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there's blood in the tea

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Realization comes not in the form of a deluge, nor a storm that would wreck everything in its way.

Unlike what those romance books Katarina and Sophia are so fond of describe, Maria doesn't figure out the mechanics of her own foolish heart at once, in one decisive and dramatic moment. Intead, it drops into Maria's consciousness like march drizzle, one tiny thought falling after the other in a slow but steady pattern. Maria collects them all without quite understand what they mean, until her bucket is so full it leaks, and she gets it.

"Maria, you're an angel," Katarina declares, her cheeks littered with crumbs. "This is so good."

Maria beams beatically as she leans down to clean up Katarina's face with her handkerchief. Usually Keith is the one in charge of making his sister presentable after she makes a mess of herself, while Maria only gets to stare Keith fuss over Katarina with a bitter feeling she couldn't quite put her finger on until now.

Envy. Maria was pathetically, ridiculously jealous of anyone who got the honor to take care of Katarina Claes in any fashion. It's an odd feeling. Maria doesn't like much how jealousy looks on her. Watching others from afar and bitterly wishing to have what they have never brought her anything but sadness and regrets.

But this? This she can't find it within herself to resent.

"Ehe, sorry," Katarina laughs sheepishly against Maria's handkerchief. "Maria's cakes are so tasty I made an embarrassment of myself again!"

"Katarina-sama is never an embarrassment," Maria denies softly.

Oh, but Maria likes this. Of course she does, it's always pleasant for a cook to have her work appreciated, and no one here shows appreciation as enthusiastically as Katarina does. But Maria doesn't like it distantly, the gentle sort of satisfaction she feels when people compliments her food. Katarina's smile directed toward herself satisfies the hunger Maria didn't know she had.

She likes it viscerally, viciously, violently. She likes it like a deluge, like a storm wrecking everything on its way, not like a drizzle.

She wants to make Katarina happy so badly she aches. She wants the soft hours inside the Council Room to stretch into forever, filled with warm laughs and tender smiles. She wants to cook for Katarina, help her with homework, with her garden, with anything she could use Maria for.

She wants to be with her always.

"Haha, you should tell that to my mother!" Katarina cackles, before sobering up quickly, shuddering at the prospect of the Duchess' reaction. "Actually, don't, you would die. Even if it's you Maria, you definitely wouldn't make it alive."

Even if it's you, she says, as if Maria is anything special. Though she doesn't quite understand where Katarina's esteem for her comes from, it fills Maria's heart with giddiness, and her head with the debilitating fear to disappoint her and proves everyone who claims Maria has nothing to do here right.

Maria clenches her fist around her fork. She has to get stronger, smarter, better, if she wants to stay by Katarina Claes' side. Ah, to be the sword that would strike her beloved's enemies down and the shield who would protect her for harm, what a honor it would be. To be her hero, just like Katarina was hers again and again. "For Katarina-sama's sake, I would face any foe happily."

"Aww, Maria is the sweetest!" Katarina's eyes are filled with so many stars Maria's head spins at the sight of them.

"I think Katarina-sama is sweeter," Maria replies a bit too honestly. It's hard to contain herself from spilling out those feelings blooming in her chest. Fortunately, Katarina is many things, but emotionally insightful, she is not.

Although, Maria is starting to understand her precious person's obliviousness is more an hindrance than a blessing.

"No way, no way, this local villainess can't be sweeter than the protagonist," Katarina mumbles to herself, the way she often does without realizing she's speaking whatever strange thought is currently passing through her head out loud.

Maria frowns in displeasure. Of all the entitled and arrogant nobles in the Academy, the Claes heiress was the farthest from a villainess. Maria won't stand such slander. "Who called Katarina-sama a villainess?"

"Uh?" Katarina blinks up owlishly, and laughs at herself. "No one, no one, don't worry about it! Oh, I didn't notice it was so late! I won't take more of your time, Maria."

She makes a move to sit up. Maria grasps her hand between her own urgently. "But, Katarina-sama, weren't you saying you needed help for your arithmancy homework?"

Somewhere in the background, Kaichou makes a sound that looks like a snort. Maria doesn't bother to look up. If she does, he will only stare back innocently with a confused smile, like a lost puppy, and then Maria won't manage to stay upset with him.

Katarina fidgets under Maria's unrelating smile. "...well."

"Surely it would go faster if I help out a bit, right?"

"Well, most certainly, but I don't want to waste your ti-"

Maria cannot think of any way for her time to be better spent than with Katarina. Especially being useful to her, having the object of her affection rely on her, instead of, for example, her fiancé.

It brings her an embarrassing amount of petty satisfaction to be the one helping Katarina over Gerald Stuart.

"Katarina-sama is never a waste of my time," Maria firmly says. "Let's start, shall we?"

.

.

"Maria," Katarina wonders one day, out of the blue, as she's prone to. "Is there someone you like?"

They are standing by the roof of the Academy. The view underneath is breathtaking, though Maria cannot appreciate it to its fair worth with a shining star already stealing her attention. Under their feet, a precipice looms.

Maria looks at the abyss in the eyes, and she beams as if she's not afraid. "I adore you, Katarina-sama!"

Katarina smiles back and pats her head without having understanded a word of what Maria just said.

.

.

The invitation awaits by her desk come morning, all golden and proper, beautiful and terrifying. Maria runs her finger across the delicate flowers pattern, and immediately withdraws. The paper looks so expensive she feels bad to even touch it. Everytime she managed to convince herself she got used to the decadent opulence of the Academy, Maria gets proven wrong.

She'll always be The Commoner, may it be from her own eyes or theirs.

"What's this?" Sophia Ascart peers at the oddity. "Ehe, a love letter?"

"That's very unlikely, Ascart-sama" Maria can't help but blush at the idea. The only love letter she would be interested in would be Katarina's, and Maria highly doubts the practical noble would even think to send such a thing. "Ah, don't-"

Too late, Sophia already grabbed the letter between her daft fingers. She opens it gingerly, eye gleaming with excitement. She's very fond of love stories, isn't she? Maria overheard the two of them gushing about romance novels. If only that enthusiasm applied to her own love life.

The corners of Sophia's mouth drop abruptly as she starts reading. "Oh dear."

"W-what is it?" Maria blurts out, rightfully scared.

Sophia glances sideway, checking for eavesdroppers, before leaning toward Maria's desk. "It's. It's from Prince Gerald."

Prince Gerald. Maria can't help herself from gasping. She puts her hands over her mouth, horrified.

If it came from everyone else, surely Sophia would have teased Maria for her lovesick admirer. As it is, they both know Prince Gerald only has eyes for his fiancée and has zero interest for romance to spare for anyone else. He does, however, have plenty of interest to spare in the pursuit of crushing his rivals to the ground and evicting the concurrence.

Things are not looking good for Maria.

"He's inviting you for tea. At five, today." Sophia explains mournfully, looking very sorry for Maria. Maria is also looking very sorry for Maria. "I'm sure it will be fine!"

Maria is pretty sure it won't. The only reason his highness would bother to go out of his way to interact with the local pariah would be Katarina. This letter, as far as Maria is concerned, is nothing short of a death sentence.

"He's very nice, you know! Kinda." Sophia pats her shoulder. "It will be fine! I think!"

Maria thought so as well, in the beginning. She's not ashamed to admit she had the hint of a crush for the prince before she met Katarina. His highness was always smiling warmly, even to Maria, and he was, objectively speaking, extremely handsome. Back at the Tree Incident That Should Not Be Mentioned Ever Again, he didn't make fun of Maria or humiliated her when he caught her in such embarrassing position, though he definitely could have. It was kind. So, based on that experience, Maria naturally assumed the prince was a kind person.

That positive impression got crushed to dust when, several days after, she stumbled upon him verbally slaughtering two girls who made the mistake to comment on Katarina's muddy dress within his vicinity. It was brutal. They cried actual tears of blood, while Prince Gerald cheerfully kept going. It was then that Maria understand his true nature.

The prince with such a sweet smile was actually a demon, and Maria is certainly, definitely, without a doubt, doomed.

Well. Well. She clenches her fists, round nails crooking into tender flesh. Slowly, she relaxes. "Ascart-sama, if you would."

Sophia silently ends over the letter. Maria stares at it, at the perfectly written sentences, at the ink bleeding over white in a sign of flawless control. The person who spilled his words over this is a thousand time more powerful than Maria. He could make her disappear on a whim, and no one would blink an eye.

Except someone would. That's the point, isn't? That's why he even bothered.

"C-Campbell-san?" Sophia says, hesitantly. "Are you… alright?"

If Maria is to sit in front of the man who holds a country between his unblemished hands and look at her own death in the eyes, then she won't go down without a fight. His highness is, after all, Maria's rival in love. Morevorver, Gerald wouldn't do anything that might result in Katarina's unhappiness, and Maria is reasonably confident Katarina would be sad if Maria were to disappear under mysterious circumstances.

She smiles gently at the other girl. "Of course! I'm sure it will fun!"

.
.

As precise as clockwork, Nicol Ascart appears by the door the second the class ends. It's obvious he's doing his best to remain as discreet as possible, but some natural phenomenons cannot be stopped so easily. Nicol Ascart's devastating beauty is one of those. Even with his safety precautions, his Dark, Tall And Handsome aura is enough to accidentally send three girls and two boys to the infirmary, babbling incoherently about faces too pretty to be human.

"Nii-sama," Sophia greets him cheerfully, clearly used to the wreck his brother keeps on unleashing due to his mere existence.

Nicol nods at her, the hint of a smile tucked by the corners of his lips. Even Maria's heart misses a beat at the sight. "Ascart-sama," she says in a desperate attempt to collect herself.

"Sophia, Campbell-san, good afternoon," he says, his tone flawlessly monocorde. It still manages to sound like the voice of angels. Nicol Ascart truly is something else. Should he decide to his aura for nefarious purposes, they would all be done for.

Maria peeks longingly through the window at the inviting lawn outside, shining green and tender under the sunlight. She could be going there right now, to sit under a tree with biscuits and books. "It really is, isn't?"

Nicol Ascart doesn't respond to her small talk, having exhausted his quota of words for the day. Maria doesn't mind. She likes people who weight every word they speak carefully before releasing them. In any case, Sophia is only too happy to fill the void where her brother's voice should be, which considerably lessens the level of awkwardness.

That way, with Sophia cheerfully chattering and her brother making humming sounds of approval every once in a while, Maria could almost forget the weight of whispers following them around. Almost.

It's not like she isn't used to it. Ever since she manifested her powers, rumors have restlessly cling to her steps like shadows, stares crawling over her like ants wherever she went, the itch of gossip under skin always. Back to her village or at the Academy, it doesn't make much of a difference. She had hoped, foolishly perhaps, that here she wouldn't be the outsider anymore.

That hope didn't last long. How they like to speak, those spoilt young masters of the elite. How they like to talk, and glare, spy and judge, thirsty for secrets like sharks for blood. Just like the commoners they so despise.

Maria is an expert at ignoring it. It's so simple to pretend to be the airhead they believe her to be, as easy as breathing, as easy as healing. She has been doing so since she was six. To her surprise, the Ascart siblings seem very acquainted with the woes of public opinion. They know of the Whispers too, and how the Whispers know of them in return.

Beast, they snarl. Curse. Shame.

Beauty, they purr. Perfection. Desire.

Perhaps Nicol Ascart carries an heavier burden than Maria and Sophia. At least the Whispers only despise them. They don't stare at them as if they want to eat them alive. Maria would be as quiet as possible in his shoes. Talking is a call of attention, and Nicol clearly has too many of that already.

"It was a pleasure walking with you, Ascart Sophia-sama, Ascart Nicol-sama" Maria bows once they reach the dormitory.

"Please call me Sophia, and Nii-sama too!" Sophia grabs her hand between her own. Her palm is soft to the touch, fingers nimble and skin tender. Maria almost feels self-conscious of the calluses carved on her pads.

"Should I call Ascart-sama Sophia?" Maria can't help but giggle. "I don't mind, but it might a bit confusing."

Nicol smiles. Maria's breathe coagulates in her throat. So this is what Katarina-sama meant she wailed Nicol Ascart's smile was a weapon of mass destruction.

"Ah, Campbell-san, you knew what I meant." Sophia pouts. "Nii-sama, don't make fun of me!"

Nicol shakes his head, biting back his smile. It does nothing to distract from his sheer power of attraction. Are those actual sparkles? "I'm not."

"You were though," Sophia says petulantly. She doesn't look very offended, from Maria's perspective.

"My bad, Sophia-sama," Maria tilts her head to the side. "If you would excuse me, I must abandon you. I wish you a pleasant afternoon."

The siblings look at each other in the silent way those have known each other their whole life do, as if they can read their respective thoughts through mere expressions. Maria can't help but feel jealous of that complicity. As an only child without any friends, she can only hope to one day reach that level of understanding with another human being.

"We could come with you," Nicol suggests.

Maria smiles brightly at the kind offer. "Ah, thank you for your concern, but that's not necessary, Nicol-sama. It will be fine. It's just an invitation for tea, what could go wrong?"

Nicol and Sophia's eyebrows twist into the very same frown. "It's Gerald-sama, what could go right?" Sophia mumbles.

"Sophia," Nicol scolds.

"Nii-sama," his sister says in the same tone, unbashful. "Good luck, Maria-san. Yell if you need help."

"Sophia."

"Nii-sama."

They're still glaring at each other when Maria walks into the lion's mouth, humming to herself the funeral march.

.
.

In accordance to his flawless upbringing, Prince Gerald Stuart is nothing short of a perfect gentleman, even to an insignificant commoner like Maria. She's pretty sure she has managed to accidentally break no less than fifty implicit rules of good conduct within the ten minutes she has spent in his highness' private parlor, yet the prince has yet to mention any of them. Impressive, considering how few of his fellow nobles can pretend to the same magnanimity.

Instead, he keeps on smiling as he sips on his tea and glances attentively at Maria. It would be so easy to fool herself into confusing this pleasantness for kindness, if Maria couldn't feel the razor-sharp calculation hiding underneath the deceitfully gentle blue of his eyes.

"Have you been enjoying your time at the Academy, Campbell-san?" Gerald asks with the exact right amount of concerned sollicitude.

"Very much!" Maria retaliates with the exact right amount of cheerful humbleness. "I'm learning a great deal, and I'm grateful for the opportunity."

Which is technically the truth. She is learning a great deal, and maybe she would learn even more if some of her teachers didn't snob her. She is grateful, though she would be even more grateful if the local fauna of spoilt brats would leave her be.

That's a lie. Maria doesn't want to be left alone. Arguably, indifference might be even worse than hatred. At least you exist when people spit at your face. Better be a monster than a ghost.

"I'm glad to hear that. I was concerned our fellow classmates might be unkind to you considering your unusual circumstances."

"Well, a few people have expressed… skepticism at my presence in the Academy," Maria admits before brightening up. "But I have also made very good friends!"

Like his fiancée. That she was completely in love with. Haha, this is fine. The prince doesn't look mad at all.

He chuckles darkly as he puts down his cup of tea on the table, with the most threatening pang porcelain has ever made. "I see how it is, Campbell-san. Let's cut down to the chase already and be honest with each other, shall we?"

"Your highness?" She asks hesitantly, straightening in her chair.

"I know what you're doing," Prince Gerald smiles his terrifying grin of his. Underneath the apparent softness of perfect lips, Maria can feel the cutting edge of bare teeth and the sting of venom.

"What I am… doing?" Maria tilts her head to the side, blinking at her host over the cup resting in her hand. "Drinking tea?"

"Oh please, do spare me and drop the ingenuine act already," Gerald says as he flicks his wrist dismissively. "I have to say, I would have never guessed our only commoner would hide such a shrewd mind under the naive facade. Congratulations, Campbell-san, you have surprised me. That happens so rarely it's an exploit by itself."

An exploit by itself, no less. He probably means that statement unironically. Maria sighs to herself. Nobles. You really gotta love them.

"... Forgive me, your highness, I'm afraid I'm not following."

"Allow me to be as plain as possible then. Katarina Claes is my fiancée. Do not forget it."

How could Maria forget it? That's the first piece of information Maria heard about Katarina Claes. Their classmates seemed very eager to gossip about her, though they would never have the nerve to do so within Katarina's inner circle of friends' earshot. The second rumor Maria heard was that Katarina was a tease leading on her future brother-in-law, her step-brother and Nicol-sama. Some even claimed fellow women weren't above her to seduce.

The third was the fact she was slightly touched in the head.

"I am aware, your highness."

"Which means she's going to be my wife soon."

"That's usually how those things go, or so I have been told," Maria obediently says. Her smile cuts into the skin of her cheeks.

"Good," Gerald goes back to smiling pleasantly to her. "I'm glad we had that talk, Campbell-san. Now that's clear, we can go back to being great friends."

Great friends indeed. And what's a little threatening between friends? He's got some nerve to accuse her of having a 'shrewd mind.'

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what Maria thinks, what Maria feels, what Maria wants. They don't belong in the same plane of existence, this prince and herself, therefore they can't play in the same court. Maria's mother warned her when she got accepted in the Academy, to the surprise of literally everyone. Maria is not one of them. Maria will never be one of them. She needs to be careful and smart, to avoid making any waves, or worse, enemies.

Maria should be content with the way out she has been given. Grateful, even.

She is not.

"Although," she muses out loud. "Betrothals can be broken, can't they? And Katarina-sama doesn't seem to take hers very seriously. If anything, she sounds convinced it won't lead to a wedding…"

Gerald's smile holds on to his lips thanks to sheer willpower. It even grows larger. Maria has no other choice but to beam just as viciously. "And here I thought you were a reasonable girl, Campbell-san. That's so unfortunate we can't be good friends. Especially considering our difference in status."

"Oh, I don't believe that's too much of an issue," Maria cheerfully peeps. So this how trains feel when they're running full speed toward a wall. "Your Highness is too noble for such petty methods. After all, Katarina-sama would never marry a villain who would abuse their power to bully others!"

Gerald chuckles good-naturedly. Maria is about ninety percent sure he's fantasizing about plucking her eyes out. "Campbell-san. You do realize this means war, right?"

She takes a sip of tea without replying. It tastes exquisite and expensive, everything Maria is not. Keeping eye contact with her rival, she swallows it whole, like the savage she must be.

Bring it on, Maria wordlessly challenges Gerald Stuart. Bring it on.

.
.

After her declaration of war, Maria expects immediate retaliation, and she's not disappointed. Let it not to be said that Gerald Stuart is the type to forget a promise. Less than twenty fours hours after the metaphorical gauntlet has been thrown, Maria stumbles upon the first battlefield.

"Eh?" She halts by the door of the student council office, arrested by the improbable sight of a literal army of pastries spread on every flat surface available. "That's… a lot of food."

"Yes, it is!" Kaichou brightens above his stack of paperwork, his face turning into the physical embodiment of a sunset, tendrils of shadows included. Maria needs a moment to process the image to its full potential. "Gerald-sama was kind enough to provide us with this… snack."

Snack. You could feed an army with this amount of sugar. A small army, admittedly, but still. A small army, or a Katarina.

"Mariaaaa!" Katarina stops mid cake to beam at her, strawberry cream on her chin, cheeks puffed like a hamster, eyes shining. It's so painfully endearing Maria could die. "Look what Gerald-sama brought us! It's so good, my mouth is melting!"

The benefactor of the day, sitting regally by his fiancée's side, waves at Maria with the smuggest smirk possible. Maria greets him back with a humble bow. "Please have a seat, Campbell-san. My treat"

"Maria, you must taste the cheesecake!" Katarina excitedly declares as Maria takes place in front of her. "It's to die for."

It does look amazing, in overkill kind of way. How many cooks did died to prepare this feast on time? Ah, how nice it must be to be so ridiculously rich. She wouldn't know.

"Oh, it's so pretty! I'll trust Katarina-sama's superior opinions and have a bite then," Maria giggles.

She throws her modesty to the window and opens her mouth. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Katarina blinks surprisingly at the bold gesture, but decides to go with the flow anyway and gather a piece of cheesecake with her fork for Maria's sake. Quick as lightning, Gerald has his own fork pressed against Maria's lips before Katarina can act.

"There you go, Campbell-san," he says sweetly.

Maria has no other choice but to smile back and swallow the offered pastry. Vanilla cream and blueberries melt under her tongue. It's, objectively speaking, one of the best things Maria has ever eaten. It tastes, subjectively speaking, like pure spite stuffed with sugar. Who would have thought Maria would one day found herself in this position, being hand-fed cake as expensive as a kidney by a handsome prince for the sole purpose of cockblocking her?

Somewhere in the background, she hears Sirius poorly disguise his laughter as a cough.

"Is your throat bothering you again, Kaichou?" Maria turns backward to frown at the redhead student. "Please take of yourself…"

"Oh, I'm fine, don't worry about me Campbell-san." Sirius beams at them.

When Maria sits back, Katarina is staring at Gerald and her with an unusually intense expression, mumbling to herself about 'heart points,' 'sadistic Prince Route,' and 'indirect kiss.' A brief moment of truce imposes itself in the middle of their war as Gerald and Maria share a glance of complicit suffering and come to the agreement that they are absolutely not going to ask.

"How was it, Campbell-san?" Gerald inquires as he cuts a piece of strawberry cake with effortless elegance.

"Delicious!" Maria admits cheerfully. "As expected of your highness." Your highness' money, she pettily adds to herself.

"Gerald-sama often brings fancy desserts to me."

"And I always will." The prince smiles softly at Katarina. His tender expression becomes threatening when he turns toward Maria. "Always."

So that's how they're going to play it. Fine. Fine.

"Truthfully, I'm ashamed to bring my own homemade cakes to Katarina-sama." Maria shakes her head, biting her bottom lip. "When compared to those delicacies…"

"NONSENSE!" Katarina slams her fist over the table. "Sure, those are excellent cakes, don't get me wrong, but nothing beats Maria's homemade goods! The texture! The flavors! The feeling of pure love and care put in them!"

This. This is why Maria cannot help herself from adoring Katarina Claes despite her best judgement. This is why Maria is willingly going to war against a prince for scraps of attention from the most oblivious person in Sorcier. This warmth, gentle and bright, so supportive her heart expands in her chest under its light.

"I'll be sure to make desserts for Katarina-sama then, for as long as she allows me to," she vows softly, too overwhelmed by her own feelings to look at anyone but the table.

"Maria, you really are the best. Ah, Gerald-sama is the best too! You two really are so nice to me, ehe!"

"It's you who's a blessing to us, Katarina." The prince looks honestly soft for once, instead of sharp and fake. She doesn't think she has ever seen him allow himself to act so vulnerable with anyone else.

Katarina Claes really is something else.

.
.

The following morning found Maria skipping toward the Academy's grounds, a basket filled with freshly baked muffins and two bottles of pressed orange juice hanging by her arm. At this hour, the Academy remains asleep still, indolent and drowsy under dawn's tentative light. Nobles, after all, didn't wake up as early as commoners did.

But Katarina did. Her vegeta- flower garden wasn't going to take care of itself, she laughed when her classmates commented on her unnatural waking habits. She was such a good, kind-hearted, wholesome person. It filled Maria's heart with so much happiness to know someone like Katarina Claes existed.

Surely enough, here Katarina was, in her adorably unfashionable gardener's outfit, enthusiastically slamming her hoe in the ground, a casually dressed blond diligently sowing seeds behind her.

No.

No way.

WhatIs. He. Doing. Here?

"Well, well, Campbell-san, you here." Prince Gerald waves at her, smugness radiating out of him by buckets under his peasant cap. "What an amusing coincidence!"

Maria remains frozen at the outskirt of the field, utterly taken aback by the presence of her mortal enemy so early in the morning. It's six am. Are princes even allowed to rise up before breakfast hour? Surely there is a law somewhere that forbids it!

"Maria!" Katarina greets her. "You're up so early!"

"Ah, that's nothing, I'm used to it," Maria smiles tightly. "I brought muffins to Katarina-sama… My apologies, I wasn't aware Gerald-sama would be present as well."

"MUFFINS! Did you heard that, Gerald-sama? Maria brought her homemade muffins!" Katarina abandons her hoe on the ground in order to grab the prince's arm and shake it with the enthusiasm the situation called for in her eyes. "Have you ever eaten them?"

"No, I cannot say I have," Gerald replies, looking very pleased by the fact Katarina initiated physical contact without any coercion on his part. Unfair. Maria wishes Katarina would shake her arm vigorously enough to tear her humerus out of her shoulder socket. "Though I have heard they're legendary."

"Oh, I wouldn't say so," Maria demurs. "They're okay but-"

"Maria. Your muffins are the best thing ever, and I will not take criticism on this," Katarina declares firmly.

Impossible. The best thing ever is called Katarina Claes. Maria won't accept criticism on that either.

"Ah, if Katarina-sama says so. Please allow me to help you? I insist," she adds before Katarina can protest. Gerald wouldn't waste an opportunity to make her go away so he can keep hogging Katarina for himself on her domestic farming time.

Huhu. Nope. Not happening on Maria's watch.

"Well," Gerald declares after plants have been watered, weeds removed and seeds lovingly nested in the ground, " those are actually really good muffins."

He sounds very offended by that. Maria can relate to the sentiment, as she is forced to repress the part of her that preens under the compliment. Who cares if the prince, who's ridiculously smart, difficult to impress, with access to the best food Sorcier has to offer, thinks her muffins are 'actually good'? Not Maria. Rivals in love don't care about each other's baking skills.

She resolves to energetically ignore the feeling from now on and pretend it never existed in the first place.

.

The thing is, when Maria gets invested, she gets invested. A year ago, after too well-dressed teachers came to her house to announce her she was allowed to enter the Academy despite her less than stellar upbringing, she went a little bit berserk in order to prepare for the exams. By that, she meant she spent twelve to fourteen hours a day studying, every day for six months. It was, in retrospect, slightly overkill.

To be fair, Maria had years to catch up to. The children of nobles honed their skills since infancy, while Maria alternated between phases in which she experimented randomly with her magic and phases in which she pretended she was a normal girl incapable of any of that weird wizardry stuff.

And now, she finds herself in a similar situation. She has stumbled in the race after everyone has been running for a while now, and is scrambling to catch up on her own.

It's fine. Really, it is. Maria is used to carry on by herself and figure out things without guidance, understaffed and overworked and just dead tired. It's fine. She's fine. Peachy, even. As long as she has tea, she can keep going.

"You're not fine at all," His highness ticks his tongue as he forcefully steals her pile of paperwork.

Maria makes pitiful offended noises at the uncalled for robbery. "Your highness-"

"Don't call me that, I told you I don't like it," he demands in a very princely manner, ironically. "Your highness is my brother."

"Alan-sama," Maria adjusts accordingly. "Could you please return my paperwork? I can't fill it if you keep hogging it to yourself…."

"Nope, can't do," Alan flatly retorts as he pats the top of the pile. He's unconsciously imitating Mary Hunt's bossy manners. It's adorable. "I'm going to fill the paperwork. While you take a nap. And that's final."

Maria smiles awkwardly. Must he make use of the observation skills she wasn't aware he had, now of all times, against her? "I… appreciate the sentiment, but that's unnecessary."

"Considering the depth of your dark circles, I'm going to take a stand and assure you that an intervention is in fact quite necessary. Right, Kaichou?"

Maria stares pleadingly at their president. Surely Sirius will take her side. He's the most efficient person Maria knows, commoners included. He's one of Her People, the kind of person who would look his bed in the eyes and say 'not tonight.'

He smiles back in the most placid way possible. "Hm, Campbell-san does look tired," Sirius muses in agreement. "Though it's not very proper to comment on a lady's appearance, Alan-sama."

"Uh." Alan blinks, as if the idea never occurred to him. Perhaps he has spent so much time with Katarina and her complete lack of reverence that he forgot the usual societal expectations. "My bad. My point still stands."

"It's a valid point," Sirius says. "Campbell-san, why not go back to your room early and rest a bit? Your work is important, but it can wait."

He's sending her away. He can't send her away. Maria has worked hard to get there. Worked hard to stay there, harder than anyone else. If she gets fired, then everyone who has been snarling that she had nothing to do in Student Council would be proven right. She refuses to let that happen.

"I feel fine!" Maria stands up abruptly. "I can help!"

Don't send me away. Don't send me away please please please.

His eyes soften. The sight of them, gleaming glently despite the darkness lurking underneath, arrests her in the middle of her panic. Maria doesn't think she has ever seen Kaichou so. Open. "It's just for tonight, Campbell-san. Go to sleep. You'll feel better in the morning."

...Perhaps a nap wouldn't hurt, then. She has to admit handling her classes, her extra-curricular studies, her duties at the Student Council and her all-out war against Gerald has been taking a toll on her. There is only so much one girl can do within the day, regrettably.

"Alright," she concedes. "But I'll be back tomorrow."

"Of course!" Sirius agrees. "What I would do without my best accountant? We would be bankrupted within the week, haha!"

"Hey, I can count just fine," Alan grumbles. "Campbell, let's go. I'll escort you back to your room."

Maria bites her bottom lip. Isn't that a bit excessive? "Alan-sama, you don't need to… I promise I will go straight to my room."

"That's not it," he says as he grabs his coat. The dark fabric twirls around his long legs in a very dramatic manner. Maria wished she could pull off the emo aesthetic as well as Alan effortlessly does. "I have matters to discuss with you."

Matters to discuss with her. Privately. The prince. That sounds absolutely terrifying.

"Are you coming or what?"

"Coming!" Maria squeals like a startled mouse and rushes behind him. "See you tomorrow Kaichou!"

"Have a nice evening, and good luck!"

"Jeez, you look at me like I'm luring you to your death or something," Alan barks a laugh, closing the door behind them. "I don't get you at all, Campbell. How come you constantly go for Gerald's throat like there is no tomorrow and you're scared of me?"

"I'm not scared of you, Alan-sama," Maria says. "And I don't… go for anyone's throat, least of all Gerald-sama's."

Except she does, doesn't she? Every time she crosses the prince's path turns into a battlefield, from the classroom to the student council office, passing through Katarina's field. Everything is an excuse to argue. There is no limit to what they can use to compete against each other to assert their dominance over Katarina's affections, while maintaining everyone else in ignorance. It's… thrilling. Maria has never been so intellectually challenged before. It's also very, very draining, physically and emotionally.

"Nah, you are, and it's pretty awesome of you," Alan nods solemnly in her direction. "It's been driving Gerald mad, so obviously I'm all for it."

"Really?" She gasps before she can hold herself back.

"Really. I have never seen him so frustrated, it's glorious. You're doing great, and normally I would be backing you up wholeheartedly. However. You can't keep going like this, Campbell."

He takes a deep breath. Maria watches his face unravels like a flower in summer. At that exact moment, she comes to the realization she actually has no idea who Alan Stuart is.

"It's easy to forget the rest of the world exists when you're chasing after Gerald, but you have to take care of yourself. Otherwise, you'll burn out. Trust me, I have been there."

It does sound like good advice, born out of personal experience. Maria would be foolish to ignore it. Gerald Stuart is, as a matter of fact, extremely exhausting.

"I will... keep that in mind. Thank you for your kindness, Alan-sama."

His face turns flaming red. It's surprisingly endearing. "D-Don't mention it."

Eh. Cute.

.

The love of magic didn't come easily to Maria. What is supposed to be a blessing has managed to ruin her life from the moment it appeared. People has ostracized her because of her magic. Her father left them because of her magic. Her mother can't quite look at her in the eyes because of magic.

No matter how benevolent it is, it's hard to love the part of yourself that make others look at you and think freak. The fact the blame lies in people's stupidity rather than magic itself doesn't make it easier, especially for a child who just wanted to belong somewhere. Anywhere.

Even now, in a world where magic is omnipresent, Maria remains a freak.

"... Maria? Are you alright?" Katarina asks after a long moment of silence "Ah, you don't have to, it's so rude of me to just barge in your room and-"

Maria shakes her head, in a vain attempt to chase away useless thoughts. "No, I can do it. It's no issue at all. Your highness, please sit down."

Gerald wordlessly sits back by the edge of her bed, Katarina by his side. There is a wound on his forearm, long and gaping, roughly the size of Maria's palm. On his flawless skin, it looks positively obscene.

Maria gestures at him to rest his arm on her lap. She leans to inspect the disaster zone. "Gardening incident?"

"How did you know?" Katarina wonders, her eyes wide.

Maria chuckles. For all her magic made her an outsider, it didn't stop people from villages around to request her services when it suited them. And Maria never said no. Who else would care for commoners' injuries if she didn't? "I have seen a lot of those before."

"I'm glad to hear you do have experience in the field, so to speak," Gerald says drily.

"If you'd rather go to the infirmary, I won't blame you." She retorts.

The prince's smile widens. "I'm curious. Do your worst, Campbell-san."

"Please don't," Katarina whimpers. "Do your best, Maria, I'm begging you. I can't believe I injured Gerald-sama. I'm definitely going to be exiled now."

Exiled? Maria frowned at Gerald, puzzled at the assumption. Who would dare to exile Katarina Claes, beloved daughter of Duke Claes and fiancée of the third prince?

"You're not going to be exiled. It was an accident, and it's not like you tore off my arm," Gerald sighs. "Campbell-san will fix my tiny scratch and no one will be the wiser."

Maria wouldn't exactly call it a scratch. For a pampered prince, Gerald has a surprisingly high tolerance to pain. Perhaps it's just his pride forbidding him to appear weak, especially in front of his fiancée and rival in love.

"What if Gerald-sama gets tetanus because of me!" Katarina keeps spiralling down into several catastrophic scenario without paying to her bethroted's reassurances.

"What's tetanus?" Maria repeats curiously.

"What if it leaves a scar!"

Gerald brightens up immediately. "You know what, nevermind. I'll go to the infirmary. No need to bother Campbell-san with such petty matters."

Maria keep his arm on her lap forcefully when he tries pull it back. She has heard the story, of course. When they were children, Katarina got injured on a playdate with Prince Gerald, which left a scar on her forehead. The prince took responsibility for the incident and asked Katarina's hand. Later, he used that excuse to remain betrothed to her.

And now he plans to use his injury to tie Katarina to him, since it worked so well the first time. Katarina would feel so bad she would let him do whatever he wants. What a scum prince.

Maria won't allow it.

Winter blossoms at the tip of her fingers. It feels like snow falling over skin, like the frost's breath biting the tender lining of a throat. Before spring comes, winter must reign. Only then can flesh and bones grow.

When Maria is done, there isn't a single trace of injury left.

"Incredible," Gerald whispers as he runs his finger where a gaping wound used to be. "It's like I was never injured at all. Light magic truly is extraordinary."

Some people certainly seem to think so. Maria wouldn't be here otherwise.

"No offense, Gerald-sama, but you got it wrong." Katarina smiles softly, an ocean of kindness wavering in her eyes. "Maria is extraordinary."

Maria chokes over the ghost of spring lingering in her ribcage still.

.

Maria has seen what other noble girls' room looks like, from afar. Alicia Dawnson, the girl rooming next to her, has such a active social life people are constantly coming in and out, so Maria often gets a peek within her cocoon of pink taffelas and delicate perfumes.

Katarina's room smells like soil, old paper and sweets. It's messy, a reflection of its owner's erratic thinking process, though Anne is too conscientious to allow the ambient chaos to get too invasive. Romance novels share space with gardening books over crowded bookshelves, potted plants of all kinds reign over every single spot within sunlight range, practical jumpers are folded near beautiful dresses.

To Maria, it feels more like a home than anywhere else at the Academy.

"It's so unfair," Mary Hunt pouts from her position over Katarina's armchair. "I wanted to dress up Katarina-sama's hair. I practiced for that!"

"I have the most experience doing Nee-san's hair, I should be the one helping out," Keith glares at her over Katarina's head.

"Exactly! You already get to touch Katarina-sama's hair all the time! Don't be so selfish, Keith!"

"Ah! I have to protect Nee-san's virtue against predators! I take my life mission very seriously."

"Virtue? Virtue? I just want to homoerotically braid Katarina's beautiful maiden locks, what's wrong with that!"

"Everything!"

"I think Anne has the most experience dressing up my hair though," Katarina muses, blissfully oblivious to the conflit she's at the center of. "Anyway, my hair is pretty boring. It would be more fun doing Sophia's hair! Ahh, her silver hair is so beautiful! Or Maria's!"

Maria runs her fingers across a loose strand of brown hair. She can't believe her luck. Keith and Mary has spent so much time bickering over who would brush Katarina's hair she ended up declaring Maria would be 'in charge of making her decent today.' Maria silently blessed Anne's absence and Mary and Keith's nosiness. "I think Katarina-sama's hair is very pretty."

"It's okay, I guess." She shrugs.

"Okay," Mary repeats. "Katarina-sama…"

"Don't bother, she won't listen anyway," Keith sighs. "Do your best, Campbell-san."

It's like there is a universe between the way people see Katarina and the way she sees herself. Maria wonders why. She hasn't been deprived of affection and support growing up, as far as Maria knows. Maybe it comes from her mother's remarks about her daughter's lack of decorum? The Duchess doesn't seem like a bad person, from what Maria has gathered, but sometimes...

Sometimes mothers fuck up their daughters without meaning to.

Maria holds on to her silver brush. "I shall endeavor to."

It feels like a dream, to have her fingers within Katarina's heavy mane like this. She has fantasized about it for so long. When Katarina played with a mischievous strand falling over the book she was reading. When she tied them up before getting to work on her field. When sunlight set the deep earth brown of her hair on fire in class.

She wonders if Gerald will do this one day. She pictures an older Katarina, eyes puffy with sleep still, sitting in her nightgown by the vanity while her husband tenderly brushes her hair, leaning down to kiss the underside of her jaw every time she yawns.

"-bell-san. Campbell-san."

Maria jolts back to reality to find Mary peering curiously at her. "Ah, yes? My apologies, I was daydreaming."

"I noticed." Mary smiles indulgently. "I was just wondering, you go to the kitchen often, right?"

"Occasionally, yes?"

"Maria makes the best cakes," Katarina pips up.

"I remember, you only tell us every day." Mary pinches Katarina's cheek. Keith leans down to swat her hand away with a frown. "Lemme live won't you?"

"No."

"Joy killer." She sticks her tongue at Keith. "Anyway, Campbell-san, have you heard about the kitchen ghost then?"

Maria blinks up at the odd question. She didn't take Mary for the type to enjoy those kind of tales. Just because someone forgot to clean up the night before and the morning crew stumbled upon unwashed dishes doesn't mean a supernatural cause is the most plausible explanation.

"G-Ghost?" Keith spurts out, eyes wide.

"Oho, are you perchance afraid of ghosts, Keith?" Mary cackles, sounding delighted to have stumbled upon her rival's weakness. "Poor poor you. Rumors have it there is a mighty ghost haunting the kitchen at night."

"I'm not scared!"

"It's alright, I'll protect you. Katarina-sama would be sad if her cute little brother were to perish tragically under mysterious circumstances."

"I don't need your protection since ghosts aren't real-"

"Aren't they?" Katarina cuts in, tone unusually serious, face closed off.

Silence has fallen over the room, suffocating the easy-going atmosphere. Maria clutches Katarina's shoulder. The moment passes, long, dark and heavy, until Katarina brightens up and laughs, chasing its nostalgic sadness away as if it never existed.

"Haha, I'm just kidding! Of course ghosts aren't real! Pff, you should see your face, hahaha!"

Wordlessly, Maria collects the memory the moment left behind after it died and carefully stashes it where she keeps all her Katarina-related memento.

.
.

Unlike most of her classmates, Maria actually enjoys the Academy at night. She likes the silence eating away the sounds of her steps, the shadows lurking in every corner, the feeling of quietness and peace only the absence of people allows. Ironically, she feels less of an intruder during the night than the day. The moon doesn't judge, unlike its brighter counterpart.

That's why sins and crimes are committed when days are sleeping still. That's why ghosts and Marias alike like to roam the darkness when no one else does.

"Not you," the kitchen's ghost growls when Maria walks on him in the middle of a midnight baking session. "Shouldn't you be sleeping already?"

"Shouldn't you be sleeping, your highness?" Maria chuckles. "Are you aware people believe you're haunting the kitchen?"

Gerald glares at her across the stove. Usually, Maria would be very intimidated by his death stare but the intensity of his expression is somewhat lessened by the flour patch clinging to his left cheek. "Of course I'm aware. I spread the rumor myself."

Of course. Maria should have known. Who else would be so cunning? "And your highness is hiding in the middle of the night to bake because…?"

"You know why, don't play dumb. It doesn't suit you. You're not going to defeat me, Campbell," he vows with more determination than the situation required. "I'll master those cursed muffins if it's the last thing I do."

Maria hums non-committedly as she inspects the poor biscuits Gerald has discarded to the side. Katarina would definitely eat those, and be happy about it. "They actually look good though?"

"Not as good as yours," Gerald snorts at his supbar attempts.

Well, she sure hopes not. Maria has been cooking for a very long time. She would be offended if their local spoilt prince, who has never touched a whisk before in his life, managed to surpass her hard-won skills so easily.

She takes a bite of a slightly overcooked muffin. "Uhu. I see. Well, I could show you how to make them-"

He scowls as if she has offered to murder his dog. "Absolutely not."

...Rivals in love aren't supposed to help each other out, after all. Maria would be suspicious in his stead as well. Knowing Gerald, he's most likely assuming she's planning to lead him in the wrong direction. Even ignoring that, he's too proud to accept advices from the person he's trying to beat.

"I thought you would say that." Maria smiles warily. "Good night then, Gerald-sama. Good luck with your muffins."

They are not friends. They are not friends. Maria needs to remember that.

.

There is no feeling that can quite compare to the particular misery of being lonely in a crowd, and Maria was so, so lonely in the beginning. She could go through entire days without anyone talking to her, as if not a single soul could see her. She passed through the corridors like a ghost, invisible, intangible, trapped in the in-between of social classes. She wallowed in her own misery, finding only comfort in studies and baking. And then she got accepted into the Student Council, and it changed everything. She met Katarina of course, but also Nicol and Sophia, Gerald and Alan. Before that, she met Kaichou.

Sirius Deek was kind to Maria at a time no one else was. He talked to her like he could understand what she was going through. he talked to her like she was a person deserving of his attention. They respected each other, appreciated each other, liked each other, or so she liked to tell herself.

That's why she never spoke a word about the tendrils of darkness following whenever he went until now, not even not him.

"That was stupid, Kaichou." She finds him nonchalantly leaning against the window of the Student Council Room. "How could you think such a ridiculous scheme would work?"

Sirius beams at her, the way he usually does when she walks in. How it would be easy to fool herself into keeping the charade for a little longer.

"You're not being very fair, Maria." The man Maria thought was her first friend in a very long time shrugs. "It would have worked if not for your goddamn light magic ruining everything."

He's not even trying to hide it. He's no even pretending to feel any remorse for his actions. He honestly, genuinely doesn't care. Who is this person? This is not the mild-mannered, gentle Kaichou Maria knows."You-"

"You should be thanking me, really. How did it feel to finally get to become your beloved Katarina's knight in shining armor?" His laughter, the bright little thing that usually flies out by the corner of his smile, sounds so cruel and twisted. "Ah, maybe she'll feel grateful enough to reward you with pity sex, wouldn't you like-"

"Shut up!" Maria cries out. "Why you would do that? Katarina never did anything to you!"

It's not fair. It's not fair. No one deserves to be publically humiliated like this, least of all Katarina Claes, the kindest soul on the planet. It filled Maria with unspeakable rage to find her beloved cornered like this, trapped among enemies, abandoned by her friends.

She just stood there, alone in the crowd, and Maria's heart ached painfully at the memory of the look she gave them when they came in. She didn't look at them like she expected them to help her. She looked at them like she waited for them to put the final nail to her coffin.

She looked at Maria and saw her doom.

"Didn't she?" His steel eyes narrow. "Yet she's been prancing around my Council like she owns the place without being invited, pretending to be so generous and benevolent? Didn't it annoy you to see her act so noble? We both know aristocrats are selfish pieces of shit, who does she think she's fooling?"

… She does know. Or so she thought. Until Katarina proved her wrong. Until they all her proved her wrong: Nicol, Sophia, Alan, Mary, Keith. Even Gerald. Especially Gerald. "You… Sirius-"

"Don't. Call. Me. That."

The darkness is suffocating. Maria can feel it weight on her ribs, curl around her neck, slip into her throat, fill in her lungs.

Sirius takes a deep breath.

"You want to know why, uh?" He drawls out, as if they both don't know he's only one smile away from snapping. "She pissed me off. That's it. And now it's time for you to sleep, Maria."

She tilts her head up. She has seen Mary pulls off that move many times before. "That won't work on me, Kaichou. I'm immune to your magic."

"Right. Well, maybe this will." He shrugs as he corners her against the wall and presses a tissue against her nose. Cloroform, she realizes as she feels her consciousness drits away under the influence of the ether-like scent. "Now be good and pass out already, won't you?"

.
.

The first day, he doesn't talk to her at all. He brings her food while Maria huddles against the wall, her chains preventing her from running away or protecting herself, like a wounded animal.

He looks. Ashamed.

The second day she feels brave enough, desperate enough to hound him with questions. "Are you really going to keep me here? Why are you even doing this? What's happening outside?"

Is anyone looking for her? Have they noticed she has disappeared at all? It's not that Maria believe no one would care, not anymore, but for all Maria knows, Sirius could have wiped out every trace of her existence from their mind.

"She was crying today. Katarina Claes. I thought you'd be happy to know that." He says, inexplicably.

"Why would I be happy she's crying?" Maria retorts.

"Hm. I don't know. I'd be happy if there was someone who cried for me, to be honest."

"...Kaichou? Kaichou, wait!"

The third day, he's laughing like a maniac, dark mist clutching his face, and Maria feels cold, cold, cold. "She figured it out! Out of everyone at school, it's the local moron who put the pieces together. I can't believe it, it's so funny, hahaha!"

Katarina. He means Katarina. And he's here, which means..."Kaichou, you didn't-"

"I just put her to sleep, don't look at me like that." Sirius shrugs. "Though I suppose she'll be dead soon enough."

On the fourth day, she can barely see him. The mist is so thick, so malicious it distorts the shape of him completely. He doesn't respond to her pleas.

She can hear him crying underneath the chokehold of his own toxic magic.

On the fifth day, Katarina sets her free.

On the fifth day, Katarina sets them both free.

.

On the eighth day, less than a hour after Maria has finally managed to escape the infirmary, an angel of death appears on her doorstep. He's smiling brightly with the lethal heat of a thousand suns, his golden hair gleaming and his sky-colored eyes twinkling. Maria can feel the anger simmering under the sweetness, as distinctly as a wrong note in the middle of a song.

"Come with me," Gerald demands, before twirling backward. He doesn't wait to check whether or not she's following. In his mind, it does without saying that she will comply to his orders despite not being given any input on the urgency of the situation.

She trots behind him. Petulantly.

Soon enough, they reach the kitchen. The servants wisely make way for the furiously grinning prince. Cook however, in the line of every Cook ever, remains unimpressed. "Your highness," she flatly says over her boiling caldron.

It's very intimidating, and Gerald has no other choice but to adapt to the hostile environment. "My apologies to disturb your work, Ma'am." He bows charmingly. "I would like to borrow a corner of your esteemed kitchen, if you don't mind."

Cook stares at him from head to toes, silently evaluating the risk of an amateur unleashed in her workplace. On one hand, he has nothing to do here and a kitchen this big is the domestic equivalent of a battlefield. On the other, he's the prince so she's not in a position to say no, and he's pretty so she doesn't really want to say no. "Well. Maria-chan knows her way around here well enough, I guess. You have one hour."

"You're too kind, Ma'am."

"What are we doing?" She wonders once they found a free space to settle, though she already knows the answer.

"Muffins." Gerald seems to have exhausted all his words on Cook. That, or he's so furious at Maria he won't even yell at her.

"Okay."

They get to work. Maria shows the steps, and he mimics her gestures with disturbing accuracy. It's. Fun. In a very tense kind of way. Soon enough, they have two sets of blueberry muffins in the oven.

"So." Gerald says.

"So." Maria parrots.

"So you could have died."

She could have died. Many times. She kept thinking about it at night. She could be dead meat right now. She could decomposing right now. She could be used a fertilizer for Katarina's field right now. "Yes."

"Oh good," he says with horrifyingly fake cheer. "I thought you might something like 'I knew what I was doing' or 'I had it under control.'"

"I mean. I spent five days chained to a wall," Maria points out casually. "Clearly, I had nothing under control."

"Which could have easily avoided, if you, I don't know, talked to someone before you ran off to confront a potential murderer."

She takes a deep breath. "In retrospect-"

"Are you kidding me," Gerald hisses, his handsome features contorted with fury. "Don't you dare 'in retrospect' me. Why didn't you tell me? If not me, someone! Anyone!"

"Because Kaichou wasn't a potential murderer at the time, and he was my friend! I am sorry that it turned out that way and that I worried everyone, but I just did what I thought was right with the information I had at hand."

And it didn't come to Maria's mind to share her troubles with her friends. She has been dealing with her issues on her lonesome for so long she… forgot she didn't have to. "I'll be more careful next time. I promise."

Gerald puts a hand over his forehead, looking very exhausted. "Because you're already planning for next time. Great."

"Not planning, but if I learnt anything from this, is that anything can happen." Maria bits her bottom lip. "You. You were really worried for me, Gerald-sama?"

"Oh no, I didn't care in the least my classmate was missing," he snarls, his tone dripping sarcasm. "Of course I was worried, what were you expecting?"

Maria doesn't know what she was expecting, but she does know she would have never imagined Gerald scolding her for being careless with her life. "Because Katarina-sama would have been sad?"

"Who are you taking me for, my tsundere brother? I do have an insight of my emotions, unlike some people," he says drily. "No, Maria, I was worried because, believe it or not, I actually like you as person, you simpleton."

This realization doesn't come gently like a drizzle. This realization hits like a deluge, like a storm, like a revelation. "Oh."

"Yes, oh. So next time you pull out something like this, I'll murder you myself." Gerald smiles pleasantly. "Do you understand?"

"I understand." She doesn't, not yet, but she's definitely going to ponder about it with the clinical focus she uses for things she desperately wants to understand, like magic theory or Katarina Claes.

"Wonderful. I'm glad we had that talk."

Maria smiles. This time, it doesn't taste like blood and steel. "So am I."

.

Katarina stares at the muffins for a very long time. Maria doesn't think she has ever seen her manage to hold herself back from devouring comestible food within her range for so long. "So. Gerald-sama made this."

"Yes!" Maria cheers.

"Under Maria's supervision, in case you're worried about poison," Gerald sighs.

Katarina blinks very slowly. Her expression looks vacant, the way it turns like when she's having a freak out session in her own head. "Right! Right, cool! So you two are baking together, that's great!"

Gerald straightens on his seat. "No. Don't start."

"I'm just saying that if you want to-"

"Don't you dare go there, Katarina."

"I'm willing to break our engagement, like, right now."

"Over my dead body."

Maria takes a sip of tea and bites into a muffin. It tastes really, really good.