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Words Like Orange Torches Against Silver Rain

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Katarina worked at her field, trying to stay low and keep to where there were things between her and the school so she’d remain unseen. The rain that was pouring down around her would keep most people away, but she knew if Anne or Keith spotted her they’d drag her back to her room to finish packing up all her things. They didn’t seem to understand that it wasn’t like it would hurt any of her dresses and things if they were just just shoved quickly into bags. On the other hand her field, precious training ground and route to salvation if she’d ever needed it, would never be seen to by her hand again. She wanted to make sure that she left it in the best possible state.

At least her years in the Magic Academy had helped her raise her powers enough that she could use them to aerate the soil at a distance while staying hidden, even if she’d never been able to use a single attack beyond tripping people with her earth thud. And she’d refined her thud itself so, as long as she was looking straight at them and concentrated hard enough, she could push weeds out of the ground using just it. Her mother seemed annoyed that even with Academy training her magic had only improved that much, but Katarina was satisfied; any other way of using her magic wouldn’t be nearly as useful!

There was a gate leading into the field now on the side facing the school, even though the other three sides couldn’t be fenced in with the way she expanded it whenever there was a chance, and a sign put up over it by the school reading ‘Claes Field’. The Headmaster had promised her that starting the following year a gardening club would be established to make sure it stayed well-tended, with some of her underclassman already excitedly informing her that they planned to join to keep her field alive. She thought that everyone enjoyed having fresh vegetables for the school meals and didn’t want to lose them, though Keith had mumbled “They’re just trying to suck up to you, Nee-san…”

But the club wouldn’t take over until the new school year began, and while she’d been assured that one of the groundskeepers would check on it in the meantime she still had to make sure the field was left in the best state possible until the next students took over. Not a weed to be seen, not a single grub or caterpillar on a stalk, any dying leaves neatly pruned away. The only thing she didn’t worry about was watering since the rain pounding down would see to that well enough.

She’d been keeping an ear open as she worked for the familiar sound of all her friends stampeding up, the whole group almost always together whenever they came to find her as if their new childhood spent all growing up together had left them so close that she was the only one who ever slipped away from the group much, so she managed to be startled when instead it was just a single soft voice behind her that said, “The others thought even you wouldn’t go out in this downpour, Katarina-sama, but I thought they were wrong.”

“Ah, Sophia!” Katarina whirled around to face her, mud churning up underneath her knees. Sophia was standing by the gate, wet from the wind driving the rain into her in spite of the umbrella she held over her head. Her pale face looked almost translucent through the rain. “You shouldn’t be out in the storm, you’ll catch a cold!”

“What about you, Katarina-sama?” she asked, walking in until she was just beside Katarina, covering her with the umbrella as well. “You don’t even have an umbrella.”

Katarina laughed brightly, rubbing the back of her head. “Ahhaha… haven’t you ever heard that fools can’t catch colds? I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t think you’re that foolish, Katarina-sama,” Sophia said with a laugh, and settled to the ground beside her, heedless of the mud.

“Sophia, your dress!” Katarina exclaimed, plucking at the lacy hem already getting unavoidably stained. Her panic was calmed a little by remembering that Sophia’s parents were much sweeter-tempered than her own mother and probably wouldn’t punish her too badly for a messy dress, but she still didn’t want to cause Sophia any trouble at all. “I could have loaned you a spare worksuit if you wanted to help!”

“I would have liked wearing something of yours very much, Katarina-sama,” Sophia murmured, her eyes distant and face flushing; Katarina worried it might be a fever coming on already. Then she seemed to shake herself and went on, “But there was something I wanted to talk to you about when nobody else could interrupt.” She let the umbrella fall, reaching out to take one of Katarina’s hands in both of hers and clasping it close to her. “Please, Katarina-sama, marry my brother.”

“Ahhhh?” was all that Katarina could get out at such a shocking request, her mouth frozen in the smile she’d been giving Sophia before she spoke.

“Gerald will break your engagement if you choose someone else, that’s always been the agreement,” She leaned in close as she made that equally baffling statement, her eyes fixed on Katarina’s, and added, “So please, choose Nicol.”

Katarina’s mind spun, trying to work out what could possibly have brought this on, when suddenly it hit her. It was so obvious! Maria had never ended up on Nicol’s route, which meant that nothing had ever happened to stop him and Sophia from going past the bad end flag where their relationship grew close enough to pass into taboo. Even though he’d only been out of school a few years himself Katarina had already heard people gossip about when the Ascart heir would marry and secure their line already, and now that she was graduating they’d begin going after Sophia too.

Sophia must have been trying to help arrange a marriage for Nicol with someone she trusted not to judge or get in the way of their relationship! “Of course!” she cried out, bringing up her free hand to cover the back of one of Sophia’s. “Of course, Sophia, I promise that we can all live together and I’ll guard your heart with my life! I’ll never let anyone else hear even a hint of the truth.”

She would have to get stronger though. Nicol’s devilish charm was very hard to handle one-on-one, and she wouldn’t want Sophia to think she was trying to make a move on him just because she got so flustered when he smiled. Especially, she realized feeling at little faint at the thought, when she and Nicol would need to be together enough to try to have children eventually. Though she was sure that Sophia would be there as well and be able to see that even then his heart belonged to her, Katarina couldn't expect him to get into the correct mood if Sophia wasn't in their bed as well. The thought of her being there was somehow both embarrassing and comforting at the same time.

“Katarina-sama, I think you might have the wrong—” Sophia began, then cut herself off with a shake of the head, like she was shaking away whatever was confusing her. The baffled expression that had been on her face faded into a brilliant joy as she instead said, “No, it’s all right. You understand that you’re agreeing you’ll marry Onii-sama, right? Then he can help you understand whatever else you need to during the engagement.” She freed one of her hands to reach out and tuck a strand of hair that the wind had whipped free of her kerchief back behind Katarina’s ear, her smile softening. “I promise that he’ll make you very happy, Katarina-sama. We both will.”

Katarina found her cheeks heating as she thought about the two of them feeling the need to show her appreciation for acting as an accomplice to their forbidden sibling love. They didn’t need to do anything like that! But it seemed a bit too much to say ‘No no, it’s okay, I’m just happy to help you sleep with your brother to your heart’s content,’ even though she promised herself that she wouldn’t judge. So instead she said, “I don’t know if Gerald will really just let go of having a girl-shield, though.”

“That’s already been taken care of,” Sophia said firmly. “If you marry Onii-sama, than I will marry Prince Gerald.”

Ehhhh??” Katarina exclaimed, even more startled by that easy statement than she had been by Sophia’s original question. But only a second more thought made her realize that it did make sense; since Maria hadn’t won Gerald either he still had no interest in romance, he just wanted someone who wouldn’t bother him as a blockade to keep other noblewoman at bay, and Sophia would only want a husband who would allow her to spend her days with her brother rather than expecting her to be a proper wife. And as Nicol’s best friend hopefully Gerald would be as kind about their relationship as Katarina planned to be.

“Then Mary and Prince Alan will go through with their engagement,” Sophia went on, years of knowing Katarina apparently making her decide to ignore the mental journey she was going on at the same time. “Once Onii-sama becomes Prime Minister that will allow us all to live in the palace together. With their powers Raphael and Maria will both have a place there too, and Keith will marry Maria so we can all remain together.”

Katarina’s head spun with this dizzying chain of marriages apparently ricocheting off of her agreeing to be Nicol’s wife, but one thing suddenly struck her out of the group. “Farmer’s husband…” she muttered.

The plans Sophia had been chattering out trailed off, and Sophia blinked at Katarina. “I’m sorry, Katarina-sama?”

“Nicol would have to be willing to go north and be a farmer’s husband,” Katarina said dully. “I’m sorry, Sophia, but if Keith marries Maria that’s the best route left for me.” How had she missed it? Her own precious brother falling in love with her own precious friend even after the year of the game had ended? She’d meant to show her unending support to them if that happened, but if they were at the point of getting engaged than it would already be too late.

“Keith doesn’t need to marry Maria,” Sophia said slowly, sounding as confused as Katarina herself had been just a moment ago. “He’d still be able to visit often enough as your brother, but it seems unfair for him to be the only one who needs to live elsewhere.”

“No, I could never stand between my cute little brother and true love! Exile is the only way now…”

“Don’t be such a dork!”

Katarina started at the sudden exclamation, both the words and tone completely unlike Sophia. Her eyes darted back to Sophia to see that her face was slack, her eyes blank, but still her voice came out strong and brash, “The game is over, there are no bad ends to worry about anymore! And I might have liked the secret route best, but the devilish Earl was still super attractive! Don’t you dare run away because of something that doesn’t apply anymore!”

“S-Sophia?” Katarina said hesitantly, reaching out to gently touch her face. Sophia’s entire body jolted like she was startling out of sleep and her eyes slowly came back into focus.

“Katarina-sama?” she asked, sounding a little dazed.

For just a second Katarina thought about telling her what had just happened. Then she remembered just how caring the voice that had come out of Sophia’s mouth had been, and how… nostalgic. She decided that whatever had just happened, she didn’t think it meant any harm.

So instead she grabbed the forgotten umbrella and climbed to her feet, then reached down to offer Sophia her hand. “I think you need to get out of the rain now, Sophia,” she said as she pulled her to her feet and tucked her into her side so the umbrella covered them both, useless though it might be when they were both already soaked and covered with mud. Then she looked down at her has they started to walk, beaming brightly as she added, “And don’t you think you should start calling me Nee-chan now?”

Katarina felt Sophia go almost sill against her, only still stumbling along because of Katarina’s own strong arm around her shoulders guiding her, then she turned her face up to her, her eyes wide and her smile brilliant. “Yes. Onee-sama.”