Fandom: Destruction Flag Otome, aka My Next Life As A Villainess - All Routes Lead To Doom!
(Currently not a category on ffnet, somehow.)
Katarina Claes, the unofficial member of the student Council, was not really participating in the meeting. Alan had everyone's attention as he elaborated on some complex issue related to the academy's funding and political backing. But Katarina's thoughts were clearly elsewhere and, from the occasional sigh, it was not a particularly happy elsewhere.
Noticing her melancholy, Maria decided to intervene. "I baked your favourite sweets today, Katarina-sama. May I serve you some?"
"Please, but not too many... enough, enough!" Katarina physically stopped Maria before she shoved too many of the delectable pastries onto her plate. "Let the others have some, too."
"Of course I have enough for everyone. But are you perhaps tiring of them..." Maria said, uncertainly. This wasn't the first time Katarina received her baking efforts with such reticence.
"Never!" Katarina announced. "I don't expect to ever not be addicted to your delicious handiwork, Maria. But I have to watch myself, now."
"Watch yourself?" the heroine asked.
"Yep. I will no longer be working the field, and there's only so much swordsmanship practice I can get in the week."
"So you finally went through with retiring the field." Mary asked. Seeing Katarina's guilty face, she added "No, don't worry! I understood it when you first told me you're considering it. It was fun while it lasted, though, wasn't it?"
Katarina smiled faintly at her oldest friend. "It was." There was that melancholic look again.
(A few days ago, in private, she'd already given Mary her heartfelt appreciation for everything she'd done to help her, for all the time they'd spent together tending to plants. Nothing more needed to be said now.)
"You're picking up the sword again?" Gerald asked, frowning. The Council business had petered out, and everyone was paying attention to Katarina.
"I need some kind of exercise. But even with that, my point is I cannot keep shovelling down as many sweets as before. I'll get fat and nobody will love me!" Katarina said dramatically, and grinned at Maria.
"We'd still love you, even if there were a larger amount of you for us to love!" Mary announced, and Sophia vigorously nodded her head in agreement.
Maria added "I don't think Katarina-sama would ever let herself go fat, but yes, I'd also keep admiring Katarina-sama if she were chubby. Still, I understand."
Gerald narrowed his eyes playfully. "I won't love a fat girl, but not to worry: once we're married, I'll make sure you have enough... exercise, so that that won't be a problem."
If looks could kill, the others would now be guilty of murder of a prince. Gerald smirked.
Katarina just sighed, and muttered something about going fat now to get Gerald off her case.
This earned her confused looks from everyone; it was not an in-character remark.
"Would you like my notes from class now, Katarina-sama?" Maria asked.
"Ah, about that..."
Walking to her room at the end of the day, Maria reflected.
In all her life she had experienced several distinct forms of pain, all related to her Light Magic.
Abandonment and confusion, when her father ran away from his family, unable to deal with the suspicion that her mother had cheated on him, that Maria had inherited magic from some noble. Distance, when her mother became colder in turn. Exclusion, when children at school wouldn't be friends with her, wouldn't try the sweets she'd baked for them. Pressure, from teachers and from the Ministry.
Her life changed with the advent of Katarina-sama, a wonderful high-born girl who befriended her - as a person, as Maria Campbell. A friend who didn't see her merely as a vehicle for rare magic, never envied her, never wanted to use her, never resented her. Maria knew that for a proven fact: Sirius had admitted he'd tried to use his mind control to turn Katarina against her, and failed. There had been literally no ill feeling towards Maria in Katarina's heart for his Dark Magic to amplify.
When Katarina came into Maria's life, it was as if the sun shone through clouds for the first time since... well, since she was a small child. There were still enemies and bullies and expectations, but it didn't matter. Maria now got to experience everyday joy, and companionship, and laughter. There was acceptance and belonging: she now had a surprisingly large circle of high status friends (not that Maria cared much about status). All fellow admirers of Katarina-sama, of course.
And there was love; one-sided, hopeless, but it was... a good pain.
But now Maria was undergoing a new misery, and she suspected a connection to Light Magic yet again. It was a slow, crawling feeling of obsolescence. Somehow, Katarina was slipping out of her grasp, of what little grasp Maria had ever had on her.
At first it was the sweets, which Maria loved making, and which until now had been such a reliable way to make Katarina childishly happy. Now Katarina ate them in cautious moderation, and her naked, boundless enthusiasm for the pastries and cookies was replaced by a more graceful appreciation.
Then there was schoolwork. Katarina had never been exactly stupid, but her attention span for anything that didn't interest her - which included academics - was always atrocious. It took great patience and a skilful approach from the excellent students in the Council to get the girl through her lessons and homework. And the chief effort came from Maria, whose notes Katarina always used, and who was Katarina's first go-to person with academic problems - rivalled perhaps only by her brother Keith, simply because he was on hand most often. Yet of late Katarina's academic neediness had been sharply decreasing. Her grades improved substantially, and she usually did her homework. She still borrowed Maria's notes, but only briefly, to compare to her own, and she only asked to discuss the most difficult parts of their lessons. Even her magic strength increased - not enough to rival Keith, the Earth Magic genius, but still unexpected this late in life.
Katarina was changing in many subtle ways, and Maria feared being less needed. It was no consolation that others must have been feeling similarly (what did Green-Thumb Mary think when Katarina first told her she was going to give up her field and give it back to the gardeners?).
And all these changes started after Sirius' attack on Katarina. Once Katarina had been awoken, Maria offered to run her Light Magic healing through her friend's head, in hope of curing her of any after-effects of Sirus' Dark Magic.
A part of Maria was starting to believe this had been hubris. Everything that was good in her life until now she'd earned by being herself, the honest, hardworking Maria Campbell, not by borrowing from her powers. Perhaps she shouldn't have turned to her powers to make herself even more useful to Katarina. For had she truly worried about Katarina, or just wanted her gratitude and approval? How good a person was Maria, truly, when she couldn't simply be happy about her dear person becoming more independent? Would someone like Sirius be able to latch onto some evil in her heart and turn her against Katarina, if she wasn't protected by Light Magic?
A more sane voice within Maria said on no uncertain terms that this budding self-hatred, or at least self-doubt, was foolish. She was happy and relieved about Katarina's new strengths. And of course she'd honestly worried about her, and if she had suspected her Light Magic might benefit the girl she loved, she should have used it. Besides, without the magic she wouldn't have been invited to this school and might never have met Katarina. If Katarina was changing, Maria just needed to adapt.
But her father surely had his own voice of reason, and her mother as well, and yet they ended up succumbing to their doubts. Well, her mother was saved now - partly thanks to Katarina's influence. But who would save Maria from herself, now that Katarina was slowly moving away?
She shook her head of such thoughts. In her absent-mindedness her legs had carried her in front of her dorm room. She opened the door, stepped inside, and closed the door behind her. And now she would be alone, until morning.
Some time later, as Maria was preparing for bed, she heard soft knocking on her door.
The girl froze. She'd never had visitors at such late hours. She had her own dorm room, and that meant if any of the vicious girls that hated her for being a commoner gifted with a rare magic were to come around, she'd be alone with them...
The knocking repeated.
"Who is it?" Maria asked.
A voice mumbled something so softly that Maria couldn't make out the words through the door. But she thought she might have recognized the voice.
She finished putting on her pajamas, and took a deep breath. Upon opening the door Maria was relieved to find Katarina standing outside, in what looked like male clothing. She looked calm but on her toes.
"Hello, Maria", she said softly, and smiled.
Maria's heart beat stronger at hearing the usually bold and unreserved Katarina speak so gently to her. She returned a soft, slightly vulnerable smile that, as she knew from experience, affected Katarina the most. 'Persevere, Maria', she told herself. Even though it was hopeless.
"Good evening, Katarina-sama. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"
There was an almost imperceptible pause before Katarina answered. "Should I answer that carefully? Does whether or not you let me in depend on how good my reply is?"
"Ah... no, please come in", Maria said, suddenly confused, and stepped aside for her friend to enter. "Is everything all right?"
"Hm..." Katarina tapped her chin, then turned to look Maria straight in the eyes. Then she nodded, as if confirming something. "Everything is very much all right."
Maria had long known better than to question Katarina when she was being weird. All the same, she found herself blushing under Katarina's scrutiny, and not sure what to say.
Katarina added, "Just so you know, nobody knows I'm here, unless I messed up more than is habitual even for me. That's why I'm wearing this, you see."
Maria understood and at the same time didn't understand. Of course if Katarina wanted to sneak around, she wouldn't wear the usual wide dress, but why bother? "Well, if nobody knows you're about at night, I'm going to walk you to your room later."
"Are you worried I'll get attacked again? Or that I'll do something incautious like, say, visit Gerald at night in my foolish innocence?"
Maria stared. Did Katarina finally catch on to how much everyone had been worried about her obliviousness to Gerald's intentions?
"What about Anne?"
Katarina's maid was protective and sharp-minded, and would notice her charge sneaking off.
"Anne's vulnerable to the scent of jasmine. I had prepared. She didn't wake up."
Maria's eyes were like saucers.
"You look surprised", Katarina said, smiling. "This reminds me of something."
"What is it that this reminds you of?" Maria asked. This wasn't like the old Katarina. Not for the first time of late, Maria wondered at the sharpness of Katarina's eyes, the mental alertness they betrayed.
"It reminds me of that time when the girls who didn't like me - the same ones who didn't like you - ganged up on me to accuse me of bullying you. I remember how all my dear friends defended me."
"Of course we defended you! You'd never done a thing to me!" Maria exlaimed. "You do... remember, that it was all a setup based on dark magic?"
Maria was used to Katarina being capable of the most bizarre feats of forgetting.
"Yes, yes. But..." Katarina took a pace, then another, circling Maria slowly, giving her sly looks. "What was that thing that you were all saying, while defending me? That Katarina is too, ah, what was the word? Too dense. That she doesn't have the brains to orchestrate anything underhanded. That there is no hidden side to her, I believe that was the kindest of those remarks."
"I... never said any of those things..." Maria stammered out. "I only spoke of how you defended me."
"Yes, I remember. Very tactful of you."
A feeble voice at the back of Maria's mind wanted to protest. She had not been tactful - she had simply focused on what was the most important: Katarina's kindness.
But getting this protest past her throat was impossible. Not with Katarina's intense, so very intense, eyes on her.
And now..." Katarina stopped pacing right behind Maria, breathed her next words close to her ear, causing her to tremble. "Now you see the silly, harmless Katarina come to you at night, with no one the wiser. And you're all alone with this person whose limits you thought you understood. And you're thinking - how very unlike her", she said, enunciating the last four words with careful emphasis.
Maria stood immobile, then suddenly it was too much for her and she started chuckling. "Oh, Katarina-sama. That was delightful. You're really enjoyed acting in that play , didn't you? I have to admit, when you played the role of the villain on the stage, you were marvellous, but I'd never thought you'd try to surprise me off-stage. I underestimated you!"
As Maria turned to present her bright smile to Katarina, the other girl tilted her head in curiosity. "You are unworried, then?"
"Of course! I believe in you too much to be fooled by this act."
"But you're blushing", Katarina observed.
Maria cast her gaze downwards. "Well..."
"And your hands are trembling", Katarina said, reaching with both hands and gently taking Maria's fingers in between her own. "I wonder if you would still be unworried if I were a man? Especially after what you said to me whenever I asked if there was someone you had feelings for."
Maria froze, remembering several such occasions. Her hopeless love confessions, which Katarina had obviously misunderstood as declarations of friendship, or perhaps as admiration for a social superior.
Katarina leaned in to whisper into Maria's ear again. "If I were a man, having come to you secretly at night like this, holding your hands like this, observing your blush like this... would you feel safe? And would you be... surprised... if this happened next?"
With that, she leaned lower. Maria felt a hand moving her hair aside, and a careful kiss being planted on her neck. At the same time another hand snuck behind her waist.
"You once said the person at whose side you wanted to be was me", Katarina said, drawing the trembling Maria closer, then pressed her lips to her neck again. Then she let her go and stepped back, letting her other hand run through Maria's hair on the way.
Maria touched her neck, staring at Katarina open-mouthed, more red in the face than Katarina thought her light complexion would have allowed.
"Was I wrong to think that this is what you meant?" Katarina asked softly, her cheeks flushed as well. Maria noticed that she put her hands together, as if to stop them from trembling.
"This IS what I meant!" Maria exploded, then closed her eyes in embarrassment at her own outburst, even as Katarina breathed a small sigh of relief. "This is what I meant. I just never thought you'd understand! And now... you're talking and acting in a way I don't recognize. Like the Katarina I knew... like she was..."
"She wasn't a deception, though it's fun to be underestimated now", Katarina said. "May we sit down?"
Maria nodded, wiped a tear. "O-of course. Pardon me."
She let her friend to the bed in her relatively small room. They sat down, and Katarina took Maria's hand in both of hers. If Katarina's hands had been trembling before, they weren't now.
"Maria, the Katarina you knew was me, but a version limited by... Uh, how do I say this. You do know how I became engaged to Gerald?"
"I've heard the story. You fell and hit your head and..."
"And then I spent entire days in a fever. I'm still not sure if it's because of the blow, or the fever", or the return of the memories of her past life, but she wasn't going to say that, "but after that I was quite different from what I had been like before, from my devious, entitled, malicious child self. I wonder if Keith said as much."
"No, he only spoke of how Prince Gerald took responsibility for injuring your beauty, because the scar would have affected your marital prospects. Of course you don't have any scar, but he keeps saying it."
"Maybe he didn't know. Keith, I mean; he was adopted into my family later on. But yes, I think it was the head trauma changed me. Some of it was for the better, but my poor impulse control, my memory problems, my nonexistent attention span... that was damage."
"I think it healed when you ran your Light Magic through me. In fact I have no doubt."
Maria put her free hand to her mouth, suddenly teary-eyed. So it wasn't a bad thing that she'd used her magic on Katarina-sama!
"Maria?" Katarina was suddenly concerned, reaching to touch the moisure on the other girl's face.
"I'm happy... I'm happy I was able to help Katarina-sama", Maria said. Later she'd explain it properly. Another time.
"Oh, but you had done plenty for me already!", Katarina said. "I have been truly blessed to have a friend like you. But this time it was a lucky break indeed. I'm glad not to live the rest of my life as a moron."
"You were never a moron!" Maria objected. "You were just... easily distracted."
"I won't argue. I'm glad all the same."
Maria sighed. "I should have done that much earlier. I didn't know. I'm sorry!"
Katarina lifted Maria's hand and kissed it. "My dear Maria, nobody else figured it out, and there are people who know what Light Magic can do. If even that genius Gerald didn't... oooh."
Katarina and Maria narrowed their eyes at the same time. Maria said "Oh. He might have figured it out."
"Bastard", Katarina said. Maria scowled darkly, wiping a tear, but Katarina shook her head. "Or maybe he didn't know. I'll find out, don't you worry. But never mind him, for now. I'm going to annul the engagement anyway", she said, and squeezed Maria's hand.
"Now that I'm thinking more clearly, and I can imagine myself living with another person - I realized that I'm just not into men. At all. The thought of going to bed with one... ugh. And Gerald is possessive, and would probably lock me in his castle or something, and then I wouldn't get to be around my other friends and my dear Maria, and that wouldn't do at all, so..."
Maria interrupted Katarina, boldly touching her finger to the other girl's lips. "Breathe, Katarina-sama." Some things hadn't changed.
"Right. Sorry. Anyway, since Keith can carry on the family name, if not blood... it's shame this world has no advanced medicine, I wouldn't mind giving up some eggs for freezing and reuse, but... Ah, here I go again, never mind that."
Maria had no idea what Katarina just said, so she focused on the earlier parts.
"Will Keith-sama be able to do that, though? Do you realize whom he has feelings for?"
"Me, right?" Katarina said. "I still can't believe it - is there anyone on the Council who isn't crushing on me?"
"No. There isn't." Maria smiled sadly.
"Well, Keith at least is into women, and that's half the problem solved compared to my situation. So, cruel though it is, I have to leave the family name to him. I'm going to get good final grades and get a job at the Ministry. And I'm going to have female lovers. Which brings me to why I'm here."
Katarina leaned to get Maria to look her in the eyes. Then she gave her her best smile.
"Would you be my first and foremost lover, Maria?"
Here, in the dim light of the one candle on the desk, with no one knowing of Katarina's nightly visit, with Katarina's hand on hers, with Maria still remembering Katarina's lips on her neck - the impact of that smile on her heart was devastating. She had to force herself to breathe. Then she had to force herself to restart her thinking processes. Katarina had said something important.
"Uh, Katarina-sama, did you say... lovers? As in multiple ones?"
"You, Mary, Sophia, if you all agree to it. You are all so very dear to me, and I am already heartbroken myself at how I'll have to break the hearts of the guys. I also don't mind if you marry a man, for the sake of having children or your place in society, though I won't be doing that myself. Actually, I expect the Ministry will put great pressure on you to marry."
"To pass on my Light Magic", Maria said, and Katarina nodded.
Maria asked "Do you also think I should?"
Seeing her face, Katarina hated herself for what that did to the mood. But she wasn't here to create mood, for the sake of one night. She was here to create a future. That required both Maria and her to make adult decisions.
"You should do what you think best - for you. It's your life, and I want you happy and your position in life assured. Though if anyone can achieve a good position without a husband or family name, it's you. All the same... I don't enjoy the idea of sharing you with a man, even if it ends up just a contract of convenience, but I'll support you with all my heart whatever you choose. And I'm sure your children will be wonderful and Aunt Katarina will love them too."
Maria smiled bashfully. "If I may be so bold, you're still all over the place, Katarina-sama. You're here to seduce me to be your lover, but you're discussing my future children with another man."
"Maybe I haven't healed completely", Katarina allowed with humor. "Though the truth is that... Maria, you've never had a lover, right? Never been kissed?"
"No, Katarina-sama, never."
"I just didn't want to take anything from you until you knew my full intentions. I didn't want to deceive you and then spring Mary and Sophia on you as a surprise. You have the right to refuse, if you can't accept sharing me..." Katarina's eyes opened in a sudden fear, her previous resolve crumbling, and she said, "In fact, I'll still want to be with you. Please, even if you demand I forget them... I don't want to, but for you I'll..."
A short, desperate laugh escaped Maria while she squeezed Katarina's hand. "Refuse you? Katarina-sama... I accept. And if that's what you want, I'll share you, and you may take from me as you wish. I haven't decided yet if I'll ever marry - it wasn't in my plans at all, but if you say it makes sense to consider it, I will - but aside from that... I'm yours."
Maria spoke those last words through tears, and she dropped her gaze. Before she did that, she glimpsed that Katarina's eyes were watery as well.
Katarina unashamedly wiped her eyes with a sleeve. "I'm so happy, Maria. But we have to make one correction here."
Katarina reached with her free hand to gently lift Maria's chin, making her look at her again. "Please call me by just by my name. Without the -sama."
"Please?" the girl asked, looking into her eyes.
"I liked that", Katarina said softly. "Say it again, please, Maria."
"Katarina..." Maria breathed, and closed her eyes instinctively. Katarina's face was very close now.
"Maria", Katarina whispered. Then her lips touched Maria's, and didn't let go.
They no longer spoke of men that night.