The way it happened was a complete accident, her brother later tells her. As she was walking into their home at the start of a short vacation, she had only just slipped on a loose stone on the pathway outside, falling backwards and hitting her head on the rough cobblestones. It was no one’s fault, but seeing her wound bleed so much that parts of her once-white hair turned a deep, rusty, reddish-brown had made everyone around her - friends, family, servants - blame themselves for not watching her more closely.
Sophia Ascart wants to get up and let everyone know that she’s just fine, or at least on the mend, but with Nicol’s soft voice washing over her and her mind spiraling through new-found old memories, all she can do is go back to sleep.
It happens like this.
Some way, somehow, after a long and fulfilling life, Sasaki Atsuko had died. Sophia didn’t particularly care much to remember that part, but it did feel rather important - but what really mattered was how she had lived her life. She’d had a job, and a family that had expanded over the years, and for the most part, she had been happy. Her death had been both expected and peaceful - she was so old that, by the time it rolled around, she’d seen it coming for years - and at the end, Sasaki Atsuko had been satisfied with her life.
Except for one thing.
Through the course of her life, her memories of middle and high school had faded slightly, and she couldn’t quite remember her old friends well, let alone her classmates who she hadn’t seen in years. But the memories of her best friend from high school were clearer than ever, like they had been together just recently. She remembered them like they had happened yesterday, from the moment they had met to the hazy days after the funeral. She remembered the promise she had made to herself just a few days after the funeral; after she had seen the last message her best friend had sent her the morning of her death, Atsuko had done her best to live life to the fullest, the way her best friend would never be able to.
And as she lay there on her deathbed, surrounded by her family, she thought back to the wish that she had made so long ago - that she would be reunited with her best friend one day, so that perhaps in another life, they could be friends once again. In whatever world, in whatever life, Atsuko’s wish had always stayed the same.
So how had she ended up like this…?
Of course she remembered Fortune Lover. It, like her best friend, had never faded from her memory, but never in her wildest dreams had she thought that playing the game would ever be useful . And yet, here she was, reborn as a rival character from that very game - someone who she had once gleefully crushed in order to get the good ending with Nicol Ascart - still alive and happy after the game’s canon had ended, but somehow still Maria’s rival.
Not for Nicol, but instead for Katarina Claes.
Looking back on it, that was where things had changed. Before she had remembered, she hadn’t been sure on the specifics of the accident that had left Katarina scarred, as it had happened before they met. In the game, the accident had just been an excuse to make Katarina into the villainess - no one really liked the kind, passive fiances who simply rolled over and let the protagonist steal their betrotheds, it was why Mary and Sophia hadn’t been massively popular characters - and it had kick-started the plot. But here,the accident had changed things. No one ever talked about what Katarina was like before it had happened, they would only say that her personality had changed completely, almost overnight. Until she had regained her memories, Sophia hadn’t believed the rumors one bit - that Katarina had been a spoiled brat who exhibited the worst qualities of the nobility - but now… Just what on earth could have happened to change her personality so much from a true villainess to the kind, loving, oblivious person she was today? Could the accident have rattled her head so much that the plot just fell off track?
It wasn’t something she was going to complain about - Katarina herself had become such an integral part of Sophia’s life and had improved it in so many ways - but it was baffling nonetheless.
The day after she wakes up fully, it’s to a bedroom packed with visitors. Nicol is in his usual spot at her bedside - not that Sophia would have expected anything different, overprotective as he is - and Katarina is sitting at her other side, clutching her hand. Keith is standing behind Katarina, a strained expression on his face. It’s the same expression he gets each time Katarina accidentally seduces someone and he’s there to witness it.
Sophia has to wonder who has fallen under her spell this time.
And then her thoughts catch up to her and she sits up abruptly, startling both Nicol and Katarina, who had been speaking softly about something . They both jump back, Nicol silently and Katarina with an “Ack!” before springing back up in shock.
Sophia can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous they look.
A moment later, she’s being squashed between two pairs of arms and bombarded with questions. Holding up her arms, she gently extricates herself, and between giggles, she says, “I’m fine, I’m fine! You don’t have to worry so much!”
“Sophia, you’ve been asleep for three days!” Katarina wails. “How are you feeling? Are you alright? Do you need any water?” For all that she looks overjoyed that Sophia is awake, her skin is pale and wan, her eyes are slightly red-rimmed and the bags under her eyes are more prominent than usual. The absurd thought pops into her mind that it’s a wonder that Duchess Claes let her out of the house looking like that.
“Are you okay, Lady Katarina?” Sophia has to ask. “You’re looking…”
Katarina laughs sheepishly. “I’m fine! Maybe I’ve been having a little trouble sleeping, but it’s okay, especially now that you’re awake!”
Sophia fights down the urge to scold her like she would one of her children and just hugs her close once again, as Nicol’s arms come to cover them both and his face presses into the junction between her shoulder and neck. Keith steps closer to rest his hand on Katarina’s shoulder, and Sophia can practically feel his own quiet happiness radiating over them. With all of them so close, Sophia has never felt safer in either of her lives.
Sophia Ascart’s story wasn’t one that Sasaki Atsuko had really paid attention to as she was playing Fortune Lover . She was the generic ‘bullied little sister’ character, one that she, as Maria Campbell, had happily and easily pushed out of the way in order to get to Nicol. Sophia herself had only put up a token resistance in-game, too quiet and fearful to make much of a fuss about… anything, really. Atsuko had felt a little bad for her, really, but in the end, she was just a fictional bullied little sister, right? There was no use in being too sympathetic, because then she wouldn’t win over Nicol.
Oh, how that had come back to bite her.
But at the time, Atsuko’d had fun talking about how she was going to crush Sophia with her best friend. In fact, in a particularly villainous moment, she had almost spoiled the whole route, including the most effective way to squash Sophia as the rival for an easier time romancing Nicol, for her best friend, who hadn’t yet played it. It had been even more amusing watching her flail about after crying about spoilers - teasing her best friend with them and holding them over her head to make her play faster so they could discuss the routes as quickly as possible had been something that could make her day, always.
Teasing her best friend, in general, had been one of life’s greatest pleasures, then.
But as she sits in the library of her home, remembering, Sophia can’t help but think, at least in this life, she has Katarina to tease. Katarina, who was so delightfully innocent that even the slightest mention of romance, in real life, could make her red and flustered for the rest of the day. Katarina, who would do anything to support her friends in all their endeavors, not realizing what exactly it was - or rather who it was - that everyone wanted.
And Sophia knows what she wants. She always has known, since the day Katarina almost fell on her out of a tree and scared away the people bullying her. She also had always known what was most likely going to happen, and instead had made a point to support Nicol. He was the only one of the two of them with an actual chance, after all.
But she isn’t so passive, now. She might have been, once, but even if the Sophia of now is softer than Sasaki Atsuko ever was, her past life has given her a spine of pure steel. She’d needed to grow one after her best friend’s death, and it had never left her, instead serving her well through life. Atsuko had learned to chase the things she wanted, that she was passionate about, that she loved. Katarina’s regard and affection was just something else Atsuko had to chase, and she never gave up without a fight. Not even for her brother.
It’s a little hilarious, she has to admit. What are the odds that, in both lifetimes, Sophia would be in love with her best friend?
The problem is this: no matter how Sophia confesses, Katarina would never believe her feelings were genuine. For some reason, she seems to believe that no matter what, Sophia is supposed to be with Nicol and Nicol only. It’s not that Sophia doesn’t love her brother or anything, but she certainly doesn’t love him like that. And in any case, she wants Nicol to have his own life now - he deserves it, after having to take care of her his whole life. She used to think that him having his own life would involve being married to Katarina, but… Sophia isn’t nearly as selfless now as she used to be. She loves her brother, more than anything, and she’s so, so grateful to him for what he’s done for her, but she’s not willing to sacrifice her love to him. One way or another, she will make her feelings clear to Katarina. After that, even if it’s not up to her anymore, at least she will have tried.
All of that being said, Katarina being so oblivious to everyone’s romantic feelings for her is a little odd, especially when she’s reasonably perceptive about everything else.
Katarina isn’t stupid. She isn’t the quickest to pick up concepts, but she’s willing to work at it until she understands - it’s how she stays firmly in the middle of their class rankings. Somehow, she managed to see straight through her parents in order to fix their marriage, and she had known just from the expression on Anne’s face that she didn’t want to be married - according to Keith, at least. But she was rather inclined to believe him, because even though he loved Katarina as much as she did, he wasn’t one to downplay her faults.
When they had first come to the academy, there had been so many students who wanted nothing more than to be friends with Katarina as well, and though she was as obliviously friendly as ever, she somehow still knew which students to be legitimately friendly with and which ones to avoid. At the time, she had cited it as just a gut feeling, and Sophia had just brushed it off. Now, though, with her knowledge of the game, Sophia knows that the students Katarina had avoided were the type to take advantage of other students and bully the ones they didn’t like - namely, Maria. Katarina was certainly more perceptive when it came to matters that were not of her own heart.
There is a certain familiar feeling to the way Katarina navigates the world, but Sophia can’t quite place it. Maybe she’s just overthinking it, but the thought doesn’t leave her mind.
When Sophia returns to the academy a week later, she’s struck by how utterly small everyone seems now.
It’s not that she’s an old woman stuck in a young body, or something - her mental state seems to have melded, with a little adjustment time, in a way that’s given her the knowledge of her older past self, while allowing her to keep the mindset and maturity of her sixteen-year-old self. She’s glad for it, since she doesn’t have to feel so much older than her peers all of a sudden, but with the extra memories and life experience, their worries just feel so petty . Who’s getting married to who, bullying those they deem as “lesser”, worrying about hair and makeup and dresses… Sometimes, Sophia just wants to pat them all on the head and tell them that everything’s going to be okay. And maybe knock some sense into them.
Being a teenager hadn’t seemed so stressful last time, but then again, last time, she hadn’t been a noble. Suddenly, Sophia understands Katarina and her general disdain for all things noble just a little more.
But, life is smooth for that week. Classes aren’t stressful at all, Sophia’s friends are all around, and the Student Council’s work hasn’t quite picked up the pace yet. She has the time to assimilate back into her life surrounded by other people, and just observe, like she used to.
Sasaki Atsuko had been quite the people-watcher, after all, as was Sophia, before she had met Katarina. No one had ever wanted to associate themselves with her, so she had always just watched, alone.
She shakes herself. That doesn’t matter, now, and hasn’t for a long time. Not since there are people who accept her as herself, now.
Tea that afternoon with all of her friends in the Student Council room is a surreal experience. It’s the first time she’s seen everyone besides her brother, Katarina, and Keith since the accident, and all of them worriedly accost her to ask if she’s recovered all the way, with Maria heading the charge. Though Sophia knows that they’re all her friends as well, often she just considers them Nicol’s love rivals - and now hers as well, she supposes. Seeing that they actually care about her well-being is… more than nice, if she’s being honest with herself. It really is lovely to know that they care, since no one but her friends do , here. She’s still considered a cursed child, after all.
Nicol sits beside her and sips at his tea, as calm and expressionless as ever. His presence is a soothing balm at her side, just as it always has been. Seriously, how did she get so lucky getting him as a brother in this life? Sasaki Atsuko had always been jealous of her best friend’s brothers, and would always wish that she’d had cool older brothers, too. Her wish really had been granted, huh.
In front of her, Katarina is shoving Maria’s snacks into her mouth, as usual. It’s oddly reminiscent of her best friend - every day that they hung out after school, she would shove any and all types of snacks into her mouth until her cheeks were bulging like a squirrel’s. It had been adorable then, and it was adorable on Katarina now.
Maybe it wasn’t such a good thing that she had remembered her best friend, since she couldn’t stop thinking about her now.
Sophia shakes the traitorous thought away and turns back to her tea. It doesn’t do to dwell on the past, just as it doesn’t do to regret it. There’s nothing that she can do to change her past life, but at the same time, she doesn’t want to change it. Just as she will never regret meeting Lady Katarina, she will never regret meeting her best friend, or remembering her. Her precious memories will never be a burden, not to her.
She sips her tea.
In the corner, Gerald and Mary are arguing in the most passive aggressive manner possible, while Alan looks on in amusement. Keith and Maria are trying to get Katarina to eat less before she gives herself a stomach ache again, and Nicol has moved to focus on some paperwork from his job shadowing their father.
Like this, it’s peaceful. She doesn’t need to think about love, or romance, or even her past life. She’s allowed to just exist as Sophia. Just Sophia, nothing more, nothing less. It’s nicer than she ever expected her life to be.
Another few weeks pass, and it’s time for the school festival. Sophia isn’t quite sure what to expect from it, as there hadn’t been one last year - the school festival was much too large of an event to happen every single year - but somehow, she was still rather excited. Festivals were the perfect time to confess one’s feelings, after all. Now was her chance - hopefully, no one would get in her way.
And if they did, well. Sophia would just have to pull a Mary and get them out of her way, simple as that.
The festival was set to be an event that ranged all over the academy’s grounds, with vendors from all over the country. Sophia, as she’s listening to Gerald talk about it, can feel her excitement growing from the way her heart is starting to beat faster and faster. It’s going to be lovely; there’s going to be so much to see just in the food stalls alone! Assuming Katarina doesn’t buy out everyone’s entire stock, though. She might. It’s a genuine threat.
But from across the room, Sophia hears the word “takoyaki” fall from Katarina’s mouth.
Her head snaps around to stare at her friend. Katarina is talking excitedly at Maria, who mostly looks confused but enthusiastic still. Sophia can’t blame her; it’s pretty standard for someone to come out of a conversation with Katarina looking like that. Katarina seems to be talking about food, as usual, but… Japanese food. Which, as far as Sophia knows, does not exist in this world. If it does, Katarina would know, but in all of her experience, Sophia’s never even heard of anything similar to the foods Sasaki Atsuko used to eat. There’s nothing in the news, nothing in her romance novels, plenty of which take place in the eastern countries, and there’s nothing in the school festival.
Could it be…?
Maybe she wasn’t the only one reborn - or transmigrated? - to this world.
But asking Katarina about it right now would make her seem absolutely insane. If she came out with a story about her past life and how she suspected her friend had come from the same alternate world, Sophia wouldn’t believe herself. That was the stuff of shonen manga, not real life.
(Although, the list of people who would believe her probably started and ended with Katarina.)
Perhaps a little espionage was in order. Katarina wasn’t cagey with information at all, so Sophia was reasonably confident that she could pry something out of her sooner or later, but the question was what she would find. Would it be more disappointing to find out that Katarina was just more of a food enthusiast than Sophia had ever expected? Or would it be more disappointing to find that Katarina had indeed been reborn, just like Sophia, but wanted nothing to do with her past life? Maybe she was just being startlingly cunning and going after all the romanceable leads of Fortune Lover .
The moment the thought enters her mind, Sophia feels the pangs of guilt echoing through her body. Katarina isn’t that kind of person, no matter what she had been in the game, and it was unfair to assume the worst just because Katarina might be a fellow transmigrator. She shouldn’t be so pessimistic.
It’s funny, because ever since she remembered, Katarina always reminded her of her best friend.
Their mannerisms, their airheadedness, even the farming… it’s all the same. Her best friend had always loved the food stalls the most at all of the school festivals they went to together, she remembered. And her best friend had been playing Fortune Lover when she had died, and Sasaki Atsuko had always wished to be friends with her in another life. But wasn’t it too convenient, that she would get her wish just like that? Weren’t there rules or something for this sort of thing?
Well. Of course Sophia was no expert on reincarnation, so she couldn’t say whether it was supposed to be this easy or not.
Nothing was confirmed just yet, but if Katarina really was Sasaki Atsuko’s best friend, then Sophia would just have to confess for the both of them.
By the time the school festival actually arrives, Katarina hasn’t said anything suspicious again, and Sophia’s beginning to wonder if she had just imagined it. Though it wouldn’t be so bad if she had - Sophia’s planning to confess by the end of the day either way - she can’t stop thinking about the what if .
And it’s not like the day is going particularly smoothly either, with most of Katarina’s attention being taken up by Mary and Maria, with Gerald also vying for attention. At this rate, Sophia doesn’t know when she’s going to get a moment to talk to Katarina at all, let alone a moment alone. In fact, things have been a little awkward between her and Katarina lately, because Sophia hasn’t been able to separate the thoughts of her best friend from Katarina’s real existence, so she hasn’t been able to speak with Katarina as easily as normal.
Perhaps, more than anything, she just wants to tell someone the whole truth about who she is.
She could tell Nicol, she knows. He wouldn’t judge her at all, even if he didn’t believe her, or think she was crazy, but Sophia knows that, more than anything, he treasures her as a younger sister. He loves being able to protect her from the world, as much as he wishes that the world wasn’t so harsh to her. For Nicol to know that she wasn’t truly the same younger sister who needed him in the way she used to be would hurt him, and Sophia doesn’t want to do that. For as long as she can, she wants to preserve the illusion.
And as much as Sophia loves her other friends, knows that she can talk to them about anything, she can’t talk to them about this. She isn’t sure that they would believe her, and she doesn’t want to find out if they would care or not. Maybe that’s a bad thought, but… the wounds of her past haven’t left her as much as she had thought they had. Katarina would believe her without question, though, and learning that she had a past life wouldn’t change Katarina’s view of her, one way or another. She thinks. She hopes.
It would be a relief to finally talk to someone about this. Maybe she’ll just corner Katarina after the Student Council’s play; everyone else will be busy then, preparing for the ball, and the two of them can speak, uninterrupted.
When the play finishes after everyone’s been wowed by Katarina’s surprisingly stellar performance - in which she said more than a few very familiar lines - Sophia, more suspicious than ever, pulls her away from the others, making both of their excuses for the ball later. Sophia goes a little blank, not remembering exactly what she said to everyone - maybe she said something about urgently needing to talk about the latest novel they had both read? - but after a few minutes, she’s able to take Katarina outside, Mary’s suspicious eyes on their backs as they walk. It’s almost like she’s trying to burn a hole in Sophia’s back with her eyes alone, as a message that she’s not going to let her steal Katarina away so easily.
“No matter what, I’m not backing down,” Sophia mutters to herself.
Katarina looks at her a bit strangely, offering up a distracted “Hm?” when she says that, but otherwise makes no comment. Sophia thinks she’s a bit shocked by her own performance in the play, and maybe she’s still trying to process it. Honestly, Sophia can’t quite blame her for being so shocked - even if her suspicions are wrong, saying such cruel lines to someone she likes so much would be a shock.
She is trying not to dwell too much on her suspicions, though. Sophia doesn’t want to accidentally accuse Katarina of hiding things and faking her identity or something, after all. No matter what turns out to be true, she doesn’t want to make her friend uncomfortable.
When they finally get to a little clearing where Sophia’s pretty sure Maria was bullied at least once before Katarina stepped in - not the most romantic location, but at least it’s private - Sophia steps forward and turns to face Katarina, anxiously wringing her hands. Now that the moment is finally here, her stomach is twisting and she’s not at all sure what to expect. She knows that Katarina won’t judge her for anything she’s about to say, and if Sophia’s being honest with herself, she might not even understand the romantic parts of what Sophia’s about to confess. Everyone knew she hadn’t understood each of the dozen-or-so times that Mary and Maria had confessed.
Well, there’s no point in stalling.
“Lady Katarina?” Sophia says, quieter than usual. “I have… um , some things that I need to speak with you about. I might start to sound insane, but would you listen anyway? I promise I’m not making any of it up!”
“Of course,” Katarina says, with her usual genial smile. There’s a worried tinge to it now, though, as she says, “Is everything all right? Your head isn’t bothering you, is it?”
Sophia can’t help the warmth that shoots through her at Katarina’s concern. She’s had her regard for so many years, but somehow it still shocks her that she has Katarina’s notice. “No, it isn’t that, though that is part of it,” she says. “I’m not sure how to put this other than I’m not exactly who you think I am.”
The look on Katarina’s face is almost comically shocked. Sophia can’t even begin to guess what’s going through her head right now.
“Do you remember in The Princess and the Scarlet Duchess , the duchess hits her head and remembers her past life? Well, the same thing happened to me when I hit my head,” Sophia says in a rush.
Katarina is silent, but the considering look on her face makes Sophia’s heart pound faster. She thinks she might actually be sweating. Panicking, she blurts out as much as she can, as fast as she can. “In my past life, I was just an ordinary girl from a different world! I didn’t have any siblings, but I had a good friend, and we would talk about the things we read and the games we played, just like I do with you, Lady Katarina! But she died and I died, eventually, and oh , my name was Sasaki Atsuko, and-”
But Katarina cuts her off right there. “A- Acchan?” she says, eyes wide and watering, just a little. One hand comes up to clutch at her collar. “Is it you, Acchan?”
Sophia stops cold, and whatever she was about to say next dies in her mouth. “Chihiro?”
“It is you!” Katarina says, the tears finally falling. In the same breath, she steps forward and hugs Sophia so tightly that, for a moment, she chokes on her breath before she can hug Katarina back. The two of them clutch at each other, lost in the joy of reunion, and Sophia almost forgets everything else she has to say.
“I can’t believe I found you,” Sophia says. Her throat is a little closed up from the crying, but the words come out smoothly anyway. “I can’t believe my wish came true.” She pulls away slightly, just going far enough to wipe away Katarina’s tears, and smiles. “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you ,” Katarina says. “I can’t believe you’ve been right here all along.”
“How long have you remembered?” Sophia asks. She’s almost afraid to ask for how long she’s left Katarina alone.
“Since the accident that got me engaged to Prince Gerald,” Katarina says. That’s almost eight years now, isn’t it? Her best friend has been alone for so long, stuck in the role of the villainess. Pain shoots through Sophia, starting at her heart and radiating through her body.
Pulling away completely, Sophia can feel the nerves beginning to build in her stomach once more. If she doesn’t just come out with it now, she’s never going to confess. “There’s something else I have to tell you,” she says.
“What is it?” Katarina says, laughing a little. She’s calmer now, though a note of concern has re-entered her voice.
Sophia takes a deep breath, then spits out the syllables that she knows that, now that she’s confirmed Katarina’s identity, only Katarina will understand (1) . It’s somehow easier to confess, now; ordinarily, she would have thought she was coming off too strong, but in this case, maybe her words aren’t strong enough. “I want to be with you as a lover, not just as a best friend! And I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable, but I had to tell you. You had to know.”
Katarina stares at her another moment, still a little uncomprehending. Then she says, “Do you mean it? But you’re supposed to be…”
“In love with Nicol?” Sophia finishes her sentence. “Definitely not. I love him, sure, but he’s my brother. And besides, we haven’t been locked into the game roles for a long time.” For a moment, Katarina looks like she’s about to protest, so Sophia holds up a hand to stop her right there. “And I would know, I played more of the game than you did!”
“Well, I can’t argue with that,” Katarina says. She looks down at the ground, taking another moment to process. Around them, night has fallen, and Sophia can hear the crickets chirping around them. It’s gotten a bit chilly, and she wishes she’d had the foresight to take their coats before dragging Katarina all the way out here.
By the time Katarina speaks again, Sophia feels like she’s about to go mad with nerves. The butterflies have firmly taken hold of her stomach, and are threatening mutiny.
“If you mean that, then…” she trails off for a moment, then repeats what Sophia had said just moments earlier. Her face has flushed the most adorable shade of pink, and her gaze is still on the ground. It’s incredible, not in the least because Sophia never imagined she would be the one to see Katarina like this. The warmth bubbles up in her, and she can’t stop her laugh as she lunges forward and traps Katarina in another hug. Cupping Katarina’s face in her hands, Sophia pulls her down and quickly presses her lips to Katarina’s, smiling against them.
“Ahhh, I’m so happy!” she says. Her eyes are misting over again. “Chihiro, Katarina, I love you so much…”
“I love you too,” Katarina says. Her smile can outshine the stars, Sophia notes absently. She wants to see that smile forever.
Together, they walk back towards the academy’s buildings. There’s a ball to get to, after all, and the rest of their lives to spend together, and Sophia can’t wait.