Hello everyone. First of all, let me thank you for reading this story and giving me encouragement along the way. This fluffy epilogue concludes Endless Love, but there are more Strawberry Panic stories on the way for those who are interested.
When first starting to write Endless Love, I had expected it to contain a lot more humor than the end result did, but sometimes you have to let the story tell itself. I'll certainly try to crank up the silliness factor for the planned sequel.
Special thanks to Lestaki, who gave me the great idea to include Miyuki in this epilogue. :)
Epilogue : Happy Endings All Around
"Hello Japan and any nosy Gaijin listening in. I'm still new at this prime minister gig, but I wanted to take a moment to kindly thank all those voters who put their faith in yours truly. And all the voters who didn't, well... you'll learn. Trust me. You'll learn... In the meantime, I promise you, I will do my utmost to bring Japan back on the map! And even bigger than it was before! I've already started talks with my new minister of defense to work towards getting us some more space to work with. Hey, did you know we got a huge island up north that nobody knows about? It's called Hokkaido and it's filled with rice or something. How about that, huh? So, let me tell you all a story about a man called Stalin..."
Nagisa switched off the radio as Shizuma drove their car over the road towards her old alma mater. "I don't get it," she told her beloved wife. "How the hell did Kaname-sama ever become prime minister? I mean, what is wrong with Japan?!"
"Don't you mean to ask 'Who the hell did Kaname molest to become prime minister'?" Shizuma smirked.
"I sure didn't vote for her," Nagisa pouted. "I just don't get it. Imagine Char Aznable as leader of the peace corps. That would make more sense than Kaname-sama being prime-minister."
"Just be glad Japan doesn't have a nuclear arsenal."
"You said it," Nagisa bit her lip. "Imagine Momomi-sama... Sorry I meant to say our new minister of defense... with her finger on the button."
Shizuma let Nagisa pout for a moment as she pulled the car to a stop on the parking lot at the foot of Astraea Hill. Twenty years it was, since she had graduated from Miator, twenty happy years with the woman sitting next to her. Loving her... Kissing her... Raising their two adopted daughters with her... Bliss...
But now that summer break had ended, and it was time for their eldest daughter to return to school.
Hanazono-Aoi Mariko was bouncing around impatiently in the back of the car, fiddling with the hems of her summer uniform. The third year was quite eager to return to the Astraea Hill, and not necessarily for the many academic interests the school had to offer.
"Full circle," Shizuma smiled.
"Yes," Nagisa said and turned to Shizuma to lean in for a brief kiss.
"Oh, ewwwwww!" sounded from the back of the car. "Haven't you two gotten enough of that last night? And the night before that? Sheez, at least soundproof the walls in my room, why don't you? Or move me to the other side of the house. It's not as if we have a shortage of rooms!"
As the brief kiss started to develop into a full-blown passionate open-lip soul-searching kiss of pure love, a sigh could be heard from the back of the car.
"I'm not waiting for you two slowpokes," Mariko admonished. "Ruri's up there!"
The sound of the car door slamming shut brought the two loves back to reality, just in time to see Mariko running up the path leading to Miator.
"She takes after her Shizuma-mama," Nagisa smiled. "Same rebellious streak."
"Hm?" Shizuma smirked. "But she has her Nagisa-mama's peppiness."
"Should we chase after her?"
"Sure," Shizuma winked. "Let's see if that short-cut through the forest is still there."
As it turned out, it was still there. Shizuma and Nagisa enjoyed the coolness of the forest as the path led them alongside the lake. So little had changed there since the time they had went to school, while so much had changed in their lives. Shizuma had taken over the position of head of her father's company after his retirement, but unlike him, Shizuma was a lot better at delegating her tasks, leaving her with plenty of time to spend with her family. Nagisa had found her calling in creative writing which kicked off her career as a novelist, mostly of children's literature. Aside from that, she often teamed up with Tamao to create poetry, light novels and scripts on the side. They were leading good lives.
"Wait," Shizuma stopped. Nagisa turned around and looked at her quizically. "Do you remember?"
Nagisa looked for a moment, but then smiled broadly. "This is where we first met."
Shizuma put her hand on the tree. It seemed to have grown a little since then. "Yes," Shizuma smiled. "You made quite an impression, hitting yourself in the face with your bookbag like you did."
Nagisa smiled. "You were standing there, just like you are now. And I was thinking what an incredibly pretty person you were. God, I fainted the moment your lips touched my forehead."
"I didn't quite realize it at the time," Shizuma replied as she let her hand run over the bark of the tree. "But when I touched your hand to give you back your little kitty clip, I was struck my lightning."
Nagisa frowned and scratched her head. "How did I ever get back to the school? I woke up in the nurse's office with Tamao-chan watching over me."
"I brought you," Shizuma smiled. "I wouldn't have left you there alone."
"It seems so long ago," Nagisa looked wistfully at the tree. She moved towards at and hugged Shizuma from behind. "I'm so glad we're together, Shizuma."
"Things really worked out for the best, haven't they?" Shizuma smiled. "Should we go to the school?"
Nagisa nodded. The two lovers made good time and arrived at the entrance of the Dorms before Mariko was even in sight, just in time to mingle with some of the other parents gathered around to say goodbye to their children for the rest of the school-year. Some of the parents here were old students whom she had known during her tenure at Miator... or had been one of her many paramours even, though she tended to avoid that line of thinking. Most of the girls who attended Astraea Hill were pretty well off.
It struck her again just how many parents here were, in fact, lesbian couples. Maybe it was right what everybody said about Astraea Hill: Either it turned girls to girl-love, attracted girls already into girl-love, simply created girl-love out of thin air or all of the above. All around her, parents and their daughters were mingling and talking among themselves.
"I don't see Tamao-chan," Nagisa looked into the ground. "Mariko'll be so disappointed if Ruri isn't here yet."
"I'm sure she'll be here," Shizuma said. "Tamao-san is ever punctual."
'Ah, speak of the devil,' Shizuma thought when she saw Tamao and her beloved Chiyo emerging from the school with a short blue haired girl in tow. The short girl brightened as soon as she noticed Shizuma and Nagisa, but after her eyes darted around them for a bit, she pouted in disappointment.
Nagisa and Tamao had remained room-mates after she and Shizuma had gotten together, but somewhere along the way, Tamao and Chiyo had started developing feelings for each other. Shizuma surmised this was because the both of them were always together making sure that she was treating Nagisa well and would not hurt her feelings. Chiyo had grown up into a beautiful young woman without losing her adorable qualities. While she had gained a lot more self-esteem, Chiyo still never stopped calling Nagisa onee-sama.
Shizuma was glad for them. Also because it made Nagisa feel considerably less guilty from basically abandoning Tamao at the altar. Shizuma was sure, however, that Chiyo must have been rather disturbed when Tamao had started measuring her and had started to make dubious voice recordings of her.
"Nagisa-chan!" Tamao shouted as she flew into Nagisa's arms for a deep hug. Chiyo did the same with Shizuma, though somewhat more gentle.
"Ribs... buckling... Must... breathe!" Nagisa stammered for a moment before Tamao reluctantly let go of her. As Chiyo moved to hug Nagisa, Tamao and Shizuma faced each other, eventually offering each other a somewhat forced smile and a curt nod.
"Tamao-chan, we've just seen each other last week," Nagisa scratched the back of her head. "You keep hugging me as if we haven't seen each other in years!"
Tamao simply smiled. "Nagisa-chan deserves to be hugged every single day as if it was the last time."
The short blue-haired girl with the yellow ribbons in her hair inched forward rather shyly. "Uhm, N-N-nagisa-san?" she asked with a tiny voice. "Is M-m-mariko-chan..."
"Hi there, Ruri-chan. Mariko-chan is taking the scenic route," Nagisa said gently. "I don't think she'll be long."
And she wasn't. A few moments later, a panting and tired Mariko came running up to the school. She brushed right past the gathered student body and her parents and flew right into the arms of the waiting Ruri.
"Ruri-chan, I missed you so much!" she exclaimed with tears in her eyes.
"M-m-mariko-chan! Yokatta!" Ruri relaxed visibly as she clutched to the older girl. Without as much as a word, the two girls ran off, destination unknown.
Shizuma smirked. "Well, that was fun."
"Oh, KAWAIIII!" Tamao closed her eyes. "Young love, so romantic... Hey, I just thought of something: If our girls marry each other, we'll all be related! Wouldn't that be fun?"
Shizuma frowned. "Yes, well, uh..."
Nagisa shot Shizuma her patented 'Don't-Say-A-Word-If-You-Still-Want-Some-Lovin-Tonight'-look. Thus, Shizuma wisely kept her mouth shut.
"All Mariko-chan could talk about was Ruri-chan, even when we were on holidays in Italy. I swear, those girls were on the phone every ten minutes," Nagisa smiled as the four of them made their way to the entrance. Shizuma saw to her delight that the current Etoiles were still doing a fine job with the floral arrangements.
Shizuma shook her head. "Yes, those girls of ours could keep the phone company in business on their own. It's gonna be one hell of a phone bill this month. Ah, well, as long as they're happy."
Shizuma chuckled to herself. She, Nagisa and their daughters had been on a three-week trip along the mediterranean. The girls had been on the phone almost constantly. Her daughter's obnoxious ringtone had been etched in Shizuma's mind as a result. They had called each other in the restaurants. At the beach. At the museum. On the bus. At the cinema (which they were promptly kicked out of by the ushers). At the amusement park... in fact, Mariko had tried to film a ride on the rollercoaster with her phone so that Ruri could experience the event as well. Unfortunately, the phone had been ripped from her hands during the ride, leaving the poor girl to go on a frantic search for it.
It had turned out that not only had the phone miraculously survived the fall, it had also been easy to locate because Ruri was wondering what had happened to the streaming video and had been calling her back non-stop to make sure if Mariko was okay.
As Nagisa, Tamao and Chiyo were quietly chatting, Shizuma reflected on her life once again. About ten years ago, they had decided together that they were ready to take on the responsibility to raise a child. Together, they visited the adoption service, but quickly found that they were both uncomfortable with the 'choosing' of a child. After some deliberation, they had decided it would be most fair to both them and their future child if they picked a file at random. They did so and after picking a file from the pile, they returned the rest to the adoption service unopened. The file they had chosen belonged to a girl called Mariko.
Shizuma smiled to herself as she recalled the day they drove to the agency to meet Mariko for the first time. Nagisa had been so nervous she was almost trembling. Shizuma hadn't been so calm herself, in fact. Five minutes later, they had met Mariko, then a plucky five-year old with orange hair and a defiant look in her eyes. Mariko had seemed to be regarding them for a while, and Nagisa had been the first to speak, nervously telling her how her room was all ready and how much she was looking forward for her to join them. Mariko had simply frowned and told them: 'Hey, hold on a moment. I don't even know if I like you two yet! I want to know if I like you first before I let you adopt me'.
It was then that Shizuma knew they had found their child. Nagisa had been dumbstruck, though it went very well in the end. Mariko had dozens of questions, most prominently the question why both of her prospective parents were both girls. At first she thought they were sisters, but Mariko had quickly revealed herself to being open to the idea that girls could fall in love with each other.
When Mariko-chan had joined their happy family, things had only gotten better... though they both knew they were in trouble when Mariko's first written assignment for school was titled : 'When I grow up, I wanna be a Pirate!'.
Mariko was a nice girl, if a bit of a handful. But she had a tendancy to take care of others. She had taken Ruri-chan under her wing from the day they had first met and the two had been friends ever since. Ruri, a painfully shy child, had been adopted by Chiyo and Tamao when she was seven and Shizuma had nothing but respect for them for taking on the difficult task of giving love to a child with a history of physical abuse. And she was also proud of her daughter for being so dedicated to making sure that Ruri would enjoy life.
'Hm, come to think of it,' Shizuma thought to herself. 'A marriage between those two wouldn't be unexpected'. She knew for a fact that the two girls had kissed: she'd caught them pressing lips in the kitchen and managed to sneak away again before they'd notice her.
The latest addition to their family, little Aki had joined them two years ago. Aki was a shy but playful girl who looked at what the world had to offer in wonder and awe. She could be focused on a single facet of life to the point of obsession, but she had a wonderful strength of character.
Shizuma frowned when she suddenly noticed the Sister sternly patrolling the grounds. The Sister stood still for a moment, regarded the people in the yard, and then stomped off in the direction of the stables. "Probably looking for Yaya and Tsubomi," Shizuma said, remembering that last year, Yaya and Tsubomi had snuck off to the kitchen, were caught by the sister having sex there and were subsequently both chased off school-grounds half naked. The year before that, they had sex in the stables. The year before that, on the top floor of the bell tower... only to be rudely and loudly interrupted during their bliss because they had lost track of time.
"I hear she and Tsubomi just adopted a second child. A little girl," said Chiyo.
"That means their saga will continue," Tamao giggled. "One day, they're going to run out of places to make out."
"Hah!" Shizuma laughed. "They'd probably invent new places when it comes around to that."
As Nagisa was talking with a very animated Chiyo and Tamao about a possible wedding between their daughters in the far future, Shizuma followed along as they walked towards the dorms, until, from the corner of her eye, Shizuma noticed the one person she was looking for. She excused herself and quickly headed to the other side of the square, where she found Miyuki together with her young daughter Rei, who was in her first year here at Miator.
Miyuki smiled at her as she approached and the two friends shared a hug for a moment.
"Hi, aunty Shizuma-sama!" little Rei pulled on Shizuma's jeans. The little girl simply looked adorable in her Miator uniform.
"Hey there, Rei-chan," Shizuma said gently.
"Rei-chan," Miyuki said softly. "Could you find your friends for just a little while? I need to talk to aunty Shizuma for a moment, okay honey?"
"Okay," Rei giggled and ran off. "Bye-bye!"
Shizuma waved goodbye to the playful Rei for a moment before turning back to her friend. "You look well, Miyuki," Shizuma said.
"I feel well too. Better than I've felt in a long, long time," Miyuki replied.
And she was right. After almost twenty years of unhappy marriage to a man she didn't love, and after an equal amount of time of Shizuma and all her friends trying to convince her, Miyuki had decided to choose for herself. As a result, her family had disowned her and she had faced her ex-husband's wrath in court over a very, very ugly custody battle.
For a moment, there had been a real chance that Miyuki would never be allowed to see her children again... until Shizuma had learned what was going on and had lent Miyuki a phalanx of her company lawyers. It had been a tough fight, but Miyuki had come out on top. Still, it had taken a lot out of her, and Miyuki had spend some time recovering alone with her children at one of Shizuma's summer homes.
"I never got the chance to thank you for offering me a job," Miyuki spoke. "I'm eager to have something for myself again."
Shizuma smirked. "It'll be good to have you around again too. All those other girls, well, they were just too intimidated by me. I need a personal assistant who's not afraid to stand up to me and tell me I'm being a lazy ass dead-beat before she drags me back into the office."
"It'll be strange to be in that role again," Miyuki spoke. "I'm not sure I'll do well. I've been a trophy wife for so long."
"I'm sure you'll pick it up again," Shizuma said. "So... you're gonna tell me how you've managed to bag that actress? Ten years younger than you as well. Nice going."
"Uhm," Miyuki blushed. "I, uh..."
"Yeeessssssss?" Shizuma smirked. "I'm listening."
"Well, uh, Ayaka and I met at one of my ex-husband's boring high-society parties," Miyuki smiled gently. "Let's just say that she was as bored as I was. We escaped to the garden and talked for hours."
"I see," Shizuma half-smiled. "I gather the torrid love-affair that followed was a contributing factor to you filing for divorce?"
Miyuki's deep blush told the entire story. Because Miyuki just didn't blush.
She never blushed.
"And why didn't you tell Shizuma, hm?" Shizuma smirked.
Miyuki blushed slightly. "We both didn't want to risk it. The less people who knew, the less chance that... Well, I suppose it's a moot point now anyway."
"I guess I'll be reading all about it in Nagisa's idol magazines soon enough," Shizuma chuckled.
Miyuki paled. "W-will they really write about this?"
"Ayaka's an idol. As soon as those papparazzi'll get wind of this..."
Miyuki brooded over that a little. She really didn't want her name plastered all over the tabloids, preferring some peace and quiet after a very tumultuous year.
Shizuma and Miyuki stood together in silence for a moment.
"How are things between you and Nagisa?"
"More than fine," Shizuma replied with a smile. "We're so very happy."
"I'm glad," Miyuki said. "You belong together. But... I've been wondering about something for a long time now, and I would like an honest answer. Please don't misjudge my question. It's simply about what could have been."
"Sure," Shizuma replied. "Ask."
"Shizuma," Miyuki started. "If... both Kaori and Nagisa hadn't been in our lives. Would... Could it have been possible that..."
Shizuma nodded. "If our lives had been different," she said honestly. "We'd be bringing our children to school today."
Miyuki considered this and then smiled at Shizuma. "Thank you. You have no idea how much it means to me to hear you say that."
"Where's little Hiro?" Shizuma asked, changing the subject. "Didn't you bring him along?"
Miyuki shook her head. "Ayaka's hitting the town with him. She really wants to be a mother for my children. And, what about your little Aki?" she said, referring to the second child she and Nagisa had adopted some three years ago.
"At her grandfather's house," Shizuma said. "Probably being spoiled rotten. I think my father is overcompensating a little. I think he's feeling a bit guilty that he hasn't been more of a father to me when he could. He's a good man. What about you? Any contact with you family, after..."
Miyuki shook her head. "I've been almost completely cut off. I only have some short chats with my little brother every now and then when he can get away with it, but... It's been tough."
"Crybaby," Shizuma winked.
"Hey!" Miyuki playfully raised an eyebrow.
"You have Rei, Hiro and Ayaka. And your friends," Shizuma smiled.
Miyuki nodded and pointed at the other side of the square where Nagisa was standing. Shizuma followed her gaze and found Nagisa standing there and waving at her.
"Your wife is waiting for you, Shizuma," Miyuki said. "Better go to her."
"I will," Shizuma smiled and took a moment to wave back. "It's good to see you again, Miyuki."
"I will see you again monday, at your office," Miyuki said. "Nine o'clock sharp."
Shizuma crossed her arms. "Hey, I'm the boss. I can come into the office whenever I please."
"Nine... o'clock... sharp..." Miyuki stressed.
"But... I'm the boss..."
"That's what you think," Miyuki smirked. "Playtime is over, Shizuma."
As Miyuki walked off to find Rei, Shizuma wondered just what the hell her simple act of kindness had gotten her into.
After Shizuma returned to Nagisa, they managed to tear themselves away from Tamao and Chiyo, though they had to promise to meet them later for dinner. Together, arm in arm, the two lovers walked across the compound where they had spent a great part of their youth.
"Ah, the pool," Nagisa smiled as the two lovers arrived at the pool overlooking the bay in the distance. "We had our first kiss here, twenty years ago."
"I never apologized for pushing you in," Shizuma said.
Nagisa smiled as she pressed against the love of her life and wrapped an arm around her waist. "No need. I was the one who pulled you in, I think. Remember the fireworks we watched from here? That first time just before we first kissed... and then that second time, just before I graduated?"
"When I asked you to marry me?" Shizuma recalled fondly. She hadn't been nervous at all that day. She knew what she wanted and it was for Nagisa to share her life with her. If Nagisa was willing to do so, naturally. And to her everlasting joy, she had been willing. Of course, like all married couples, they had had their share of problems, but they had never lasted long. Life with Nagisa had been perfect, just perfect. They'd gotten married again six years ago when gay marriages had finally become legal in Japan. At first they hadn't felt it necessary, seeing they had already been married in their hearts almost 14 years before at the time. Still, Nagisa's parents had insisted that the wedding be performed, if only for the bragging rights. And in the end, she was glad she did. It had been a simple, but beautiful Shinto ceremony, and nothing had given her more joy than to offer the tamagushi to the altar together with her blushing bride.
The problems surrounding Nagisa's parents had never ended completely. Though they had become more docile, their presence and actions kept causing aggravation. Nagisa and Shizuma had gotten into a huge fight after they had first adopted Mariko. Of course the proud grandparents wanted to meet their new grandchild and wanted to take her along with them on a trip to Italy. Nagisa wanted to allow it, but Shizuma had objected because she didn't want Mariko to stay with 'those people' alone and unsupervised for three weeks. Things had gotten so bad that Shizuma had slept on the couch for a week.
Shizuma smiled to herself. Sure, she might have lost the argument... but the make-up sex had been beyond incredible.
Of course, when the proud grandparents had returned their Mariko to the fold, both parents, and especially Shizuma, were ready to commit murder. Despite the fact that Shizuma and Nagisa had decided that their children could decide for themselves what religion they wanted to follow when they'd be old enough, Orito and Kaede had taken it upon themselves to have Mariko baptized.
Thankfully, Mariko wasn't easily swayed. She'd later told them she'd only gone along with her grandparents's baptism scheme because they'd promised to get her a swing-set when they'd get back to Japan. They both agreed they'd never let Orito and Kaede take Aki anywhere near anything even resembling a church. Little Aki was far too impressionable.
Shizuma looked deeply in Nagisa's eyes. "Hm?" she asked.
"I love you, Shizuma."
"I love you too, Nagisa."
"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWW," sounded from the bushes nearby as the two leaned in for a kiss.
Shizuma laughed briefly. "Looks like we have an audience."
"Shizuma? Do you think Mariko-chan and Ruri-chan will let us use their shower?"
"Huh? Why do you as..." But before Shizuma could finish that sentence, she felt herself being pushed back. Before she knew what was going on, both she and Nagisa ended up dunking into the pool. For a moment, panic took hold of Shizuma, until she felt Nagisa's soft lips pressing down upon hers. As they slowly sank to the bottom, Shizuma relaxed and stared up to the light above.
'Kaori,' Shizuma thought. 'Thanks for looking out for us'. With that, Shizuma closed her eyes and started kissing back Nagisa, enjoying the moment before the need for air would drive them to the surface again. They had really come full circle.
Two more splashes sounded and soon enough, Shizuma felt someone tugging at her arm. It wasn't long before they were back on the surface and she found herself looking at the worried faces of Mariko and Ruri. "Are you okay, Shizuma-mama, Nagisa-mama?" Mariko asked.
"We saw you fall in!" Ruri exclaimed. "We had to jump in too to save you!"
Nagisa and Shizuma exchanged glances and both started to laugh.
"Hey, this isn't funny," Mariko pouted. "Seriously, what kind of people make out at the bottom of a swimming pool?! You could have drowned and I would have been an orphan again! Once was enough!"
"Sorry, Mariko-chan," Nagisa said as she hugged her daughter while doggy-paddling... not an easy feat. "We were just having a little fun. Though, it would be nice if we could use your shower to clean up."
It was just then that the Sister rounded about the corner, and it wasn't long before she stood at the edge of the pool scowling at the four fully clothed persons in the pool. She just tapped her foot and offered a smiling Shizuma and an embarrassed Nagisa that patented 'It's always the parents who are to blame'-look.
Shizuma was the first to break out in laughter. No doubt this would end up with a fun visit to the Sister's office for a lecture on responsible parenting and preserving the dignity of Miator.
But then again, what was new?