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Katarina Claes could not remember her name.

The name she had before this one.

In the life she had before this one.

She had one. She knows she did. She just can't remember it.

Not remembering your name from your previous was like having to sneeze but can't. So incredibly frustrating with no real remedy, and you just look like a ditz while you stare at the ceiling waiting for something to come.

At least Katarina learned to ditz out staring at other places than the ceiling now. It only took three times being caught and questioned.

"Who's Yuki?"

Speaking of questions.

"Huh?" Katarina looked up from her notebook. She had been writing Yuki's name on this particular page, his name scattered in and out of the lines. He was, ironically, the "prince" of her school in that life. They weren't friends, maybe having a total of three conversations with one another in the seven years of classes they had together, but she had remembered his name three nights ago. There's about twenty other names in this book too, some were other classmates, others were neighbors or store owners, but all of them mattered for her to remember.

"Oh, he's just a friend from a when I was little." She tries to casually say, closing the book before more could be asked about it.

"Really?" Mary inquires further, sliding into the chair next to her. Shifting the chair closer to Katarina, she hums a thought. "I don't recall anyone named Yuki in our childhood."

"You never met him."

"Seems so." Mary links her arm around Katarina's, resting her head on the oblivious girl's shoulder. "Would you say he is handsome?" Long, elegant eyelashes flutter as she looks up at Katarina.

The so-called villainess feels heat rising into her cheeks, but it's unknown whether it's from the pretty girl who is very close or the question that the girl asked. "Yes, I think he was handsome. He probably still is."

Mary's lower lip juts out. "What about me? Do you think I grew up nicely as well?"

Katarina laughs softly at the question. "Of course, such a beautiful girl like Mary grew up to be a beautiful woman."

"What about me, Princess?"

Both Mary and Katarina turn to the doorway. Mary scoffs at their new company while Katarina just sighs. "Gerald, how many times have I told you to stop calling me that?"

"But it suits you so well."

"My mother and Keith would argue otherwise."

Mary moved her chair closer to Katarina, still clinging to her arm, the sound of their wooden sides colliding. "She is not a Princess yet either, Prince Gerald."

"Yet," Gerald repeats back. Katarina stares as the two share pleasant smiles in the silence afterward, making note that their friendship must have grown again without her knowing. She knows that Alan teases her about being dense, but she wishes she was more perceptive at times like these.

"Katarina, are you alright?"

"What?"

"You look a little pale."

"Oh, I am fine." She smiles back at the blond. The smile doesn't come naturally, but it seems to satisfy him.

"Good, I'm glad because I was wondering if you would like to accompany me into town later today? It will only be brief, a meeting with a family friend who is passing by. But it would give you a chance to look for the watermelon seeds you've been wanting. I'll handle the expenses, obviously."

That was something she wanted to look for. She normally grows watermelon when it comes to summer break, the weather and heat making the plant thrive during this time of year.

But going to town.

That sounded like too many people with too many noises and too many stares. It sounded like too much for her today. "Thank you for the offer, but I'm going to have to decline."

"Oh? Did you have other plans?"

She did not. "Oh, well, I wouldn't want to bother you and your company."

"You are the greatest pleasure of my day Katarina."

“Hmm, seems like the prince should learn to accept the answer no,” Mary says. She’s still on Katarina’s arm, her soft hands soothing the muscles there. Katarina grabs one of the hands on her, smiling in reassurance when Mary looks at her questionably and removes it from her. She just rather not be touched right now.

Turning her focus back to the conversation at hand, she misses the heartbroken look Mary has at being pried away by Katarina herself; even Gerald looks a little alarmed by the act. "Thank you, but I think I'm just going to leave you to your business. There's no need to bring me." Katarina says firmly then remembers to smile again afterward.

"Oh well, in that case," He leans further onto the table, coming closer to Katarina and making her feel smaller. "I'll just have to go search for and purchase the seeds for you myself while I am out. Though my services will come at a price."

Of course, it does. Everything has a condition. A night with her on his arm in exchange for new tools, allowing him to stay the night at her residence in exchange for a book she's been looking for, a secret outing with him in exchange for a sword that isn't wooden and makes her hands bleed. Everything comes with a price.

Well, she doesn't feel like paying today. "Please don't trouble yourself."

"Huh?"

"I don't need the seeds. I've been thinking about giving gardening a break for the summer, so please don't trouble yourself." A glance at the clock informs her that it's appropriate timing for her to leave for her study session. She'll be early, but it gives her a reason to leave. "I'm sorry, but Maria and Sophia are waiting for me in the library. I hope you enjoy your trip into town, Gerald; I'll see you later, Mary!"

She waves bye on the way out with another smile that comes a little more naturally, but by the time she has the door closed, it naturally disappears as well.

Left in the Student Council room, Mary and Gerald, opponents by nature, stare at each other helplessly. If anyone walked in on them, they would have thought the pair had just experienced a bomb go off in front of them.

But this was bigger than a bomb.

Katarina didn't want to garden.


~~~

It had only been the one notebook at first. The one she wrote in when she originally got her memories back. She had spent nearly three nights in a row scribbling down any and all small things she could remember about Fortune Lover, but after a while, she stopped writing in it. There were only so many things she was going to remember about a game she only just started to play. There were countless other Otome games that she knows better than the back of her hand like Magical Receiver or Obtain Me! But of course, she got thrown into the world she only dipped her toes in.

There were so many other things she remembered besides Fortune Lover.

That’s when she got her second notebook. Nights when random thoughts filled her head from her previous life, she would write them down. How much popsicles cost at the convenience store. The number of her first-year classroom. A rough sketch of the layout of her town. None of it was vital to her new existence, but it was still important somehow.

The third notebook was gifted to her. She had woke up sobbing one night, and, as expected, Keith basically materialized by her side in record time. Between hics and hacks of breath, she managed to form a somewhat coherent lie about nightmares; he held her hand for the rest of the night. She couldn’t tell him that she just remembered A-chan’s name. The next night he came to the room for another sleepover, but he brought something with him. If you write down the bad thoughts then they have less power.

Her adorable little brother.

She ended up using the kind gift as a Name book. Sasaki Atsuko was the first and most prominent, taking up about five pages. Practice makes perfect. And maybe she’ll keep part of herself secure if she keeps practicing.

But that still leaves Katarina with the issue that she can’t remember her name.


~~~

"This looks wrong," Sophia says.

Mary nods, kicking some of the dirt under her foot. "It's sad."

"It will be back in the next season," Maria reassured, putting down the box she was carrying to look at the patch of dirt her friends had been admiring.

Katarina's field was gone, all vegetables uprooted and taken for the summer. Their friend had been devastated last year when the school told her she wasn't able to keep her field during their summer break. This year seemed tamer. The three of them had come to the garden's spot, thinking they would offer help in the undoing of Katarina's hard work.

Yet here they are, all fruits (or vegetables) of her labor already gone. Instead, they are helping collect all her own personal tools.

"Katarina, where would you like this?" Maria calls when the girl reappears from the tool shed with another box in hand. She walks past the group of friends and towards the Academy. Maria just sighs as she watches her walk off. "I'm getting concerned about her."

"She spaces out more lately. Even more than Katarina's standards." Sophia bends down and looks through the box at Maria's feet. "She doesn't seem like herself."

"Oh, you don't know the half of it. This morning she told Gerald and me that she might not plant anything for the summer."

"WHAT?" Maria and Sophia screech together.

"I know it was just as shocking at the time. I think something is really wrong."

"Poor Miss Katarina," Maria mumbles to herself, clutching at her chest. Sophia still crouched down to the ground, pulls a spade out of the box. It was the one that Katarina always had her use whenever she insisted on helping; it had bunny patterns on its handle, no doubt more meant for a child, but Sophia treasured it.

"Hey, guys, what are you up to?" All the girls startle.

They all turn to face the object of their enormous affection and worry. Katarina tilts her head to the side, but her lips are a thin straight line rather than the subconscious curl upwards they normally always hold. She didn't look wrong, just off.

Maria tries to smile wide enough for them both. "This is the last box, Miss Katarina."

"Oh, okay, thank you for all your help." She moves to get close enough to the box to pick it up. Mary takes a step closer to her before she makes much progress, and Sophia casually slides the box in the other direction. They both know that if they lose Katarina's attention now that their time with her would be over for the day.

"Katarina, if I may, can I ask why are you not wearing footwear?" Mary questions, more curious than reprimanding, which Katarina thanks god for.

Embarrassment wasn't something Katarina faced much, little shame ran in her blood, but she couldn't help the sudden rush of heat to her face. "Yeah. I kind of don't like wearing shoes when I'm anxious. It just feels calmer to feel the solid ground behind me. Mother discourages it." Both mothers did actually. That's when Katarina recognizes a similarity in both her lives: a disappointed mother who struggles with her. While the sentiment seems harsh, the act of discipline came out of love. Both her mothers showed that they cared in this way. She feels warmer inside now, starting in her chest and extending outwards.

"Well," Mary gives her a fond expression. "Any type of method or ritual that makes you smile like that is more than worth it."

"The weather is perfect for running around barefoot too," Maria added, making Katarina feel better about herself. "Though the grass seems to be getting dry lately."

"Well, it has been some time since it has rained," Mary says.

Katarina nods, now feeling a bit grateful to have her plants out of the ground. Tending to them in this heat wasn't something she could commit to right now. But she has to admit she misses her cucumbers and eggplants whenever she glances at the patch of dirt that was no longer her garden.

Mary sighed, probably thinking about her own poor flower garden back home. "Maybe they'll get water from the river nearby for a quick water? It'd be a shame to let such healthy grass go thirty."

Katarina was about to nod again with her sentiment, but then the sentence actually processed fully in her brain. "There's a river nearby?"

Sophia, still with a look of concern on her face, answers the question for her. "Yes, it is just West of your field. The academy doesn't technically own that piece of property, but no one uses it."

This was it.

Katarina used to go to the lake nearby her and A-chan's neighborhood with friends from her previous life almost since they all learned how to swim. They'd spend hours in that lake, from near dawn to long after the moon graced the skies.

"Let's go swimming!"

"Swimming?" Mary repeated the idea, sounding not so enthused.

Oh. Right. Public swimming wasn't very common here. Not for noble ladies, at least.

Sophia puts down her trowel. "I think it sounds like fun!"

"You do?" Katarina could kiss the girl.

"Yes, I think as long as we keep an eye open, then it would be just fine." The white-haired beauty laments. Her voice sounds wary but kind.

"I wouldn't mind going. Not if that's what Katarina wishes to do." Maria agreed.

Mary, after a moment of contemplation, nods. "Then, we are going swimming."


~~~

The river is gorgeous.

At least that's what Katarina thinks.

It's lodged right smack in the middle of the woods, taking up space in between trees. It's shallow, she can see the bottom made of mud and stone, but it's large enough to sink up to their waists. It was perfect. "Alright, let's go!"

Varying shades of red brighten the faces of the girls around her as she begins to strip out of her clothing. Recovery time also varies among them, but eventually, they all begin to undress as well.

"Oh, did it fade already, Katarina?" Maria asks, side glancing at her as she undressed.

Katarina clears her throat and wills her completion to stay the pale color it usually is. She knew exactly what the blonde was talking about.

"Yes," she runs a hand along the now unblemished hip as evidence.

"Hmm? What's faded?" Mary asks, drawing closer to Katarina. Mary has her dress disposed of and stands in her cute yellow flower patterned underwear. Katarina could just about swoon.

But the question that the beautiful gardener asked sends too much panic through her to leave room for swooning. Katarina's head turns back to Maria at an unnatural rate.

Maria, dear sweet Maria, blinks at Katarina's desperate silent plea to hide her shame. "Oh, it's nothing. I'm just talking to myself about a cut I got recently."

With a sigh of relief, Katarina already starts to plan a thank you gift for her darling Maria. Granted, she had already given the girl an "I'm sorry" present due to the incident that she had created for herself.

About a week or so ago, Maria had knocked on Katarina's door, and without a thought, in her head, Katarina said to enter. The poor heroine entered the room to find the villainess in a very similar state of undress at the time. Which would have been enough to fluster both of them, but to add some spice into this horrid blunder, Katarina had a pen to her hip and was drawing a malformed rooster.

She swore the blond to secrecy, and while she knew the girl had to have been curious, she never pried about what in the hell Katarina had been doing.

Honestly, if she could have come up with a random excuse on the spot, she would have, but there was no way she could explain that she missed the birthmark on her hip that she had affectionately named Nugget from her other life.

"So," Sophia stands arms crossed against her chest, clad in her underwear at the edge of the river. "Who's first?"

"Don't have to ask me twice!" Katarina bellows. She has a running start and jumps into the water.

The sound of the splash is the last thing she hears before she goes under, going from deafening to calm in seconds flat. The water is freezing and leaves a buzzy feeling on her skin.

Maria is under with her before she knew it. She reaches out a hand, and Katarina meets it with her own. They link fingers, and both pull. Incredibly close, they meet with nothing but water between them, and Katarina needs to remind herself of that before she accidentally starts laughing.


~~~

It's been at least two hours. The sun had disappeared without notifying them first, too lost in splashing, dunking, talking, and laughing together. Katarina feels like a teenager again.

She should have known it wasn’t going to last.

"Katarina?" The bark of a voice comes from beyond the bushes. All laughter and chatter drop faster than a hoe in a garden.

Mary swims closer to the said girl, latching onto her arm. "Katarina, who's looking for you?"

"I'm not sure." She whispered back.

"Our clothes are still by the lush." Sophia tried to whisper, but the fear she must be feeling had her voice louder.

Crack.

Twigs snapping sounded from the same direction.

Crack, crack.

They were getting closer.

"Get behind me," Katarina instructed, swinging Mary behind her back. Sophia swam closer, and the brunette felt the girl's hands press into her back, nicely kept nails slightly digging into her shoulder blades. Maria swam closer, but stayed to Katarina's side, helping cover more of Sophia.

"Katarina?" The voice called again, a silhouette of a man appearing among the trees.

This time though, Katarina can let herself relax. The familiarity of the shape and voice connecting in her memory. "Keith?"

The shadow comes closer, crossing over the brush, Keith's features were highlighted by the crescent moon's reflection in the water as he walked closer to the stream.

"Keith! You scared the hell out of us." Mary sighed.

"What," he spots their clothes piled by the river's edge. "What do you girls think you are doing?"

"We're swimming," Katarina answered.

"And you're done now. Please get out and get dressed."

"But-"

"No, buts Sister!" He turns back in the direction he came. "Alan! Nicol! I found them!"

Mary and Sophia climb out of the stream first, still dripping and now shivering from the night air.

Nicol appears from between trees, darkness looking quite good on him. "Sophia, are you alright?" He reaches out for her while she struggles to get her dress to fit comfortably back onto her damp body.

"Brother!" She goes to hug him.

"Katarina! Out!" Keith yells, at the same time.

The girl feels like ducking back down under the water, but not resurfacing. She can count on one hand how many times Keith has yelled at her before. She doesn't think it'd feel much different from burying herself at the bottom of this stream.

Maria pulls her arm. "Come on." She offers a sorrowful smile as if it was the sugar in her medicine. Katarina paddles along with her because the sugar does help. Besides, the stream is too shallow to bury herself in.

By the time that Maria is out and grabbing onto Katarina's hand to help her out as well, the Stuart siblings also arrive.

"What the hell?" Alan immediately turns away from the still undressed Maria and Katarina, half-dressed Mary who gave up trying to get the top of her dress on so just has it secured at her waist, and a clothed Sophia thanks to the help of her brother, but the clothing still looking a little too fitting against her skin.

"Nicol, I didn't know you were coming today." Katarina tries to divert attention to something she thinks is just as interesting.

"He was the friend I was meeting in town," Gerald interjected before the dashing boy could answer for himself.

"Oh."

Maria shuffles closer to where Gerald stands, hers and Katarina's clothes littered by his feet, but she hesitates for a good reason; the atmosphere around Gerald is absolutely feral.

He seems to notice her intent. Instead of moving out of her way, he picks up the pink dress and extends it to her.

Picking up the blue dress next, he strides over to Katarina. He doesn't necessarily shove the clothing at her, but he is a lot less gentle about handing them to her than he was with Maria. "Katarina, what were you thinking? This is a public area. What if someone were to see you? Do you know the rumors that would spark from that?"

"Look, I know it was stupid, and I'm sorry. I know that I shouldn't have made my friends endanger their social standings like that. I already know, so can we just skip this part? Please?" She holds the clothing in her hand tighter, trying to distract herself from the sting in her eyes. She had just wanted to feel like herself again.

Slowly, a smile started to form on the Prince's face. Katarina calmed down only for seconds before she recognized that type of sickly sweet smile. The dark prince was here. "Oh? You understand Katarina?" He chuckles, and it sends a shiver up Katarina's spine. "Because I don't think you do. You never understand." He opens his eyes, and the sadist in him is let free. "You are aware that I have made it possible for you to have your vegetable field correct? No? I thought not. The school would not allow such a thing to exist on its grounds unless I pulled strings. Maybe next year, my fingers will get tired of pulling." There is a gleam in his eyes, one that only spoke of amusement. This was amusing for him.

God, she hated this.

"Do you always need to manipulate people in order to keep company with you?"

Katarina felt the same surprise emotion that appeared on Prince Gerald's face. She usually would never speak so ill about anyone, much less her friends.

"If they say or do the wrong thing you wanted, you pull their strings too?"

But this felt good.

"Is that why you keep me around? Am I just another string to pull when convenient?"

"Katarina," she hears two people call. One is gentle and worried; the other is warier and warning. She heeds neither.

"I'm a possession of yours. Just another thing that you can entertain yourself with. God, you could never deserve Maria."

"No, Kat-"

"I pity the girl who gives her heart to you."

Alright, that felt less good. That felt very less good.

Multiple people gasp one person groans. She doesn't know who did what, but she definitely knows the furrow of Gerald's brow, the tiny gap of his mouth, and pain buried into the blue of his eyes. Now she knows the look of betrayal. She much prefers seeing the sadistic amusement than this leaking wound she had inflicted on him.

How is it that after all this time she still managed to be the villainess?


~~~

"Welcome back, Lady Katarina," Anne automatically says when she hears the door to the room open. The maid was currently cleaning under the girl's bed, something she's only able to do when said girl is gone. Under the bed, Anne can always find dozens of loose notes about nonsense about flags, and impending doom that Katarina swears on her life is valuable, along with several attempts of handmade snake toys. She's only tidying up the chaotic mess, learning very fast not to throw anything out, or else she'd be dealing with a panicked and somewhat scared Katarina.

Anne rises from the side of the bed. "It's late, were you with-" the rest of the sentence dies before it can be born. She sputters out sounds that could have been words, but seeing her mistress in such ruins makes that not possible. Hair wrinkled and knotted, dress clung uncomfortably tight to her skin, beads of water still rolling down her neck, Katarina looks a mess. "What on earth?"

"I just want to go to bed, Anne." The girl mumbles. She has yet to look up from her own bare feet.

"You are soaked! What happened?"

Silence.

With a bit of a huff, Anne marches to the closet to pull a towel out for the girl. "Was this another one of your games?" She can't even count the number of times the girl would come home as a child covered in dirt, mud, leaves, or other questionable substances. She had grown tired of the lectures from her mother, so either she stopped playing games, or she learned how to play different games. "You know what your mother would-"

"Anne, please." Katarina's whispered voice cracks.

The maid nearly drops the towel. That wasn't something her Lady's voice has done before. It wasn't something that her Lady's voice should do.

The maid walks over to her. The girl flinches when Anne brings the towel up to her face, almost as if she was expecting to be struck. What happened to her Lady?

She gently wipes at her face, seeing the red rings in Katarina's eyes, then brings the towel to wrap around the Lady's head. "Bath, then bed." She negotiates tentatively.

She waits for any sign of life in her Lady. A set of hands come up and take the towel from Anne, and she nods before walking past her maid to the bathroom.

The door closes behind Katarina, and Anne needs a chair. What alternate universe had she dropped into? Nothing about what just occurred seemed normal.

Before she is able to follow her thoughts further, there's a knock at the bedroom door. The walk to the door must have been wiped from her memory because the next thing Anne knows is that her hand is on the door's handle. She hesitates, relatively sure Lady Katarina was not in the mood for guests. But etiquette dictated to answer any calls, so she opens the door with a neutral expression

She's not surprised by who it is. "Yes?" She asks the duo.

"Anne, is my sister here?" Master Keith asks.

"We really need to speak to her." Miss Maria adds. She looks more uncertain out of the two.

Furrowed brows and tightly thin lips are the only markers of the teens that Anne needs to see for her to know that Katarina's mood is due in relation to them. "I'm sorry, but Lady Katarina is bathing at the moment then plans for bed. I can relay a message if important."

"No, Anne, please-"

"She is very tired and wishes to go to bed."

"But-"

Maria pulls his arm. "We understand. Thank you."

The maid bows as the teens walk away, the blond having to practically drag Keith away. She closes the door just as the bathroom door opens, which was some god damn coincidence.

She couldn't have been in there for more than four minutes. What type of bath was that? Had she even washed herself properly?

But Anne has the decency not to ask. Instead, she stands quietly by as she watches the girl climb onto her bed, still in her bathrobe, and lays down. She supposes that it's fine skipping her nightly hair brushing was acceptable, but to go to bed with her hair still wet? Anne could practically feel the ammonia setting in.

The girl, because engagements and dark magic and harems aside that's what she still was, buries her head into her pillow. "I just want to go home."

Anne bit her lip. This was so unprecedented. "Lady Katarina, your final test is tomorrow morning, correct?"

She doesn't pick up her head from the pillow, but she does turn her face so she could be heard. "Yes?"

"Would it at all be possible for me to ask you to wake yourself for it?"

"Of course." She said like it was simple. Given how early the girl would wake to tend her garden, it probably was something simple for her. If any other maid had asked any other Lady, the conversation would be much different. "Will you not be around tomorrow?"
"I should be back by the time you are out of the exam. Have a good sleep, Lady Katarina."

"Thank you, Anne."

Anne leaves the room. Returning down the hall to her own room, she only stays long enough to grab a coat. Her Lady has always been strange, but this was something entirely new. This was something unheard of. This was something she would not allow.


~~~

Katarina wakes herself in time for the early morning test. Arguably the worst kind of test. No, never mind, definitely the worst type of test.

She finds herself both grateful for the little act of independence to wake herself for once and saddened by waking up alone. Sleep didn't come easy or well to her lately and certainly didn't last night. Gerald's face played like a video stuck on loop.

"Hey, airhead."

She looks up and now wishes that she had been paying attention to her surroundings. If she had, then she definitely would have bolted the moment she saw him. "Good morning Prince Alan." She greets back quickly and attempts to speed walk past him.

"Hey-" he reaches out a hand as if about to try to stop her from breezing by. "About last night, it's really not-"

"Sorry, but I have a test to get to." Now she does bolt. Very not ladylike, but she's done worse with more audience around. Probably. Honestly, she's just proud of the fact that she didn't trip over her dress and face plant.

She lingers at the classroom entrance until the last minute to enter; she shares this class with Sophia, Maria, and Gerald, and she did not fancy the idea of friendly, not-so-friendly chit chat this morning. Luckily they are all seated apart from each other for the test.

She is, of course, the last person in the class to finish her test. Technically she is done and has been for the last five minutes, but she double checks her answers with heavy scrutiny. “Time is up, Lady Claes.” Her professor says, hitting the stopwatch off.

“Yes, sir.” She stands and walks to his desk to hand him her papers.

“Don’t look so glum, dear. I know how much effort you’ve put into this. It can’t be that bad.” He takes the paper from her with a smile. He obviously doesn’t understand how thick her skull is.

“Thank you, professor. I’m sure you are right.” She’s relatively sure she failed. “Ah, if you wouldn’t be troubled by it, could I possibly leave out the back way?”

“The back? Well, since it’s you, I suppose that is fine. Just don’t cause any scenes. Now go have a good break.”

“I will, thank you.”

Breathing a little easier now, she opens the door that is located behind the teacher's desk and walks out into a hallway where students don’t normally venture. Most classrooms had entrances that professors came and went from, leading to a hall with offices and other staff rooms. It wasn’t forbidden for students to be in these hallways, but unless it was to run errands for a teacher, it was odd to find them there. The only reason Katarina had asked to use this way was because she feared that any number of her friends could be waiting at the student entrance to confront her. It was a long route to her room this way, but as far as she was concerned, it was a peaceful way.

All thoughts about being home free are gone when she hears movement in her room. It takes longer than she is willing to admit to psych herself up enough to open the door and tackle whatever that comes with it.

Her psych up quickly breaks down.

"Good afternoon Lady Katarina," Anna says. She's by Katarina’s closet with a suitcase. Katarina's dresses and underwear are piled inside. "How was the exam?"

"It was fine." As Katarina walks further into her room, she finds two other suitcases placed by her bed. Her bed that no longer has her personal covers nor sheets on it. "Why are you packing? I thought we weren't moving out until the ceremony on Sunday?"

"Only the students who are graduating and those who are on the Student Council must stay at the Academy until to plan for the preparation of the ceremony. All other students may take their leave after completing their final exam." Anne places the last dress in the closet into the case, closing it with a satisfied smile. "Seeing as neither of those conditions applies to you, I journeyed to the Claes estate last night to ask permission for your early return home."

"You what?" Katarina belts. "Anne, the estate is three hours from the Academy! To get there and back in that time must have taken you all night! Wait, did you even have a carriage ride there? Aaaannnnnneeee!"

Why had the woman subjected herself to such strain? And for what? None of the Katarina Chair Members could make any sense of this.

Suitcase in hand, the maid walked to her Lady. "Please, Lady Katarina, be calm. I knew a friend heading in the same direction for most of the way. After that, it was only a forty-minute walk."

Katarina grabs onto Anne's shoulders. "You must be exhausted!"

"I slept on the carriage ride back to the Academy."

"But Anne, why!"

"Because Lady Katarina looks so tired lately." Well, that wasn't the response she had been expecting. "More tired than such a journey could ever make me. So I talked with your parents, and they have agreed to bring you home immediately after today's exam and will return for your brother on a later approved date."

Katarina lets her maid go. She told Anne she wanted to go home. The woman had misinterpreted her meaning, but she listened. She made sure Katarina got to go home.

"I have already notified the Academy and your brother of the situation. You may inspect the room for anything I may have missed if you would like. I will bring the last of this luggage outside; the carriage will be waiting for you by the entrance."

"No, I rather go together." Katarina grabs one of Anne's hands and takes the suitcase from her. "Thank you, Anne."


~~~

Katarina woke up from a jostle of the carriage. She had fallen asleep maybe twenty minutes into the trip, but not before she witnessed Anne do the same. Though to be fair, Anne actually had a reason to be tired.

"My apologies, I should have warned you, Lady Katarina. This part of the road has some rough patches from the recent storms." Anne, now awake as well from the startle, bows a little to her.

"Anne, please, it's fine."

"How are you feeling?"

Simple question. Not so simple answer. Honestly, Katarina didn't know the answer herself. "I'm fine." She tries to play it off like it's true. Biting her lip then wails, "No, I'm not. I don't know what is up with me lately. I just feel weird." All the Katarina Council Members sigh, of course, she'd be her own snitch.

"Weird?"

"It's like," she takes a moment to think. She's tried to explain this feeling before to both Keith and Mary, but neither seemed to understand what she meant. Which is understandable she supposes because how could someone explain Katarina's situation without sounding like they fell down one too many trees?

The scenery blurred as they rode along. Waiting so long to give an answer, maybe even making Anne think she wasn't going to give one, would be deemed rude, among others. But Anne had the patience of a Saint as Katarina had learned over the years.

It finally came to her, the perfect Katarina way to explain her predicament.

"It's like I'm a zucchini in a flower garden."

"A . . . zucchini?"

"Yes. Their seeds are a little bigger than normal flower seeds, but if you weren't looking closely enough, then it could blend in with rose or sunflower seeds easily. So you plant them all together, and they all grow appropriately and healthy. But now you have a zucchini in the middle of your flower bed. Something that fits into the environment and can survive there, but it doesn't belong."

The Katarina she had been before her fall was a flower. She was raised and prepared as a lovely young flower. A spoiled brat of a flower, given, but she matched her company among so many other gorgeous florae.

The Katarina she is has trouble not causing chaos for one day.

"I see," Anne says. She stares out the window as well now, watching the new set of familiar greenery pass by as they approach the Claes mansion. "But I still do not understand."

Katarina held back a sigh. It wasn't the maid's fault. Her trying to explain her situation to others was like others trying to explain physics to her. "That's alright, Anne. Thank you for listening to me, though."

"I do not understand the problem with having a zucchini in the flower bed. You convinced the Academy to allow a vegetable garden because even vegetables bloom." Katarina still has to wince at the mention of her field at the school given the new information that Prince Gerald informed her, and that wince deepens just thinking about Gerald. But she still has to admit that Anne is right. "Besides," the woman continues, "if you were the gardener that had found a zucchini in your garden, then you would have been enthused."

Katarina nods in agreement. "You're right, Anne. Maybe that wasn't the best example."

"Zucchinis have worth. They may have different functions and purposes than roses or sunflowers, but a zucchini is still important." Anne rests her hand on top of Katarina's, she had them in her lap, but she hadn't noticed that she had started to wring her dress with them. "If I may, Lady Katarina?"

Anne's tone, Anne's tender touch, Anne's question made Katarina's chest warm with affection. "Anne, please. You are one of the most precious people in my life. I'm always willing to hear from you."

Even though Katarina had given a clear right away, Anne now hesitates with her own words. The girl, trying to comfort and encourage her, took the hand resting on hers and intertwined their fingers. If at all possible, Anne's expression softened even further. "Katarina, you try so hard to placate everyone else. You tend and care for everyone's feelings. Which is incredibly kind of you, I just fear that as of lately you've forgotten to care for your own emotions and health in that process." Anne's free hand reaches up, and gentle fingers run across Katarina's cheek. It was strange how such a small thing brought tears to her eyes. "Katarina, when was the last time you were kind to yourself?"

"Kind to myself?" Katarina echoed the sentiment like a parrot, still too shaken from the gentle fingers that caressed her face to think proper thoughts.

"Yes."

"I eat sweets most days for my own pleasure."

"And while that concerns me for your health," Anne sighed, "I meant more along the lines of when was the last time you've said something kind about yourself?"

"I can't think of a time I have."

"Never?" Anne seemed taken aback by that.

Katarina forced a laugh. "Yeah, well, mother taught me to be modest at the very least."

"Lady Katarina-"

The carriage stops.

"Oh, I suppose we are here." The girl states, the view they had both turned away from now showing the front door to the Claes mansion. "Time to face the lioness herself." She sighed, knowing full well that the woman would want an explanation for why she is home early while Keith remains in school.

Unlocking their fingers, the girl turns in her seat and reaches for the carriage door, not bothering to wait for the driver to open it for them. She has hands; he doesn't need to do everything.

Before she could swing the door open, a hand shoots out and grabs her wrist.

"Anne?"

The maid, yet again looking like she is at war with herself, commits to squeezing the wrist in her grip and speaking evenly. "I know what incredible kindness you hold within you. Please consider saving some for yourself."


~~~

"Sir and Lady Claes, Miss Katarina has arrived."

“Thank you, Micheal.” Luigi Claes dismisses the servant. He’s been anxious all day to see his beloved daughter again, especially under the circumstances of her return. Already up and heading for the door, he is stopped by the clearing of a throat. “Yes, my moon and stars?”

“You remember what we agreed, correct?” Miri Claes asks her husband. They had agreed to not reward Katarina’s behavior before knowing what was happening. For all, they knew she could just be tired of exams and wanting a quiet ride home early so that she could lounge about and do nothing all day. As if that were ever to be an option in her household.

He seems to wilt at the mention of this. “Yes, of course, my dear.”

She hums back at him unconvinced of his dedication to their agreement, but nevertheless stands from her seat and accompanies him to the entrance of their home.

"But you know,” He begins, already trying to back out of the deal. “Anne would not have been so bold or pleading about Katarina coming home if it were not necessary. Or do you doubt that?"

"No, I do not doubt our number one maid's judgment. What I do doubt is our problem child's ailment." When she was little, Katarina would feign illness countless times to skip meetings with that duke or this noble, but be found jumping on the bed, indulging in the kitchen, or even (God help her) literally climbing the walls that same day. So excuse her for having some suspicion of Katarina suddenly having illness just in time for the Academy's ceremony.

There is an endless amount of things this child could be up to.

The said child is in the main entrance with a suitcase in hand and her faithful maid in tow. Miri and her husband descend the stairs to greet the perfectly fine looking girl. She huffs. See? The wild thing was standing up on her own two feet fine, stubbornly carrying her own items, and seemingly able to form a sentence as she converses with Anne.

She was just playing them like an instrument. They were fools to think that Katarina was sickly in any capacity. Really, why did she even agree in the first place, she knew that -

Oh.

Oh.

Miri is almost at the bottom of the stairs when Katarina is in range for her to look into her eyes properly. And Miri knows what Anne had meant now.

The fire that burned in Katarina's eyes, the one that would light a whole room and give warmth to all those freezing for humor or excitement or even comfort, could feel at ease around. That fire was barely a spark, less than a flicker. Instead, all Miri could find was a thicket of smoke, dull and suffocated.

"Thank you for allowing me back." Her daughter curtsies for them. Eyes never leaving their much tamer daughter, Miri reaches out to grab her husband only to find she has left him several steps behind. Obviously, he saw the smoke before she did. "I hope I haven't caused too much trouble."

Miri thinks she is choking on smoke. "Welcome home."

Anne should have brought her back sooner.


~~~

The door to her room goes flying open, smacking the wall behind it.

Granted, the sun is up, and she's been awake for long before it has been up, but Katarina screams. After all the horror movies A-chan loved to make her watch, she made easy leaps of thought from burglars to possessed demon children, which is way more common than they should be.

Alas, Katarina peeks at a monster far more fearsome than anything A-chan's movies could conceive.

"Katarina! Get dressed for a trip to the town. Be ready in ten."

"Y-yes, mother."

Then the woman disappeared from the doorway just as suddenly as she had come, but the open door still swaying was left as evidence of her aftermath. She hadn't even entered the room.

Falling back onto her bed, Katarina sighed. Today was gonna be another long day.

But she supposes that she has to be thankful for the fact that both her parents allowed her to just go to her room last night and skip any questions or interrogations that might have been planned. Now, as she climbs out of bed, she feels like that luck won’t carry over to today.

She meets her mother on time outside.

“You’re late!”

She almost meets her mother on time outside.

“Sorry, sorry.”

Her mother frowns but turns on her heels without any more fuss. She enters the carriage prepared behind her, and Katarina, not having any other instruction, follows her inside. Then they are leaving the estate. Along the way, in between questions of where they are going and for how long and if lunch is included, Katarina wonders if a new patch of Fortune Lovers was released with a cut scene of Dutchess Claes murdering her daughter. It’s a possibility, but she feels like the devs wouldn’t push the envelope that far.

The carriage stops, and she can’t help but peek out the window. “Mother, are we visiting someone?” They were stopped in front of an ordinary-looking house, one that she could find on Maria’s street. It looked quaint and really cozy, but Katarina can’t imagine her mother knowing a person to own it.

“Well, yes, actually.”

Daniel, their carriage driver, helps them out and bows to them before they leave him. Katarina tries to keep pace with her self assured mother, who seemed to know exactly what she was doing. To her extreme surprise, her mother opens the door to the cottage herself without even knocking first. “Good morning Ida, is it too early for us to be here?”

Katarina crosses the threshold.

The realization of where she is hits relatively fast. The number of women and men running around in uniforms while others were wearing gown type attire. This was the local hospice in town.

A woman comes forward from the crowd and smiles at her mother. “Not at all, Lady Miri. We are so glad to have you here.” She looks at Katarina like it’s the first time she’s noticed her. “Oh my, would this beauty be your daughter.”

“Yes. I was hoping you could find somewhere suitable for her today as well.”

The nurse smiles. “Of course, I know just the place!”

Katarina feels like she’s being handed off to be someone else’s problem. “Behave yourself and mind your manners. Now go with Nurse Ida and do whatever she tells you.” Her mother says before walking off without further explanation. Yep, she’s being handed off.”

“Oh, don’t look so spooked, honey,” Ida says. “No one bites. Besides, if you need your mom, just come and get me, and I’ll fetch her for you.”

Ida turns in the opposite direction her mother went, and Katarina follows. “Right.” She replies. Did she break the game? Was that what was happening here? Maybe that could also explain why she felt weird lately.

“You done anything like this before?”

“Huh?”

Ida laughs, Katarina hopes at taking delight in the situation and not at her. “I asked if you’ve done charity work like this before?”

“Charity work?”

This time Ida actually stops in her tracks. “Sweetie, did your mother explain what you were going to do here?” Rather than exposing her mother as cruel and talking about all the details she had left out on the way here, she settles for shaking her head no. “Alright, then. So your mother donates to our Hospice every two months a generous amount. Along with that, she stops by for planned visits, and she normally has tea with some of our patients. Sometimes she visits more often, sometimes she is too busy, but she always makes an attempt.”

Katarina . . . didn’t know her mother did such a thing. That sounds so wonderful. Why wouldn’t anyone tell her this? Some days she needs proof her mother is even human.

“I’m going to bring you to the children’s center if that is alright with you, Lady Katarina.”

“Yes, of course. It’d be an honor.” Katarina says. “And thank you for having me.”


~~~

There’s more kids than Katarina was expecting.

There’s more kids than Katarina thinks she can handle.

Beside her, Ida snorts. “Don’t be intimidated. They are mostly harmless. Ready?” Not trusting her voice, Katarina just nods. Sucking in what may very well be her last breath, Katarina puts on a smile and walks into the room that housed a small army of children.

“Good evening, everyone!” Ida sing songs as she leads Katarina in. “We have a very special guest. Everyone give a warm welcome to Duchess Claes’ daughter, Lady Katarina.”

Katarina bows her head after the introduction. “I will be in your care today.”

“Why.”

“Can I braid her hair?”

“She’s so pretty!”

“Let’s be friends.”

“Can I see your nails?”

“Do you live in a mansion?”

Children.

Left.

Right.

Up.

Down.

Mostly down.

But they swarm her like she’s the most recent toy they get to play with. And they are all adorable.

“Hi, yes, you can see my nails.” She bends down so the little girl in front of her could look at her spread fingers. She’s surprised to find no disappointment in the girl’s eyes when she looks at her nails; she knows she’s expecting nicely kept hands with immaculately done nails. Katarina’s calloused palms and one layer of blue nail polish that Sophia insisted on applying on her didn’t really live up to the standard that this little girl was hoping for. “What’s your name?”

Suddenly becoming shy, the girl wilts backwards and leans into a taller child. “I-I’m Rosie.” And Katarina’s in love.

“I’m Clint.” The taller child that Rosie has found shelter under says. He looks at Katarina like she's stolen all the lemon squares at the picnic. Maybe he knew that she was thinking about Rosie? A protective big brother type? She nodded to herself, yes, she knows his kind very well.

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you Clint and Rosie.” She tried to put as much charm as Maria has in breathing into her greeting. Kill ‘em with kindness they always say.

For a moment, she is only answered with blank stares, but then her answer is deafening.

“I’m Jack!”

“And I’m Lippe.”

“Francisco!”

“You can call me Athy.”

“I’m Elsie.”

 

Katarina tries to keep track of who is who, but after the seventh name is thrown her way, she realizes the type of day she is in for.

A wonderful one.


~~~

She sits on the floor with her back pushed up against one of the beds in the room. There’s at least three girls on the bed, each of which is playing with her hair (if they are pulling her hair too hard or rip out a knot, then she more than willingly bares it). Rosie, a girl named Jasmine, and a boy named Tuck are in front of her and ask her random questions as they sip air out of Rosie’s toy teacups. Other kids jump into the conversation now and then, but Katarina supposes she’s already lost her exciting newness to them.

Everything was exceedingly calm and pleasant. But then Katarina noticed two boys coming into the room through the window. This room is on the second floor. “Uhhh, so . . .” She doesn’t have the capacity to form coherent sentences while this image still plays in her mind. Instead, she just points at the window as yet another child appears into the room.

“That’s Kyle!” Jasmine says, thinking she’s asking for one of the children’s names.

“She’s asking about the tree you numbskulls.” Someone outside of their tea party cuts in. Clint comes and goes from the conversation as he pleases while he reads on the other side of the room, which Katarina doesn’t mind at all. He’s kind of blunt and on the negative side, but at least he’s rather straightforward about things. “There’s a tree right outside the window. We climb it.” He doesn’t actually look at her while he gives his explanation, but she nods along anyway.

“Oh, I see. You all must be very good climbers then.”

Rosie and Tuck pout. Katarina’s heart melts. She wonders what her mother might say if she asked to bring one or all of them home with her.

“They can’t climb.” Jasmine snickers. “But I can, I learned to climb up Alfred when I was six.”

Wait, what. “Who’s Alfred?”

“Our tree,” Tuck says. Oh, thank god, Katarina was about to have a heart attack. Tuck is playing with his fingers and looks down shyly. “And I don’t climb him because he’s so tall.”

“Aw, that’s okay Tuck,” She tries to reassure the poor boy. “It’s okay to not like high places.”

“But I can learn to climb!” Rosie proudly declares, bumping her small fist against her chest.

Clint is heard again from his side of the room, scoffing. Katarina begins to think maybe he isn’t even reading his book. “Rosie, we've tried to teach you before. You just chicken out.”

“Hey!”

That was kind of a mean thing to say, Katarina agrees. Uncalled for, especially when she’s younger than him. “I could teach you.” Katarina offers the sweet girl rather than picking a fight with the boy.

“And you know how to climb a tree?” Clint sat up from the bed and put his book down. He didn’t mark the page he was up to before closing it, so Katarina decides that he either really wasn’t reading or he has horrid book manners.

“Yeah, I used to climb trees all the time when I was little. My mother would nearly have my head for it some days.”

The boy stares at her for longer than she felt comfortable with before he speaks again. “I knew it.”

“Knew it?”

“You’re a liar.”

Jasmine takes a pillow from beside her and throws it in his direction. It doesn’t get anywhere close to hitting him, but she made her point. “Don’t be mean!”

“Wait, how am I a liar?” Katarina asks, genuinely confused on how they got here.

Clint rolls his eyes. “You do not climb trees. You’re a Lady. A Noble one. So you come in here and spout some lies so that you look cool and relatable.” His eyes narrow in on her as if he is scrutinizing her soul and the sins inside it. “But you’re really just a phony who gets off on torture porn.”

“Torture what now?”

“Clint, shut up. Can’t you behave like a normal person for one damn day?” Another older girl criticizes him.

“What? You gonna tell me I’m wrong?” He asks. Pointing a literal finger at her next, she realizes that she has the whole room’s attention. "She even looks evil. Like a villain."

Well, that's rude.

He's not wrong, but words hurt.

Katarina, ready to diffuse the situation, doesn’t get a chance to retort before a small body stomps in between hers and Clint’s deadlock. "Nuh-uh, Lady Katarina is the sweetest! She's even sweeter than cream puffs!" Rosie shuts back the defense.

Cute.

Cute!

CUTE!

Rosie was just too cute!

Quickly Jasmine and Tuck are also by Rosie’s side acting as Katarina’s heroes.

“Yeah, don’t be a big bully, Clint!” Tuck says.

“She’s ten times cooler than you!” Jasmine says.

“Dear God, you guys are-” The door opens in the middle of Clint’s sentence, so he stops.

 

A nurse with long hair and a round face walks in with a little girl holding her hand. She has a smile on her face, but there’s something just off about it. “I’ve been informed that our guest has been given some trouble.”

Oh. One of those times of smiles. Great, now Katarina is fighting a losing battle to not think about Gerald.

“No, I’ve been-” Katarina fumbles.

“I believe that it is time for her departure now.” The nurse waves for her to come.

With a sigh, she stands, turning around for a moment to thank her hairstylists then to thank her tea party hosts. Before she could walk out of the room with the nurse, she felt added weight around her waist.

“Can I help walk her out?” Rosie asks, wide-eyed and pouting. Katarina thinks that letting the girl walk her out is dangerous. She may just steal the girl with her when at the door.

“Can she?” Katarina also tries to pout now.

The nurse looks exhausted, but there is a hint of amusement in her voice. “Very well.”

“Yay!” Both girls celebrate.

As they walk, Rosie slips her hand into Katarina, and damn Katarina is soft. That kidnapping option is looking really good right now.

"Lady Katarina?" Rosie's adorably high voice asks.

"Yes, Lady Rosie?" She asks back. Rosie gasps but continues on with the biggest smile.

The little girl began to swing their hands as they walked. "Lady Katarina has long hair just as long as Nurse Opal! Are you growing it out too?"

The nurse with steps into the conversation, looking appalled by the question asked. Katarina doesn’t understand why. "Rosie! The Lady does not grow her hair out for the same reason."

"Oh." The little girl stops swinging their arms, probably just because she was scolded, but Katarina feels as though she’s the one being punished.

Then she remembers her curiosity. "The nurses have reason to grow hair?"

The woman who was quick to discipline Rosie hesitates now. "Yes, the spring and summer months are when barbers take donations to make wigs for the fall and winter season. Most wigs are for people here."

Cut their hair? Such a simple but kind gesture. “That’s wonderful.”

Nurse Opal looks caught off guard by this response at first, but she adapts quickly. “Yes, thank you, my Lady. And thank you for visiting us today.” Opal puts a hand on the arm, not attached to Rosie and squeezes. “I do hope we get to see you again soon.”

“Of course,” Katarina says, and she is the one to start slightly swinging her and Rosie’s hands again. The girl giggles lightly at this, and Katarina smiles.

There was no hope needed for her to come back. Katarina knew where she was spending most of her summer now.


~~~

The ride back home is eerily quiet, but Katarina had enough ruckus for the day truthfully. Playing with the kids was more than fun, but dear lord, was she exhausted now. Katarina sends a silent thank you to the heavens when they enter the Claes home again, loving these walls that offered her secure stability.

“Thank you for today, mother.” She says, more than ready to retire for the evening.

“I am not done with you yet child.”

The heavens don’t accept thank you’s as payment apparently.
There is a hand on Katarina’s lower back, herding her wild child into a private room. It’s a room usually reserved for when mother had guests for and sipped tea while spilling tea. Katarina snorted at her own pun.

The room has a table settled close to a bay window, a view of a garden (flowers, not vegetables) just below. The lighting of the room from the window due to the setting sun was hauntingly beautiful. But the only thing that occupies Katarina’s thoughts while viewing this immaculate scene is the dishes of sweets on the table.

“Have tea with me?” Miri asks.

Katarina nods because it wasn’t like she could just say no and bolt. Not this time.

Taking a seat at the table, she notices the types of dishes. There’s only four of them, probably due to her mother fearing for both their figures, but they’re all eye-catching. Nothing extravagant, but she’s surprised by the choices: macaroons, carrot cake, triple chocolate cake, and just plain sugar cookies.

Katarina eats macaroons when she’s stressed. She eats carrot cake when she’s in a sad type of upset, and triple chocolate when she’s in an angry type of upset. Sugar cookies are what she goes to when lonely.

So this was a test!

A way to gauge how she is feeling.

Why hadn’t she thought of this? It’s brilliant!

“Take as you please.” her mother instructs.

Katarina looks over her options like it's a test. Inspecting each choice before her to see if answers were contained in them. It was like one of her old teachers used to say: use the test to take the test.

But there was no way to cheat on this one.

She ends up with a plate of sugar cookies and a slice of carrot cake.

Her mother takes nothing but watches intently as she eats her cavity friendly food. “So,” she draws out the pause after the word with a sip of tea. “Would you care to tell me why you are home?”

Alright, here goes nothing.

"It's like I'm a zucchini in a flower-" She stops her sentence from the look her mother sends her. Perhaps using gardening analogues wasn't the greatest idea when talking to Miri Claes. Plucking another chunk of sugar cookie into her mouth, she pretends to be preoccupied with chewing.

Three more cookie chunks later, which is longer than Katarina thought she would have gotten away with, Miri demands answers again. "Anne tells me that you feel like you don't fulfill your status."

It’s a little betraying that Anne told her mother her problems, but at the same time, she knew Anne had to plead a case for Katarina to come back somehow.

Alright, here goes nothing, times two.

"She's kind of right. I don't feel like I live up to who I was supposed to be. And I'm not who I used to be either." She still can't remember her name. "So then what am I exactly? And how do I even start to find my place in this world? A world that wasn't meant for me."

“So, you don’t know who you are?”

Okay, while that is what she means, there’s something about the way her mother says it that makes her feel stupid. Time to redirect. "I mean, sorta, but then there's also the thing with Keith and Gerald.”

"Your brother and fiance?"

"Yeah. See, it’s like I've been walking on eggshells all my life. And now, I'm just not supposed to? I love them both, so very dearly, but I’ve been cautious and scared for too long. Practice does make perfect." It’s only now that she’s saying this that she realizes it’s something she’s been feeling. Huh, word vomit coming in handy, who knew. “What if the shells aren’t actually gone, I’m just blindfolded now? How do I know how to walk then? What if the shells are really gone, but I keep tiptoeing? How do I know what the right step to take is?”

"You forgot how to walk normally?"

What god had Katarina angered? She’ll apologize immediately as long as they end her suffering.

She knows, from purely the face, her mother is making that the woman isn’t trying to mock her. She’s probably just confused about what idiotic ramblings her daughter is going on now.

Well, you know what?

Here goes everything.

“I was so prepared for everything to turn against me, for the world to finally bring me down. But it didn't.” Her voice twitches, and her throat is tight. “Which is great. I'm so grateful for all my friends and loved ones that got me to this point. I'm here and alive, but now what?” Her mother is out of her chair and right beside her now, both of her hands desperately wiping at the water leaking from her daughter's eyes. Katarina falls forward onto her, burrowing her face in her mother’s neck and clutching like a child to her dress. “I was prepared for an ending. What am I supposed to do now? I’m scared, mom. I’m scared.”


~~~

Katarina was back in her own room now. She was only allowed to leave her mother’s tea room once she stopped crying and swore she was alright. Her mother offered her to stay in the main bedroom for a while, but she declined.

It’s late. She’s not sure how late. But she knows it’s late. She’s exhausted, but sleep was refusing her again tonight. She can’t sleep, and she just can’t stop thinking. Thinking thoughts that make her sick. Thoughts like how Gerald hates her now and how Keith should despise her just as much. Thoughts that create reimages from the game. Ones that have them stare at her with such disgust and hatred for her actions.

Malice.

Bloodlust.

That’s why she’s in front of her bathroom sink instead of in bed right now. She tries to take long calming breaths like she’s been told to in the past, but it’s just hurting her lungs and making her head spin. Her grip on the sides of the sink turns her knuckles white and makes her feel every twitching nerves in her fingers. Looking at herself in the mirror above the sink is disorienting. Recognizing that she owned this body wasn’t an issue she had since childhood, but now she pokes at her cheeks and rubs at her eyes for evidence.

This was not what she asked for.

Katarina Claes was not who she wanted.

She already had a life. She wasn't a main character or a Lady or vital to the overarching society. She knew she wasn't. She was just a ditzy teenage girl who liked to climb trees and play in the mountains and eat watermelon with her older brothers. And she was more than happy with just that; being loved and cared for by those closest to her. To be happy with her minimal skills and pretty standard lifestyle, that was all she ever wanted.

And now she has Katarina Claes.

Retreating back to her bedroom, she rummages through a couple of random desks draws on the vanity station she hardly ever touches. When she finds the items she needs, she heads back to the bathroom.

She leans across her sink to get closer to the mirror in order to split her hair into decently, even sections. Every so often, she pulls at the hair herself to test to make sure she’s still here in this body. The ribbons she had gotten were all different colors, but the style wasn't really the point here. Sectioning the hair was harder than she thought, given how much hair she had, but once the ribbons are properly tied, she takes the gardening scissors out of the box. This wasn't their purpose, but she conveniently has three others also lying around her room so when life gives you scissors.

She inspects the ribboned sections one more time before nodding to the girl in the mirror.

Four ribbons. Four compliments.

Simple. Compliment herself, then she can cut a section.

"Okay," She sucks in a breath, "I am . . . resourceful." She breathes out.

She's had to be when the world she was dropped into was rooting against her. She had to be able to think on her feet and plan ahead to avoid her doom. Even if she’s not good at that thinking part. Being anything else wasn’t an option.

Still, it was a quality in herself, something she could be allowed to be boastful over.

So she cuts. She cuts and realizes gardening scissors are definitely not meant for this. As she forces the scissors to move forward and do their job, she already knows what her next compliment will be. It takes longer than she thought, but the first hair section comes free.

It’s a strange look now; one section of hair just missing with the rest sitting on her shoulders waiting.

“I am stubborn.” She says to the mirror.

The amount of times she’d start something and know full well that she should give up on was probably immeasurable at this point. She’s stupid, but not all the time. Sometimes it’s just a part of her that says to keep doing the stupid thing. She doesn’t like giving up, feeling like she’s abandoned something.

She already abandoned enough things in her first life.

The next section of hair is cutting quicker, which both makes her happy since it's easier, but also concerned because why was it easier? She momentarily thinks that maybe her sections are more uneven than she had thought. This doesn’t stop her from continuing once the part is freed, but it’s definitely something she has in mind now.

Two more left.

Two more compliments.

What is a compliment? How do you give one to yourself? God, why was this another thing she was bad at?

Looking at herself in the mirror again, she stares into her own eyes. She’s becoming a bit disoriented again, but she continues searching those eyes for any trace of herself. When she sees something reflect back, something gets caught in her throat. She chokes.

“I’m trusting.”

Dumbly so. Keith has scolded her on several occasions for being so friendly and trusting to everyone she meets. She can’t help it. She just knows that the people around her were once game “characters” once who would receive character development. Everyone around her had the capacity to develop. To change.

Now that she knows they aren’t just characters anymore, not here in this reality, it's even more proof that anyone can change. Most of her friends are a far cry away from one they were supposed to be in the story.

She trusts people because most of them are good, and the ones she finds that are not still have chances to change. Maybe she wants to give them more chances.

This section of hair was not easy to cut but not nearly as hard as the first one. She gets it free and tosses it into the sink, the red ribbon still holding the section together looks like it got nicked by her scissor in the process.

She holds her breath, throat still trying not to choke. This is it. Last one. She takes the section into her hand and feels the years of weight on it. It felt silky and smooth, and she remembers how much time and effort she put into this hair. But it’s heavy.

She can’t keep choking anymore, so she lets the thing come unloose in her throat as well. It’s not what she was expecting, but a scream is what comes. It’s not blood-curdling or even angry. If anything, it’s mournful. The tears that form afterward tell her to mourn, just a little.

But she’s still stubborn and takes the scissors up to the last section. The quick dampening on her face is drawing strands of hair away from the section and sticking to her cheeks. She was a complete mess. She sees her hand trembling in the mirror; she sees herself trembling in the mirror. She sees herself breaking just a little. Maybe breaking is what she needed in order to find what was inside her.

I am thoughtful.

She thinks it instead of saying it because she can’t talk right now.

The Katarina Claes that the game planned for was cruel and unforgiving.

But she is the person who looked at others and saw their sadness. Maybe it was more visible to her because she knew sadness like a friend. All the nights that A-chan and her family haunted her thoughts, their presence still with her but unobtainable.

No matter the circumstance, even in peril, she saw through the situation to the emotion and heart, things she valued above all else. Perhaps that was why she is so unwilling to give up on anything, including others.

She had known what the world wanted her to be.

And she said no.

So the world changed for her.

After years of sword training, practice throwing, field caring, magic boosting, snake making, and flag dodging, she had successfully avoided the game's destruction of her.

She will not allow herself to be her own destruction now.

Landing on the sink around the other piles of the independent hair, the last section of hair falls free.


~~~

The following morning, Katarina waits for her mother by the entrance of their home, and so is nothing more than nerves. The feeling of her hair tickling the nape of her neck was a new sensation that she is adjusting to, but it's not something she finds to mind.

Anne had to come to her room after hearing her sobs through the vents and found Katarina with her new hair cut. Unfortunately, during her Self Care exercise, the brunette had not noticed that her hand was not precisely level with each cut. The poor maid had barged in to discover a red-eyed Katarina Claes with a pair of scissors in shaking hands, ponytails of hair littering the bathroom, and a hairdo that looked like someone built a bookshelf wrong. Angles that stopped and started and joined and dropped. If anything, it was kind of impressive how badly she had managed to line up each section.

It took Anne about an hour to fix the mess of hair so that Dutchess Claes would not commit a homicide. Shorter than it has ever been, even when she was younger. It was a sacrifice she needed to make according to Anne so that there were no loose strands or strange layers left, but the way it ends an inch below her jaw still looks fine in her own opinion.

Though while Anne had assured her, it looked good, Katarina still had avoided her mother that night like Gerald in a snake exhibits.

But that was no longer an option. So all Katarina had with her was a box that Anne and herself had packaged her hair in and prayers that her mother had mercy in her heart on this day.

"Katarina!"

Well, life was nice while it lasted, she supposed. "Yes, mother?" Katarina's voice shook as she spoke, but she clutched the box closer to her chest and turned around to face the woman, and most probably, her fate.
The woman walks closer to her daughter, each deafening click of her heels felt like death knocking. A well kept manicured hand comes up and takes a couple of strands of the short hair.

"I just thought that maybe it would be nice if the Duchess' daughter were to donate some hair as well?" Katarina explains fast, seeing there is some hope alive since her mother went for the hair rather than her throat. "Like it?" Katarina asks.

"Does it make you feel better?"

"Kind of."

"Then, it is acceptable." She walks past Katarina. "Now come, Rosie will be waiting for you."


~~~

Just as they are about to part ways for the day like last time, her mother holds something out for her, and she automatically takes it. "Here, if you are about to do what I believe you are about to do, then please at least change into this for me."

She tilts her head at first. Her mother wanted her to change clothes? She glances at Ida, who looks equally confused but offers an encouraging smile. Unfolding the top layer, she brightens, knowing what the outfit she’d been granted was. "Yes, of course! Thank you, mother!" Before anything can be offered in response, she is already racing to the bathroom to change.

When she comes back out of the bathroom, her mother is gone, likely not willing to witness her daughter wearing such clothing, but Ida smiles at her outfit and laughs. “My, it suits you quite well.”

“Thank you.” Katarina is practically vibrating at this point with excitement. “I’m going to go see Rosie and the other if that is alright.”

“Of course! Have fun and be careful.” Katarina bolts before she finishes the sentence, but Ida can only laugh again with amusement.

She busts the children’s room door open. “Hey, guys!”

Needless to say that she successfully gained everyone’s attention. But Rosie is the first to greet her back. Well, acknowledged her back.

“Lady Katarina, you’re wearing pants!”

Katarina nods sagely at the statement, as though now that she has pants on, she is wiser to the world. Oh, if only that was how this works. “I am. And you know what that means, Lady Rosie?” Eyes wide, she shakes her head. “It means that I’m teaching you how to climb Alfred.”

The girl squeals, bouncing on her bed in excitement.

“Whoa, hold up,” Clint took a step towards Katarina. “Who gave you pants? Are Ladies even allowed to wear pants?”

“Yes, they are.” Katarina leaves out the part where she needed to have a life crisis first, “And the Duchess Claes gave them to me.”

He clicks his tongue and looks annoyed by the response. “Whatever.” His annoyance transforms into a teasing smirk. “Besides, you probably don’t even know how to climb a tree.”

“Lady Katarina can do anything!” Rosie argues back.

“Yeah, she’s probably better at it than you, Clint!” Another child says. A few more raise their voices about the matter, and a semi civil war breaks out about who can climb better forms.

Instead of partaking in the ruckus, Katarina makes it a point to walk in between the warring factions and over to the window. She unlatches the lock and flings it open. The air was fresher and cooler. With one leg already out the window, Katarina turns back to call for her student of the day. "Now watch me Rosie!"

Alfred is different from the trees she climbs back home, but he’s sturdy; she sees why the kids climb out the window to do this, the branches closest to the house are the highest up you can climb him without the chance of a branch breaking. She enjoys the view for only a moment before she starts swinging and jumping to different branches. Once on the ground again, she looks up to the window where several heads are popping out all at once.

“Woah.”

“So cool!”

“Do it again!”

“Ha, see?”

She squints up and sees Clint’s face turning a little pink. Was the sun too hot today for him? She thought the weather was fine? “Hey, that’s only getting down a tree!” He says after a few more people give her recognition. “You didn’t climb anything.”

She put a finger on her bottom lip, thinking. Huh, she guesses he’s right. Climbing means going up. But Rosie really wanted to climb.

Reaching for a good patch of bark to grab, Katarina wastes no time in her ascent. She smiles as she comes face to face with Clint and the others again. Resting on the branch, she sits a bit away from the window. “So how did that look, Rosie?”

The little girl, smooshed up against her friend, looks like there are stars in her eyes. “You’re amazing!”

“Do you think you can try it?” The girl bounces her head furiously up and down. “Alright, come meet me at the base of the tree.” She’s a blur before Katarina even finishes. She loves this girl.

She turns her attention to Clint now. He looks a bit frazzled by something. “Clint, I need you to help out up here.”

His face goes redder, and Katarina reconsiders for the sake of his health. “Up here?” he asks.

“Yeah, as an expert climber, I need you up here to guide here while I’m on the ground.” She smiles at his cute confused expression. “But if you are unwell then it’s-”

“No!” He shouts. “I-I can do it.”

“Good, I’m glad.” Then she descends the tree once again. She does not hear his sputtering or the teasing that others give him as she goes.

Rosie is already waiting for her when she gets back to the ground. “You ready?” Katarina asks.

Again, the girl nods enthusiastically, but the determination that fills her eyes startles Katarina. It was a fantastic look on the girl. “Alright, let's do this!”


~~~

It takes about two hours.

She’s fallen twice. Not far either time, but she was discouraged a little each time and needed a moment to have Katarina hype her back up.

Katarina mostly stuck to pointing out good spots to grab at and where to put her feet and stuff like that. She tried to keep physical help to a minimum, but every so often, she would put her hands on the girl's waist to reassure her that Katarina wouldn’t let anything happen to the girl. Clint hung out on the branch leading to the window, offering advice and encouragement of his own sometimes.

But it's all for the sake of this moment. Clint is seated on the branch closer to the window than the tree base so that there is room, there is a hoard of children back in the window leaning outward to watch and cheer, and Katarina is literally jumping up and down shouting her lungs out.

“You got this Rosie! Just grab reach for the branch! You’re there! You’re there!” Katarina screams.

Rosie does as instructed and grabs the branch that Clint sits on. She hesitates for a minute then has both hands on it. He helps her pull herself up. Looking absolutely exhausted and proud, Rosie hugs him, then looks down at the still screaming Lady and gives her a wave.

“You did it! I’m so proud of you!” Is the last scream Katarina gives before turning on her heels and running to the entrance of the Hospice. Hypothetically she could climb Alfred back up to the children, but both Clint and Rosie are on the branch to get into the building, and she’s not sure how long Rosie may need to move from that spot.

As she bounds to the children’s room, she runs into two familiar faces. Talking about a familiar topic.

“Lady . . . princess, . . . not sure.” Nurse Opal speaks in a hushed tone.

“I can’t imagine, I mean . . .” Nurse Ida whispers back.

They both stop talking when they see Katarina approaching.

It was something she was used to hearing by now. Just because her focus was on the game and not getting killed, doesn’t mean she doesn’t hear the things whispered about her. Typically, it doesn’t bother her. It didn’t up until a couple of months ago.

It’s not like she can’t understand why people whisper.

"Oh my, Ida, it appears we've been caught!" Nurse Opal laughs.

Ida, in turn, shrugs. "I do suppose we will need to be punished now." She replies in a casual tone.

"No, please, it's fine!" Katarina quickly tried to soothe their fear. Of course, they'd be scared that a girl like her would threaten them or their livelihoods because of meaningless gossip. They’re entitled to their opinions. "Trust me; I know that I'd never be fit to be a Princess of Sorcier."

Nurse Ida looked appalled by the statement. Look, Katarina knew she wasn't exactly a good candidate but to look so grossed by even the mention of her possibly becoming a Princess was a little disheartening. Why was it that everyone at this Hospice wound her? Except Rosie, of course.

"Your Lady!" Ida says, and Katarina straightens her back again, nearly forgetting they were in the middle of a conversation. "I could never speak ill of you!"

"Right, but I heard you and Opal whispering about me the other day and just now as well?"

Opal now steps forward as well, looking equally offended by Katarina. "We are sorry if you interpreted it as such, but our discussions were all about how well you do with the children and how kind you are. There are many Nobles who come here for appearances then leave once seen and heard here. But you," the older woman had the kind of smile on that reminded Katarina of the old woman who lived next store. "You truly care. You wish to be part of something more."

"And what a wonderful Princess you will be to our Kingdom. I dare say, even our Queen. I would sleep soundly at night knowing my family, my friends, and my people were in your care. Because your care is unwavering." Ida bows. Not a dainty bow either, one that has the woman bent nearly at the waist.

Katarina’s face underwent about fifteen teen different emotions from start to finish of this conversation. Now, as red as her finest tomatoes, she puts her hands on the nurse’s back and pats it. “No, please, raise your head.”

As instructed, she raises it. She looks like she wants to say more but doesn’t get the chance to.

“Lady Monkey!”

“Lady Katarina!”

“Princess!”

Several screams come from up the stairs. She’s missing Rosie’s celebration. “Ah - I’m sorry, I have to go. Thank you for the compliments!” She shouts as she’s already on the move again. Both nurses can only laugh in her wake. What a great princess they will have.


~~~

The sun had been replaced with the moon again this evening, big and round tonight. Katarina had a beautiful view of it from the branch of the Hospice tree. She was no longer teaching Rosie to climb and wasn’t even near the branches by their window as the nurses had ushered the disgruntled kids off to bed. All alone, she sat on the lowest ring of branches possible to hold her weight, leaving her not that far off the ground, waiting for her mother to meet her. She knew that she should come down before her mother catches her.

But she really doesn’t want to miss this view.

“Had your fun?”

“Yeah.” She answered without a thought, freezing a moment too long after figuring out who she was answering. Glancing down, she saw her mother peering up. And like a deer in headlights, she stayed on her branch. Man, she was pushing her luck today. Maybe the haircut did something to her.

Her mother broke their staring contest first, and to Katarina’s surprise, she did so to admire the night sky. “You know,” the woman says, “I was elated to know I had a girl. A daughter to have tea with, to discuss romantic endeavors, to teach the way of being a respectable young woman. To raise a perfect Noble Lady. Obviously, that is not what I got.”

Katarina winces. Mostly because all of that is very true. In the game, Katarina and her mother are very close, doing almost all those things she had described. And she changed that relationship along with the game. Katarina had robbed her of that relationship.

Before she can express any time of apology, though honestly how she thought she’d say sorry for ruining your programmed relationship with your daughter was unknown, someone was caressing her calf. The automatic mechanism in her said to kick, but upon further investigation, she found that the hand belonged to the only other person around: her mother. Her mother, who was now looking up into the tree again and holding Katarina’s eyes with her own. “I understand that you are scared. You are allowed to be. But I will not hear you speak any nonsense about not knowing who you are ever again.”

Yes, of course. Katarina should have known that’s what this was about. Her acting as though her noble name was something questionable, surly that would reflect badly on their family. But it’s not like she meant to disrespect them. They were, after all, her family. “Yes, mother. I am Katarina Claes. I will remember that.”

“No.”

What?

Was she not Katarina Claes anymore? Was she being disowned by her mother and father? Was that why mother had brought her to the Hospice? Or, oh god, had her mother figured out she was isekai-d?

“No, forget your name. Forget the family name. I know who you are.” The grip on her leg tightens. “You are the person who looked at a scared, lonely little boy and decided that’s my brother now. You are the person who got the old widowed gardener to smile again for the first time since his wife had passed. You are the person that treats the servants as though they are holders of the family name, which now they might as well have now. You are the person who loves the world and the people in it so wholly that it baffles me. I never want to hear you question who you are because I know who you are. You are a good person.

“I wanted a perfect Lady, but I am humbled to have been blessed with my chaotic, pain in the neck, wonderful human being of a daughter. I am so proud to have you. I am so proud of you.”

Katarina thinks she sees her mother beginning to tear up, but she realizes that her own eyes are very misty. She rubs her eyes with the heels of both her hands with all her might. Too much might.

Katarina falls out of the tree.

“Katarina!” She hears her mother scream, and she’s sure that the woman is running to her to make sure she is fine.

But Katarina can’t help but to just laugh.


~~~

She did it. She got through another night without an incident.

After coming home from the Hospice again, she had a pleasant meal with her parents, them doing the most talking still, but she offered more of herself when she felt safe to. There was something asked of her that night, though.

Katarina, come to bed with us.

It was her father who asked it of her, which confused her more. If it was her mother, then she would understand; left on her own for one night, Katarina managed to ruin her hair. Mother trying to keep tabs on her made sense. But then again, her very caring, very doting father batting his eyes and pouting at her also made sense in a way.

She slept between her parents that night. She faced her father, who held her hand as she fell asleep. Her mother curled around her back, spooning her. Long, well-kept nails found their way into her hair, stroking her head and teasing her hair. If either of her parents saw the tears that Katarina had that night, they didn’t say anything.

Now it is her last day home, tomorrow being the day she has to go pick Keith up for the summer. She’s not looking forward to facing him again. Apparently, that could be easily translated on her face because her mother gave her a once over this morning and said you look horrid, stay home.

Probably for the better, Katarina wasn’t sure she could entertain the kids today, but she is definitely going back sooner rather than later. She’s sure that Rosie will have gained skill by then!

With mother and father gone, Katarina decides to lose herself in the mansion for the day.

The one thing that Katarina could never complain about in this life was the access to a personal library. While she still missed technology dearly, a phone would make reaching her friends so much easier, the quiet serenity of the room shelved with books almost seemed like a fair trade. Even as the wild child of the family, she liked their library; climbing the ladder, running up and down the aisles of books, making an adventure of her own.

"Is that The Emerald Princess and Sophia?" A voice asked from below her.

Below her. Because her monkey brain told her to climb things like usual.

In her defense, though she had originally climbed the ladder to get a book about self-worth on the top shelf, but found the familiar title from her childhood instead. It wasn't long after cracking open the romance book for nostalgia's sake that she climbed further up to sit on top of the casing as her legs had been going numb. And that is how Katarina is now found laying on top a bookshelf. If her mother had been here, then there would be blood spilled on the lovely new carpet.

"Yes?" She squeaks, too afraid to look down to see who she was addressing. Waiting for a response, she held her breath for some sort of reprimand or disapproval for either choice of seating or choice of literature.

More waiting begins to get her nerves to settle with this familiar atmosphere between her and her company, never a completely comfortable atmosphere, but it was one with a certain underlying energy that she grew fond of. "After all these years of hearing me and Sophia rant about it, have you ever actually read it, Nicol?"

"No." He answers. "I suppose I don't because I feel like it would ruin the mysterious wonder it has to me."

She laughs. "Then you know what it feels like to interact with yourself."

"Really?"

She sits up and swings her legs over the side of the shelf that his voice comes from. He stares up at her with those beautifully stoic eyes. "Yes." She takes some delight in seeing shock fill those eyes when he realizes what she looks like now. It's amazing what a pair of scissors and mental breakdowns can accomplish.

They stare at each other for what must only be a minute, but it feels like another fifteen years to her lifespan.

"I don't have council member duties to attend to either."

Ah.

Opening his coat up, he slips an envelope out of a pocket. "I've been sent as a messenger."

"Oh?" She's scared to ask who it is from. Maybe Keith denounces her as a Claes. Maybe Gerald is having her exiled now. Maybe Maria thinks she is the evil girl she was meant to be. Maybe it's from all them saying not to come back.

"It's from everyone."

Oh no.

Watching him unfold the letter is nerve quaking, like a mini earthquake rattling in her bones. While waiting, she decides to busy herself by jumping down from the bookshelf, not wanting to seem like she was literally putting herself above him. Besides, she would prefer to be closer to him in order to interpret the expressions he makes as he reads. If he makes facial expressions. Was it even possible for Nicol to make an expression of contempt or disgust?

She's probably about to find out.

He clears his voice.

"We hope that you are well. We are all truly sorry for the added stress and strain we have given you. All of us are willing to accept any type of punishment you seek fit, but we hope none of us have lost your friendship."

Nope, she needs a second.

Slowly, she makes her way backward until her back is against the bookshelf, and she slides down it. She wraps her arms around her raised knees, pulling them into her, trying to collect herself physically when she couldn't mentally. He's still been reading while she does this, but she misses whatever it is he says.

Finally noticing that she has moved, there is another flicker of emotion in his eyes. "Katarina, are you alright?"

"I'm good. I'm good." She waves a hand at him to signal to continue. "I just thought this was going to be a different type of letter." More of a 'hey, we finally figured you out you villainess' type letter. Not this.

She sees him waver. He turns on his heels, and for a minute, she thinks he's leaving her, but he stops at the adjacent bookcase and turns again to sit and lean against it just as she had. He looks like a little kid with his legs crossed like that.

"If you fall apart, then that is okay. We'll help you with the mending process. If you lose yourself, then that is okay. We will be your landmarks along the way. We've never had to face things alone, not when you were by our sides." He puts down the letter, signaling that was the end of their message. "Rafael and Maria wrote that last portion."

"Rafael is there now too?" Katarina whined. "Of course, everyone is together now, and I'm just being a pouty baby in the corner."

"You aren't a baby."

She laughs. "No, just an idiot."

He cocks his head to the side and wears what she thinks is disapproval on his features. It's a rather cute look for him, given his normal tagline of devilish charm. "Katarina, you have the highest emotional intelligence of anyone I know. You can read people and emotions as easily as you breathe. That must be why you don't see it. You don't need to think about breathing, so you don't even pay attention to the way you always care and tend to others."

That’s the most she thinks she’s ever heard him speak unprompted before. She still feels kind of weird about herself honestly. She still feels estranged and contained at the same time. But hearing that made something flutter in her chest.

Not having a real response besides a thank you to give him what follows is another silence. To be fair, quietness was something she learned to like around Nicol. It meant that he didn't expect much from her. He didn't need her to act proper, to entertain, or to force herself into any type of mold. He was okay with just sitting with her.

Though he was also willing to listen whenever she got ideas or plans pop into her head. "Sophia always said that the mysteriously charming heroes in the books we would read reminded her of you." He hums in agreement, having heard his sister make the comparison from time to time. "But I've always been curious, what type of character would you want to be?"

"I'm not sure. I've never thought about that."

She stands up and walks along the bookshelf. Running her fingertips along the spines of the rows of books as she walks, she stops towards the middle. She pulls out the book that her fingers stopped with her at. It's a poetry book. "How about a poet? A man of language and grace the relationship the two have together."

"I wouldn't have much to say," Nicol says. He raises from his spot now too, turning to face the bookcase he had just been leaning against. He grabs a book at random and reads the cover. "The Basics of Physics and Aerodynamics."

"A mad scientist?" Katarina corrects him.

"I can't laugh like a mad scientist."

"Oh, then you definitely don't qualify."

She jumps to reach for a book just above her height. It takes two more jumps for the book to come loose from its jam-packed, falling perfectly into her hand. She falls a little less perfectly and stumbles backwards. She waits for the impact of the floor on her butt.

An impact comes, but not on her butt. The pressure on her back is warm, and the arms that wrap around her midsection are secure.

"Are you alright?" Nicol asks.

Tilting her head back, she stares up at the enchanting boy, his expression still almost unreadable. Almost. She can see the glint of worry buried in his eyes.

Instead of answering the question, she holds up the book for them to both look at. It's a book about how to tie different types of knots on a boat. "A pirate!"

He chuckles. "More of a sailor."

"An adventurer. One that sails the seas and makes grand discoveries. Exploring the world at large."

"That does sound pleasant." He admits. "Be a great hero that doesn't have to worry about paperwork anymore."

"Exactly! Hair flowing in the wind as you captain your ship."

"Oh, I'm the Captain? Would I have a crew?"

"Yes, of course."

"Would I also get the girl at the end of the story?"

The arms around her waist pull her tighter, and she feels more of him press against her back. With her new length of hair and the lack of it, she can feel his breath on her neck. She lifts her head back again, and his face is close to hers. So very close. If she holds her own breath, she thinks that she could feel his heartbeat. It surprises her more than it should that his heart could get this excited and beat so rapidly.

"What girl wouldn't want you in this life or the next?"

"The one that matters most."

He holds her like that for a while. She’s not counting the seconds, but she knows it’s a while. When he finally lets her stand on her own, she kind of wishes it was a while more.

"I have to be going." He says, walking around her so that they are face to face again.

She nods in understanding. He's probably still checked in as a residential guest at the Academy, so he still has a technical curfew. He let's go of her, and she moves out of his space.

They face each other in silence, both waiting for the other to make the first move. It's been a long time since she's seen Nicol, which she knows, in reality, is only about three months, but when you see the rest of your friends every single day, you notice the piece missing. So she doesn't want him to leave.

"Will you still be coming to the ceremony?" He breaks the silence.

Katarina hasn't thought about going back. Well, she had actually, but she usually just pushed it to the back of her mind. She already knows that her mother will expect her to go. She could just ask her father for mercy and not make her go. Feigning sickness is an option. Her farming skills are still well kept, maybe it's not too late to just run away.

Then she looks at Nicol's face.

And she sees hope.

And she sees doubt.

Both of which she feels seep into her.

But most of all, she feels wanted.

"I will."


~~~

He hadn't even used his charm.

Nicol didn't even use his charm, and he got her to agree to a social outing - one that she dare say she is vastly unprepared for.

She knows that her friends sent Nicol as a messenger, and from the letter he presented, it didn't sound like they were mad at her, but what if they just felt like they needed to apologize? Like they needed to appease her so she could get away with how cruel she had been.

No, Katarina was definitely not ready for this.

"Here, I recently bought this dress for you to wear for only for a special occasion, but hopefully, it will distract from your hair now." Her mother spoke to her on the other side of a room divider. A moment later, a hand pops inward to Anne and hands off the dress in question. "But if you refuse it, then we can scrounge for something else."

"Yes, thank you, mother." At least she left a little wiggle room open for her.

Anne approaches with the dress and unfolds the white lacy material. It looks kind of extravagant, given that this is just a ceremony for a graduating class that she had no significant ties to.

The door on the other side of the room opens, and Katarina can hear whispers exchange. "Katarina, I will be back." Mrs. Claes declares, sounding rather annoyed. "Stay."

Doors open and close again.

Anne helps her change into the new lovely dress, which is still something she has to get used to in a way. At this point, she has limited it to only Anne, who is allowed to help her get dressed mostly because not having a maid do so would be considered unusual.

Another person enters the room again just as she gets the dress on right.

"Darling?"

"Yes, father?" She responded. She stares at the divider around the area where she thought she heard his voice come from.

"Sorry to interrupt so rudely, but your mother ran to see to an incident in the kitchen."

"What's wrong in the kitchen?"

"Nothing, I promised Isabelle extra pay if she made up an incident and bared your mother's ire for enough time to let us have a private conversation." Katarina sees Anne try to disguise a snort as a cough. "I needed to let you know that Daniel will be the driver on the way to the Academy and yours and Keith's driver on the way back as well."

Nothing about that statement seems to warrant a secret parle to Katarina. "Okay?"

"Daniel has also been informed that there is a chance that no one will be leaving the carriage, so he must only pick Keith up when it is time." Mr. Claes says, and while the gears are still running in Katarina's head to catch up, he continues. "He has been given two homemade lunches if they are needed. I had tried to slip him some extra compensation as well, but when he heard the favor, I was asking he had refused payment."

Daniel had permission to let her stay in the carriage and just wait out the ceremony?

What a brilliant and wonderful father she has!

But still . . .

Looking towards Anne and receiving a nod in return, she walks from behind the divider to come face to face with her father. "Thank you for. Thank you for all that you've done for me, not just in the past few days but for all these years. I know having a daughter like me can be a little tiresome." He opens his mouth, probably either ready to confirm or deny that statement, but she forces her way on. "And for that, I'm going to try my best from now on."

He still looks hung up on the previous statements, but given a moment of silence, he tenderly asks. "In what?"

"In putting as much faith in myself as you have."

Anne swears she could hear his heartstrings being plucked and played in a lovely crescendo. "Oh god, when did you grow up?" He looks close to tears as he draws Katarina into a rib crushing hug.

She returns the hug and tries to put all the love, hope, fear, and trust she contains into the world between the; convey her feelings in a language other than verbal, which usually does her injustice on many, many levels.

"Dear, please let her go before you wrinkle her dress." When had her mother come back?

With one last deathly squeeze, he does as his wife commands.

Her mother glides toward her like she's too graceful to even let her feet hit the ground. She looks at Katarina like she's inspecting a cabbage that's ready to be put on the market. "It looks good." She says. "How do you like it?"

She gestures to the mirror. Stepping up to the mirror, Katarina looks at herself, and holy gosh that can't be her. That can not be her.

Miri appears behind her in the mirror. Katarina watches as the woman in the reflection places her hand on Katarina's shoulder. Coincidently she feels warmth on that same shoulder. Another hand brushes through the fringe of her hair. "I'm glad you didn't cut this as well."

And strangely, so is Katarina. She likes that her hair is just about as short as her last life, but she's also glad that it hadn't occurred to her to cut the fringe of hair that gathered at the left side of her head. So now it left her looking like a fusion of her past self and her now self. She was the love child of herself.

"I love it, mother," she finally says. "Thank you."

The woman seemed surprised by this reaction but recovered fast. Katarina wonders what caused the surprise, though. "Yes, well. Have Anne do your hair and pick a pair of heels. Your father and I will be waiting to escort you to the carriage."

“Yes, mother.” She curtsies for them in her new dress.

Once both parents are out the door, they immediately turn to one another.

"Did you see it?" Luigi asks. He looked as giddy as a child.

Miri nods, a smile beginning on her own face. She couldn’t help it. She was too happy.

The flame was lit again. It wasn't as bright still as it once had been, but it was back. Katarina had her spark.


~~~

"How would you like your hairstyles, Lady Katarina." Anne comes out from behind the divider with a box and a blue ribbon that matches the lace of her dress.

"I'm not sure? I don't know what you can do with short hair." Katarina confesses. "Could you just do whatever you think would look best? I trust you."

"Of course, my Lady. Come sit." She pats the chair by Katarina's vanity after she puts the box down of its table. The maid tells her that she should still be able to make a small half-crown braid in her shorter hair with the help of her ribbon. Katarina agrees easily to the concept, really meaning that she trusted whatever Ann’s judgment was.

Katarina takes her seat. Besides the tingles she gets from the woman playing with her hair, something itches at her. "What's in the box?"

"It's your shoewear for the night. It was left to me by Master Nicol." Anne says with a smile in her voice. "You can open it."

With that permission, she takes the box off the table without moving her head while Anne worked. The box itself was a pretty cream color with caramel patterns on its lid, but it was strangely light. Upon opening the box, she understands why it's so light.

She tries not to look down too much, still not wanting to ruin Anne's work, but she has to peer into the empty box. No, excuse her, there is a note in the box.


No need to have more anxieties on this day. Be free, Katarina. I cannot wait to see you again!!

With all my love,

Mary

Katarina holds the note to her chest as if to absorb the kindness written in it. Speaking of kindness. "Hey, Anne?"

"Yes, Lady Katarina?"

"I love you." The hands in her hair stop, which worries Katarina, but she really needs to say this. "You've always been looking out for me and cared about me no matter how weird things got or how strange I was. You're like family to me. Maybe that's silly of me to say since you are getting paid to be around me, but it's true. So thank you for all that you've given me, and I love you."

"Lady Katarina, can you hold your hair for me?"

Katarina brings her hands up and behind her head to hold bundles of hair that Anne's hands let go of. "Like this?"

"Yes. Thank you." Anne walks away from her, which makes Katarina feel a little ridiculous with how she is positioned now by herself.

"Can I ask why?"

"Because I need a tissue and refuse to finish your hair while blinded." Katarina hears her sniffle a little somewhere behind her. "I love you too."


~~~

"Thank you for the ride, Daniel." She comes up to the front to give gratitude to the driver. She gives a pat to the horse on his rear as a thank you to him as well.

"Are you leaving me, my Lady?"

At this point, she would have thought she'd desperately say no. But there's something giddy inside her about the idea of being with her friends. "Yes, I'm sorry. I'll be back with my brother soon, though."

"No need to rush! Enjoy yourself, dear."

She takes a step back as he drives away. There's still another hour and a half before the students need to take their seats in the courtyard, so she has some time to kill. Time to go see her friends again. Luckily her feet already know where she wants to go before she even decides on it.

Before her is a door that looks like every other door in dorms, but this one is special. So very special.

There are two voices behind the door, one female as expected but another male. It isn't hard for her to guess who the male is given the information that Nicol gave her. She takes a deep breath, one that brings her the faint scent of marshmallows and roses that draws an unconscious smile to her lips, and she knocks.

"One minute!" The silky sweet voice calls from behind the door, and it wasn't until that very moment she realized she had missed that voice.

But a wave of newfound anxiety managed to find a way to run through every single one of her nerves. They hadn't left on bad terms, but well, they didn't leave on the right terms.

The look of distress that comprised Maria's face had the villainess doubting that her coming back was a good idea.

"Are you and Prince Gerald getting married?" Maria asks, stepping forward and out of the door frame. The same panic that showed in her eyes was evident in her voice. Maybe it was her desperate tone, or the volume of her voice, or perhaps even the accusation itself, but the two girls now had heads turned and attentions caught.

"What?"

"Are you and the Third Prince getting married?"

"No," Katarina answered a little unsure of herself now. Was she? Did she agree to something again by accident? If anything, she would have thought that Gerald would be canceling their engagement after all that happened.

"Oh," Maria said, her beautiful features releasing her previous tension. Then her eyes lit up with a sudden gasp. Her hands came up and clasped Catarina's hands within her own. "Are we getting married?"

"Huh?" Katarina asked. She is now more lost than ever.

"Am I invited?" The male voice from before calls from somewhere inside the room.

"Yes, perfect. You can be the best man Rafael." Something bright is in the blonde's eye, and the shy smile that flatters her face compliments her pink cheeks. "If you give me a moment, I can change into the dress I wore during last year's ceremony. It is the whitest dress I own, and we could be on our way!"

"Maria, please, why are you marrying me off?"

"Oh." The pink that fills her face now is darker and more extensive. "My apologies. It's just that, well, you look like a bride Katarina."

"Oh." It is the brunette's turn to try out the syllable. "Is it too much? Should I change?" Running a hand down the seams to press out any wrinkles, she thinks maybe she shouldn't have gone with a dress so gaudy. She also still had her blue dress from last year's ceremony, and she still had time to change. She just didn't like the idea of going back to her room just yet.

"No! You look wonderful!" Maria reassured.

"Are you sure?"

She nods with a soft smile that makes Katarina's heart takes a leap. "You look stunning."

"Thank you, Maria. You look beautiful as well, but that's as expected of you."

"Oh, dear, I've been so rude! Please come in!"

"Thank you." Katarina steps into the room. It's the same as it always is whenever she visits. Rafael sits on Maria's bed, playing with a yellow ribbon in his hands. He was probably helping Maria with it before Katarina knocked. He waves at her with the ribbon loosely wrapped around his hand.

"I see what Maria meant with the bride notion."

"So it is too much!"

"No, no. The look of bride suits you very well." He waves his hand as if to bat away her worry. "Nicol warned us about the new hair, but I must say that's quite a change."

"Does it look strange?"

"No! It looks good on you. I like the way it frames your face." Maria jumps in.

Silence fell among them. It was a soft silence, one that they both knew well among their conversations. But still, Katarina knew she had to speak.

"So, how were things while I was gone?"

Maria looks away, and the hand on her thigh leaves. "Quiet."

"I'm sorry. I wasn't -"

"No! I'm sorry. I should have stood up for you; we all agreed to go swimming. It wasn't your fault, and the boys shouldn't have been so aggressive about it!" There was genuine anger in Maria's voice, and that, more than an angered Gerald ever could, scared Katarina. "We all put so much pressure on you. And that wasn't fair. We're sorry. I'm sorry." Maria looks her in the eye, and the genuine fear in them moves her. "Please, forgive me."

Katarina can't help it. Not when sweet Maria was looking at her like that and spoke so earnestly. Katarina had to fling herself into her friend's arms. Maria stumbles backwards from the affectionate impact, but regains her balance and quickly latches onto Katarina just as tightly.

"Only if you forgive me first," Katarina whispers into the blond's neck.

"Should I give you two a minute?"

“Hush you.”


~~~

Katarina is lying on Maria’s bed, seated next to Rafael as he finishes up her ribbon. She kneels in front of him as he works, and from how it looks so far, it seems like Maria is receiving the same braid as Katarina’s. She’s not talking much, she knows she’s not, but she takes more comfort in just listening.

There’s still just something sitting on her chest. When she glances back over to Rafael as he talks, adorably enthusiastically, about the newest brands of tea he’s discovered lately, a thought wanders into her mind.

"Is this how you felt all these years?" Katarina asks absentmindedly. She realizes her mistake when her eyes open again to find Rafael looking down at her quizzically.

"Pardon?"

"No, never mind, it was a stupid comment."

"Katarina."

"I asked if this is what you've felt for all these years." She laughs a little too dryly. "But I know I'm being dramatic. You went through something awful. That pain isn't something I can imagine."

He stares at her for another prolonged minute, and she begins to feel like a complete fool. He finally turns away to finish with Maria's hair, and Katarina can feel her lungs thanking the gods for it because she didn't know how much longer she could hold her breath while he stared at her.

Before she had much time to celebrate, though, he must have finished with the ribbon because he was throwing himself back onto the bed right beside her. He laid on her right and turned to curl on his side so that he could face her.

"Pain is pain. Just because someone might have had it at a higher level, which can be subjective, or for a longer amount of time doesn't mean you can't hurt." He stops for a moment, and she thinks he's done. She is woefully wrong when she finds an arm coming to lay on her stomach and feels his body heat move a tad closer. "Different things can be sad. Different things can be painful. Even things that don't have an explanation."

The bed dips on the other side of her. She peeks to see Maria inching closer to her in the same position that Rafael is in. When her arm also comes to rest on Katarina's stomach, she moves her fingers up and down the girl's side in reassurance. Maria is close enough that Katarina feels the blond's breath on her shoulders as she talks. "I've always thought of it as a sunk feeling. Not sinking, you've already reached the bottom, so now you just stay there with the pressure still trying to push you further somehow."

Katarina takes her arms away from her eyes and places her hands on the arms around her. She rubs circular patterns into them. "How did you get past it?"

Rafael moves once again so that his head rests atop her shoulder. His hair is softer than she imagined. "Honestly? I'm still working on it. Being so alone and hopeless for so long, even with great friends and kind words to help me now, it's not something I just move past."

"Time doesn't just heal wounds. It gets infected if you wait around for it to heal naturally. It has to be treated and looked after carefully. Wounds heal with time and progress." Maria says.

And Katarina realizes that if anyone would understand feeling like they don’t belong somewhere, it’s these two. They’ve all been hurt and alone before. "Then, we should progress together."

Maria giggles, and the warmth of it sends shivers down her spine. "We already are. Just one more day at a time."

"Just one more day of progress." Katarina agrees.

She feels so wanted, so understood, so loved, so progressive between these two angels who radiate warms and comfort. How could she have ever doubted her place when she had people like this in her life? Nothing could ruin this moment.

"You know what would be great progress? A wedding. We still have time, you and Maria can elope while everyone is distracted."

“Raf!”

Nothing.


~~~

They're gonna be late. The cuddle section went on for too long, and now they are gonna be late for seating.

Running down the halls, flying past other students and school members who likely weren’t attending the graduation, Katarina has them all linked hand in hand so that they all keep the same pace. At one point, Rafael gives her a sly smile, and she realizes that he probably got a glimpse of her bare feet. She returns his smile readily and winks.

All three of them are breathing heavily when they make it to the courtyard with some time to spare. About two minutes, but they still have spare time.

“There.” Maria points to the third row of chairs where they spot a familiar group of friends. There’s three seats reserved in line with them. So they planned to let her sit with them. “Come on.” Maria pulls her hand as she walks in the directions of their friends.

“Lady Katarina?” They all stop at the address of her. Two rows away from where they stand now, a group of girls waves excitedly to her. It’s the Ladies that Katarina likes to spend time with outside of the student council members. The ones that she likes to eat lunch with, trade study notes with, and share stories with. The ones she also left behind with no warning. They aggressively point at an empty chair that is next to them.

“Guys, I think I should-”

“We understand.” Rafael relaxes her.

“Yes, of course,” Maria says. “Just be sure to find us after?”

Katarina nods. “Will do!” She turns to walk in over to her other friend when Maria grabs her by the arm to stop her.

"Wait, before you go." Raising on her toes slightly, she leans in to place a kiss on the tip of Katarina's nose.

Needing a minute to reboot, Katarina beams at the blond as she rests back down on the heels of her feet. "Maria!"

"Yes?" She asks with a shy smile.

"You are too cute!" Katarina laughs. She leans down and gives a peck of her own to Maria's soft cheek. "I'll see you guys after the speeches!"

As Rafael, who looked like he'd been told the best joke in the world, and Maria, whose face is as red as his hair watched Katarina walk away, they waved farewell.

"It is a wonder that no one has gotten her to elope without knowing yet." He laughs at the little shove Maria gives him. "What, you know it's true."

She sighs. "Yeah, just don't give anyone else the idea."

Speeches go off without a hitch, and afterward, Katarina gets to talk with her girls. They are very understanding about the whole situation and forgive her without a second thought. She doesn’t deserve such amazing friends. She excuses herself when she realizes how much time has already passed now that she sees people taking to the dance floor.

Finding her friends out of a crowd is not hard; they all stand out like stars fallen to the earth. They are all gathered by the food table, which is conveniently where Katarina would have gone if she couldn’t find them. The princes seem to be missing from the group, but that’s to be expected since the ceremony hasn’t even hit the halfway point. Duty calls elsewhere for now.

Even as she approaches, none of them seem to notice her. She’s standing slightly behind Keith’s right, and still, no one has noticed her. Not going to lie, she’s kind of loving this. Someone snorts, and everyone’s attentions turn to Rafael, who is across from Keith. His hand is over his mouth as he stares directly at Katarina with amusement. The other follow his line of sight, and all of a sudden, she is bombarded.

Keith is on her immediately. “Sister, I’m so sorry! I’ll never yell at you again!”

She tries to pry his death grip off her. “Keith, please. It’s alright.”

“Keith, you’re crushing her,” Mary says, pulling at his arm. Granted, she’s going to latch onto Katarina right after she yanks him off, but she’ll be gentler about it.

When Keith lets her loose enough, she ducks out of the embrace and moves her way through her friends. She takes Maria’s outstretched hand and places her lips on the back of them. Maria and Rafael are right behind her when she needs help standing after Katarina lets go of the hand. Next, she moves on to the Ascart siblings by giving Sophia a quick peck on the cheek, which the girl giggles at, and grabs Nicol by the arm.

"Care to dance sailor?"

When Nicol looks at her, a real, genuine smile spreads across his face, and he chuckles. "I'd love to."


~~~

At the moment, his current distraction was his brother's distracted face. It was alarmed and smitten and in awe, all at once. Alan did recover at some point in the conversation, but Gerald is sure that the gentleman still speaking had taken notice of his brother's prolonged interest elsewhere. Even now, with his head turned to the talking man Gerald catches Alan's eyes flicker just beyond Gerald's shoulder. After the third glance, it takes everything in the third Prince to not see whatever it is for himself.

"I'm sorry to have taken up so much of your time, your highnesses." The man ends his one-sided conversation. "I can see that there our attentions are elsewhere tonight."

Damn it, Alan, they do not need bad talk about them. It's already hard to be the youngest in a royal line up; they do not need to sabotage themselves like this. "No, sir, I assure you-"

The man holds up a gloved hand. "Your highness, with all due respect, you are young, and this is a party. Make use of both while you still can. Enjoy yourselves!" He wanders off in a different direction.

Well, that worked out. But it could have easily not had. "Alan, what were you doing? What are you even-" as Gerald tries to turn in the direction that his brother's eyes kept lingering to a pair of hands grab his shoulders. Alan is suddenly a step closer in his personal space, and Gerald wishes him not to be. "What on earth-"

"I need you to promise me that you won't commit any murders."

"Excuse me?" He did not hear that right.

"Swear you will not commit any type of murder. No arson, no poison, no throwing off of balconies, nothing."

"Who do you think you are talking to?"

"My petty ass, extra ass, sadist ass brother." Alan looks incredibly too serious saying that statement. "Now swear to me."

Letting out a sigh, a large one to let his brother know he is being ridiculous, he complies with the bizarre request. "I swear that I will not commit a murder."

"Even your own."

"What?"

"Just say it."

"Fine, even my own. Are we quite done now?"

Alan sighs, a much less dramatic one that more so portrayed exhaustion then annoyance. The grip on Gerald loosens and slips away. "Alright, yeah, you can turn now. But like, stay calm?"

Gerald has had quite enough of this. Whatever it is that is happening isn't something he needs to be coddled through. He turns on his heels to face the dance floor.

And he should not have sworn.

He should have never sworn such a promise.

Not when Katarina, his beautiful angel, looked like that while dancing with Nicol. Not when Katarina had hair that swept along her gorgeous angular face making her look so much freer and cute and mature and like a lady and like herself. Not when she looked like the embodiment of a summer night with the stars as her halo and the moon as her smile.

Not when she looked like everything he could have ever wanted, and he has screwed everything up so royally in a way that he knows his chances to bathe in that moonlit smile are diminished.

He wishes he hadn't sworn because finding the nearest cliff right now sounds so much easier than breaking off his connection to the beauty of life herself.


~~~

Katarina doesn't know what she was worried about.

Nicol took her by the waist and lifted her, quite literally sweeping her off her feet. She laughs, clinging to his arms. She laughs as she holds onto him, and the rare sight of his smile is still present.

The song comes to an end. She’s back on her own feet, loving the feeling of the ground on her skin of her feet. They walk back together to rejoin the rest of their friends. She pauses, spotting the mop of elegant blond hair that she’s been dreading to see again.

“Are you alright?” Nicol had stopped with her.

No. She felt like she was going to throw up. Or scream again. Hell, why not combo?

“I’m fine,” she says instead.

Nobody says anything at first when Nicol and Katarina reunite with the rest of them. There’s a tension still buzzing and threatening. No one what was gonna happen if they prodded at it.

Gerald is having a hard time looking at her. She doesn’t actually know this though, because she couldn’t look at him either. "Katarina, if you would allow, I would like to speak to you in private." He sounds so serious. Out of habit, she reaches to the place where the pockets of her usual dress would be, checking to see if she brought her snake with her. Maybe she should have kept a situation like this in mind when picking out her dress.

She shakes that thought away. No. Gerald won't hurt her. Well, he won't attack her at the very least. She knew that. "Yes, of course."

He nods back, holding out his arm for her to take. "Pardon us." He says for them both.

Maria and Keith look like they are both physically straining to keep themselves from following as the couple walks away from the group. Alan actually does keep a hold of Mary.

Gerald leads Katarina past other guests, both of them smiling and waving to the right people when necessary. They then find themselves walking out further away from the party. The place where her garden had been not even two weeks ago is where he stops them.

She's the one who breaks off their linked arms. Facing him properly, they both wait for the other to kill the tension first.

She decides to bite the bullet. "Gerald, I'm-"

The bullet bites back.

"No. Please." He stops her. He still looks as pained as he did when she left, and that breaks her heart so much more than she was ready for. "You were right. I do use you."

His hands come up to cup her face, but they hesitate to actually touch her. The warmth of him is close enough to send a shiver through her. She takes his hands and places them on her cheeks, which seems to make some of the pain on his face dissipate but then also grows.

"Not for string-pulling, but you are right in the fact that it is dehumanizing to you." He continues. "I still do not understand what you meant that night when you said that I do not deserve Maria, but you were right to say I do not deserve the girl that I treasure more than life itself."

So he does cherish someone. Though she can't think of anyone, he could be sweet on other than Maria.

"My greatest trump card is our engagement. I flaunt it and use it to my advantage."

Katarina . . . is lost. Trump card? For what?

"But you are not a possession; you are a wonderful, extraordinary person. Not a prize. This is not a game; it's your life, your happiness. I'm not sadistic enough to ruin that." He laughs, probably to play the sadistic part off as a joke, but he still looks so distressed. "So if you ask me for an annulment, I will comply. But please note that I am not giving up. I am still fighting for you. It's just that now we will all just be equal suitors."

This is it. This is the moment she's been waiting for. Nearly eight years in the making. The moment where the prince agrees to break off their engagement. Why does it feel so hollow? So sunken.

"No." She says before she realizes she's saying it.

"No?" He repeats. He sounds confused, but he looks hopeful.

"I can't quite describe it," she explains. "but that just sounds more . . . lonely. I don't really get what you mean by suitors and such, but if we aren't engaged, then you wouldn't have reason to visit me as much anymore, and then Alan wouldn't tag along with you. Which, of course, means Mary wouldn't come with him as much either. While my mother does disapprove of our engagement, she enjoys your presence and speaks so highly of you, and Keith would certainly miss your talks if you stopped coming."

"Katarina, what are you saying?" His hands squish her face a little more. The first thought about his newfound strength makes her think that maybe he really would just rather break the engagement. Though from one look at his face, she's pretty sure that excitement she sees doesn't match her theory.

"Prince Gerald, you made me have a mental break down and chop off my hair. No one would ever have me as a bride now, so you must take responsibility."

He smiles. The first time since she's been back he smiles. So wide and bright and genuinely. The soft hands caressing her face leave their place and move to her shoulders instead, and he pulls her forward. "Yes Princess." He whispers in her ear, then something soft is pressed to the corner of her mouth.

She blinks.

"I have a condition for once."

"Anything. Absolutely anything." Katarina's concerned that she might have broken him. It doesn't seem like he could stop smile even if he attempted to.

"Please, please stop calling me Princess. My mother nearly had an aneurism when you said it in front of her last break."

"Fine, but then you must tell me what I should call you."

"My name."

"Unacceptable."

"How about Goddess Devine?" Another person enters their conversation.

Suddenly she is out of Gerald's grasp, and a new set of arms wrap around her shoulders, pulling her back to press up against another person. Beautiful copper hair that comes into her view makes it obvious who has joined them.

"I thought we had asked for privacy?" Gerald smiles at Mary.

Oh.

How did Katarina miss this?

Their connection must be more profound than she had originally thought.

Poor Alan.

"If Katarina is a Goddess, then she'd make it rain chocolate just because she was hungry." Speak of the devil; the fourth prince appears right behind Mary. "Sorry, I tried talking her into staying put, but you know how Mary can get."

"So, you thought it better to join her?" Gerald closes his eyes and tilts his head, still smiling like everything was alright.

"No." Alan scoffed.

"We all thought it better to join her," Keith says, walking up next to Alan. Smug smiles hung proudly on both their faces.

Maria, Sophia, Nicol, and Rafael appear next in a group.

"Are you done with your talk?" Nicol asks.

"Well, I suppose now we are." Gerald grits. "And Mary, I would very much appreciate it if you removed yourself from my fiancée."

Keith and Maria both groan for some reason. Mary also crinkles her nose cutely at the word fiancée. Man, maybe Katarina should have backed off from Gerald.

Mary takes a step away from Katarina, but she holds onto her hand. "Nicol, tell me that I'm wrong." She asks.

"Aw, why does Nicol get to?" Rafael says.

"About what?" Nicol replies to the initial question.

"That Goddess Devine is the perfect pet name for Katarina."

"While I appreciate the gesture of the name, isn't that a little too much?"

"It's also too serious for someone like Katarina," Sophia added, as though that went along with what Katarina had said.

"How about Muffin?" Maria suggests.

"Muffin?" Katarina considers it. She liked the thought of being called a treat, but it might be too cute for her villainess's face.

"Yes!" Maria insists. "You like sweets so much, and you are so sweet yourself, so it only seems appropriate."

"You know, I was trying to find something to call my fiancée myself." Gerald reminds the group.

"What about Flower?" Sophia looked straight at Katarina as she made the suggestion.

"Oh, how cute!" Maria clapped her hands, also now staring at Katarina with a blindingly hopeful smile.

"It makes sense, too, with all the gardening she does," Nicol says to state his approval.

Alan huffs out a mock scoff. "But she tends vegetables." The smile on his face speaks a completely different sentiment to his contrary statement.

"Same difference." Mary waves him off.

"Well, what do you think Kat-" Gerald laughs, seemingly given up on trying to control the conversation. Or maybe he just liked that nickname best, so he let it slide. She's still never going to doubt his cunning. "Katarina! What's wrong?"

"Wrong?" She asks.

She doesn't understand the sudden panic. Before Gerald can move any closer to her, Maria is already latched onto her right arm and looks to her like the world is in danger. Mary is on her other arm, not a moment later, with a very similar concern drawn on her face. Looking up, she sees her other friends draw closer as well. But they begin to blur.

She wants to reassure them, tell them that she is fine, let them know their concern is misguided. Yet she can't dismiss the sudden welling of water that clouds her sight, unconscious tears being drawn out as an echo from within her rings clear.

Flower.

 

Hey, Flower Girl, did you do last night's math homework?

A-chan, we didn't have homework. Did we?

 

I can't imagine the day a boy comes knocking on my door for our Flower's hand.

Dad!

 

My precious little Flower.

I love you too mom.

Tsubaki Hoshi

Her name had been Tsubaki.

She was a flower.

"Katarina?"

The tears are now consciously shed, but they aren't sad per se. They're relieving.

"Sorry, sorry." She takes her hand away from Mary, using it to wipe away the tear to look at them all properly. "Please call me Flower whenever you like from now on. It would make me incredibly happy."

Katarina Claes still doesn't know if she's a zucchini or flower, in all honesty, her analogues have gotten too messy. But at the very least, she does know that there is a long list of people that love, tend, and pick her every single day. People that don't want her to change her leaves, but still allow her to bloom. People that will love her no matter the process or outcome, just grateful that she is there.

And she's willing to work to make sure that her name is on the top of that list from now on.