns to look at her with wide eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow?"
“What?” asks Maria. She looks dumbstruck, her mouth open as she stares at Katarina and Katarina feels a bit guilty for running off. But she has to make her asking Maria even grander than the male student had, so she leaves Maria standing there, still holding her books and as lost as ever.
Turns out that it’s much harder than she expected to bake cookies.
She had thought cookies would have been okay. She’s eaten cookie dough before and Maria had baked her so many cookies that she thought this would’ve been easy!
But making the dough from scratch involves so many steps that she’s a little dizzy from it. Let alone actually having to shape them all into the appropriate circles.
The ones that do come out are rock-hard and taste horrible. She can’t possibly serve these to Maria.
She’s so distraught and lost in thought that she doesn’t notice the subject of her thoughts is in front of her. She only notices when Maria picks up one of her cookies, a bewildered look on her face.
“What are you doing?” she asks and Katarina jumps.
She still hasn’t made the perfect cookie yet, she can’t possibly let Maria know.
“I’m baking,” she says, dumbly, and Maria hides a laugh behind her hand.
“I know,” she says. “Why? Don’t you have me for that?”
The way she phrases it is so adorable, enough so that Katarina flushes at it.
“I’ll bake you cookies,” says Maria, and she moves to go take measurements out of the ingredients Katarina has haphazardly strewn on the kitchen counter.
“No!” she says, forcefully, and grabs Maria’s hands. Maria looks at her, looking even more shocked than before, and Katarina swallows. “You can’t help me. I’m giving the cookies to someone.”
“Who?” asks Maria. “Prince Gerald? Mary?”
“To the person I’m asking to the ball,” she says, and she watches as Maria’s face falls in front of her.
“Oh,” says Maria, and she tries to wrench her hands out of Katarina’s hands but Katarina doesn’t let her.
She can’t bear to see Maria so hurt so she continues despite the fact that the cookies in front of her aren’t perfect by any means. “You.”
“Me?” Maria’s hands are shaking in hers. “You want me to help you ask this person?”
“I’m asking you,” she clarifies. “Maria, go with me to the ball?”
Maria is silent for all of a second before she’s bursting into tears, and Katarina has to let go of her hands so Maria can cover her face. She’s so adorable that Katarina can’t help but bring her into a hug.
“I never thought you’ll ask me,” Maria tells her through gasps of air, and Katarina’s heart aches at it.
“I know I’m not your mystery person,” she starts, and then falters because if she isn’t, why is Maria crying?
It seems like Maria comes to the same conclusion because she’s laughing now. “I’ve liked you ever since I’ve met you,” she confesses.
“Oh,” says Katarina, her heart warm, “I never knew.”
“You don’t notice much, Katarina,” says Maria, and she’s still laughing as she smiles up at Katarina despite the tears that had formed in her eyes.
“Then you’ll go with me?”
“Of course,” she said, “You never even had to worry, Katarina. I'll go with you anywhere."
She's smiling, so sweetly that Katarina's heart flutters at the sight. She wonders just how oblivious she could have been to not realize her feelings for Maria, when just looking at Maria makes her feel as everything was right in the world.
She's about to voice her thoughts when Maria turns, her mouth pensive as she stares down at the many ingredients still messily placed on the counter.
"Do you still want cookies?" she asks, and Katarina's heart swells. "Of course you do," continues Maria, giggling, and Katarina laughs with her before they settle down to a long afternoon of Maria trying to teach Katarina how to bake.