Astraea Lake

I don't own Strawberry Panic. If I did, Kaname and Momomi would have won the Etoile election as independants.

We are… mannequins, perhaps, flung across the sky. It's so very easy to say you control your destiny, and so very false. But there is no one power that pulls the strings. None that I've met, anyway. Perhaps that would be too hard to accept, for me, in this place and this time. But, no, no one should accept that. No one should accept an overwhelming fate or destiny, in this world. Could I believe anything but that? Perhaps. But this is this place, and this is this time. All I see is chance. Chance, and people. Our lives are defined by people, their presence, their absence, how they've shaped us and how we remember them, how we seem them and what we intend for them. There are six billion people in this world. And the free choices, moment by moment, and the arbitrary fortunes of six billion people makes the destiny of each of them. It's not fate, as such. But we're still puppets, because no one can hope to control that passage across the sky. Pray, perhaps, to our luck. Lucky enough that you should come to orbit someone, at some moment, once, and they you. Is that luck? For me, as me always, would I always be so lucky? I don't think so. Before, I'd say that because of her. But in reality, it was because I thought like that, that my luck was never guaranteed. But again, is the luck the wrong word?

"It's easier to think than it is to speak, isn't it?" Kaname said. "At least for me… always for me."

"What kind of easier is that?"


"Easier for your personality? Or easier for you as a person?"

I shouldn't forget. She, too- Kaname sighed. "One or the other or both, I'm not sure. But it eventually became force of habit, and it's still that."

Momomi glanced at her, then looked away again. "You always got by on never saying anything that was in your thoughts. I let you get away with that."

"That you surprised me with your flourish," Kaname said. "You were much the same. Even now, you're thinking more than you speak, just like me. We let each other get away with that."

"Everything hinges on what each person thinks," Momomi said.

"And part of that is what the other person is thinking. If you don't talk, then that will get more and more inaccurate, and it's so important." Kaname shrugged. "We both did it. We were both wrong to assume we could get away with that."

"Yes. But it's too late for that."

"I'm not going to let you say that," Kaname said steadily. "Not yet."

Momomi shrugged. "Things were so much easier then."

"For me, at least, things were always, have always been, always will be hard," Kaname said.

"And for me, too. That's what we did tell each other. We hid nothing of our pasts."

"The present, I wasn't so good at. But you let me bad at it."

"That's not very graceful," Momomi muttered, looking down.

"From now on, I'm only going to tell you the truth. My thoughts, my heart. Even if I judge that they'll hurt you… that's all that I can do. And more than I did, before."

Momomi was silent, watching the leaves flutter in the wind.

"And don't say that it's too late. Not yet."

You don't choose to fall in love. You have no control over even the smallest crush. It's brought me the greatest happiness I've ever experienced, in a tainted life. It's brought me the greatest challenges and the most painful anguish. And I've always kept it all inside, all my happiness and all my hurt. That's always been the way I survived. I used to be proud of it. People need to find pride in themselves, somewhere, no matter how bad things get. No, they find pride where they need it, or perhaps where they think they need it. Pride tells you that what you have done is good. Shame tells you what you have done is bad. So simple. But human flaw or at least the subjectiveness of humanity taints them. Good becomes bad, and so fast. Pride becomes shame in a few breathless instances. That is what I had to discover. Sometimes, because we're wrong about what's good for ourselves. Sometimes because what's good for us is bad for others. And sometimes because nothing is wrong, everything is right, or the opposite…really, finding your way is very hard. Pride is an unreliable guide. But it's also been my only guide, until now, as I reach out. I want to find my way again.

"We're lost, aren't we?" Momomi said quietly.

Kaname blinked, then collected herself. "Sorry… but you're right, I think."

"I feel lost," the brown haired girl said. "I don't want to be lost and alone, at least, that's why I'm here. But I'm still lost, we're still lost."

"Before, you'd never say such a thing," Kaname said.

"Or you."

"No. We'd never show that kind of weakness, even to each other."

"It's amazing," Momomi said. "We knew each other so well, and not at all. I'm not making any sense, am I?"

"Don't worry," Kaname said. "I want to listen to you… and I'd never admit that, before. We were so busy being what we felt we should be we were never ourselves."

"It's ourselves to be what we felt we should be, not what we are," Momomi said. "That's the problem."

"But now we're trying to break that habit," Kaname said. "It never made us happy."

"Her… Amane… she was always herself," Momomi said. "Is that-"

"No," Kaname said. "I hated her for that. But you were like me. That's what I… me and Amane, we could never have been more different. We had nothing in common at all. But I knew you were like me, and I always…" she sighed. "Old habits die hard."

"Just a couple of liars," Momomi whispered. "Just a pair of barefaced liars."

Kaname turned and touched her gently on the chin, shifting her face to look at her. She was afraid to do that, as she hadn't been in so long, before. If there was any weakness there, then… it was all over.

Momomi met her gaze utterly impassively.

"That's what I remembered, most of all," Kaname said. "You were so strong. So unfathormably strong. You never hesitated at all."

And that smile. It wasn't a massive change, if didn't know that face, every exquisite detail, the slight twitch of the lips, the subtle way she moved her neck, the glow of her eyes. But it was a warmth that shot her through. Whatever they'd lost… the memory of even a moment of that, would ensure she'd fight to take it all back, until the end. She'd never say that, not even to Momomi. But that smile said I already know. It was the smile that no one but her had ever seen. It was the smile that said I know you, Kaname. I know everything about you. I knew you, just to look at you. It was an illusion, but if it was that beautiful, she couldn't help but fall in love with it, over and over.

"A barefaced liar," Momomi said, still smiling. "That was all it ever was, Kaname. I wanted you to think all that about me. Because you were so strong, I knew I'd have to be stronger than I'd ever been before. And I tried and I learned."

Kaname looked down, and smiled herself. "I'm sorry."

"If you believed me, it was all worth it," Momomi said. "For me, perhaps, but not for you."

"No. If you want to, I like it," Kaname said. "Barefaced liars are beautiful. Truly."

"Then we're beautiful people."

Kaname let go and looked away. "We are. Sometimes I think lying is all I've ever done. Funny, isn't it? We don't belong to any club, we've never done much but live, be together, and lie."

"That's what we do," Momomi said, pulling away slightly. "Shizuma played the piano. Amane rides a horse. Shion was our council president. But we lie."

"And we're talented at that," Kaname. "We can fake things amazingly. It's rare we did anything but that."

"That's how we found each other, and how we lived," Momomi said. "But I'm not sure."

"About what?" Kaname asked.

"We enjoy ourselves, lying to each other. But can we do that, and still tell the truth? About what matters?"

"We know the lies are lies," Kaname said. "And still love them. We can do it."

"We thought we knew so much about each other before, too," Momomi said. "I don't want that to happen to me, ever again. And I don't want to think that you only love me because I can lie well."

"We understand lying," Kaname said. She paused for a moment, then shrugged. "Truly. We know it's nothing more than putting on a coat. You look good in the coat, Momomi, but it's the coat that looks good on you."

"I'll try and believe that," Momomi said wryly.

"We lost so much," Kaname said. "Because of our weaknesses. And even now, I can leave those weaknesses behind but the catharsis that burned them away from my flesh has cracked me further. That was another thing I hated when I saw Aname. Aname was perfect, and I was flawed."

"I think it's a very stupid person who can fall in love with perfection," Momomi said. "You could never be anything but trapped in their dazzling shadow. I'd hate that light."

"You're naturally vicious," Kaname said. "But I admitted it myself, so-"

"But that's all I was, anyway," Momomi said. "I was fooling myself, before. I stood behind you, and I enjoyed that. But you didn't need me as much as I needed you."

"That's not true," Kaname said. "That was never true. But you were a whole person, and I was cracked. Even now, I wish I could be whole."

"Well, I don't feel whole. So now we can understand each other."

Kaname glanced at her, and sighed. "But that was one of the things I realised, one of the weaknesses I moved beyond. Aname isn't perfect. I thought I hated her for being perfect, but I hated the superficial perfection and the… egocentrism? She lived in her own world."

"So did we."

"Yes, but we saw the world outside," Kaname said. "So we could twist it, but we saw it, for what it was. Aname never saw that. She lived for herself, and damn others. It made me so mad!"


She stopped and laughed, running a hand through her hair. "Yes, I used to take Aname so seriously. But when you really look at it, she's just funny. Her own world, and so earnest about it- and this is our Etoile."

"I preferred Shizuma," Momomi said. "But Amane and Hikari are… funny, as you say. It's quite cute, to be honest."

"And yet, somehow, they shine on dreams," Kaname said. "But, and that's the irony, without us, they'd never have done it. We were hoisted on our own petard."

"Speaking of that," Momomi said quietly, "I do believe the princess is passing by now."

"Hmm?" Kaname smiled as she regarded Hikari, walking up the path. "So cute. But the title's so wasted on her."

Momomi leaned back on the bench, folding her arms behind her head. "Regardless, the tides part. But is it for Hikari? Or is it for the Etoile-sama?"

"Or even for Amane," Kaname suggested.

"Sometimes, I'm not sure whether respect's worth the while. It's not like most of this school amounts to much, anyway."

"Not to us, anyway," Kaname said. "It's always been that way."

Momomi closed her eyes as Hikari drew closer. "I think that's a good thing, myself. We're not reliant on other people. We both learned the importance of that."

"And the gambit," Kaname said. "Was it the right thing to do, I wonder-"

"Um. Good morning."

"Eh?" Kaname looked round. "Good morning."

"Good morning," Momomi agreed. "Is there anything?"

Hikari shook her head, looking nervous, but spoke anyway. "Nothing important…"

"That's alright, then," Kaname said, looking away.

"But I was wondering whether you ever got lonely," Hikari said. "People say… and what you just said…"

"Jeez, flowers sure are talkative these days," Kaname said. "Magnanimous, aren't you? Can a victor afford this?"

"You're not being very polite," Hikari said.

"It's not polite to listen to other people's conversations," Momomi said.

"I don't get it," Kaname said, more directly. "What did Aname send you to do?"

"Nothing," Hikari said. "I'm just talking to you."

"Why would you do that?" Kaname asked. "You're afraid of me. With good reason. We're no longer enemies, but that can change fast."

"I'm doing my duties!" Hikari said. "I can't just do the ones I enjoy."

"And what duty is this?" Momomi asked.

"The one where I help people who talk like that," Hikari said. "And I've talked to Aname, too. You don't have any friends. So, somehow, I worried about you!"

"Don't expect us to let you condescend," Kaname said. "Just because you've got the title, just because you're Etoile, that doesn't mean we'll respect you."

"It's because I have to earn that respect, that I'm here! Whether you like it or not." Hikari glared down at them, body trembling slightly.

Momomi looked sidelong at her, cupping her chin in her hands. "That's more impressive. You could almost pass, like that."

Kaname glanced at her, then frowned and shrugged. "I give up. Go away, or sit down. I'm not going to let you look down at me."

To her intense surprise, Hikari sat down next to them. Kaname threw an arm round Momomi and looked at the girl with a carefully crafted expression of bored interest. "You think we're lonely, as there's always, only, two of us?"

"I don't know whether you feel lonely or not," Hikari said. "But if you don't socialise, then I think that's bad, for others as well. And Aname says you've only got worse."

"If Aname says all this, why doesn't she talk to us about it?" Momomi said.

"Could it be that Aname isn't particularly bothered by this?" Kaname suggested. "That seems like her. She's not a naturally compassionate personality."

"That's not true!" Hikari said hotly.

"You don't seem to release how lucky you are, to be the one she chose," Kaname said. "Think of all those who she ignored before then."

"That's not it!" Hikari said. "Aname knew you would never want her to talk to you like that."

"I doubt that was her primary motive," Momomi said, putting her head on Kaname's shoulder, "but it's true enough."

"So why are you here?"

"I already told you," Hikari said.

"Well, we have very specific reasons for being alone," Kaname said. "And no one but us knows them."

"In any case, normal people really aren't very interesting," Momomi said. "So what would be the point?"

"We aren't tied down by things like that," Kaname said. "If we can manage very well on our own, and as that kind of thing would be boring and difficult, then there's no reason to do it. We've given up on bothering people, but we don't expect them to bother us either." She shrugged. "It's that simple. Do you see?" She turned and blinked. "Why are you upset?"

"How can you say those things? How can you talk about people like that?" Hikari asked.

"You shouldn't get so worked up," Kaname said, sounding puzzled. "We're just us, after all."

"And we said," Momomi. "People aren't that interesting."

"Why do you think like that?" Hikari asked. "Why are you hiding?"

"We're not hiding," Kaname said. "Or we wouldn't be talking to you now. But people don't interest us. That's that. Before, we'd pretend something. And before, we were bothering people. But now we're keeping ourselves to ourselves, and I expect people to return the favour."

"No, you're hiding," Hikari said. "You're hiding from making friends. And you're even hiding the reason why."

"You're such a bother," Kaname said. "If you're so nice, why don't you leave us be?"

"If you're not nice, don't expect me to be," Hikari said.

"You've grown stronger," Kaname said.

"That's nice," Momomi said.

"But it's rare that people mind us, and we don't care about them," Kaname said. "That's just the way things are. So we won't waste any effort on it. And don't mistake it, we're not lonely. We have each other, and that's all we've ever needed. We're strong people."

"You don't sound very happy about it," Hikari began.

Kaname smiled, reaching out to touch Momomi's chin. "Really?" She turned to look into her lover's dark brown eyes. "You'd fool me." She ran a hand through Momomi's thick brown hair, smiling as it slid silkily through her fingers, smiling as they learned closer, eyes reflecting eyes. Unlike her, cracked, her Momomi was flawless… they kissed. And Momomi froze. Just for a second. Kaname stared at her, but she'd already recovered, closing her eyes and returning the kiss passionately. Her eyes flickered open as she pulled back slightly, knowing and alluring and entirely Momomi. But that second had been a jarring note in a familiar, beautiful symphony. Kaname's mind rang with the echoes of it. But she controlled herself as well. That was what Momomi had done. That was what they did. "You see, that's what we have," Kaname said. "For a lot longer than you've ever had Aname."

"And if you don't have friends, you don't hurt them so," Momomi said.

"You're very cruel and unlucky," Kaname said. "To do that and have to do that to a friend. And you're brave, too, to talk to me, of all people. But-" She stood, grabbing Momomi's hand and pulling her to her feet. "You've nothing that interests me any more."


"Tell Aname," Kaname said, feeling irritation flare up in her. "We're not playing any more." Before the girl could say anything else, she turned and ran, dragging Momomi the first few steps. The girl quickly picked up the pace; running fast and drawing even as they headed towards the forest. They ran past some of the other girls, but they'd no time for that. They never had any time for those people.

"Where are we going?" Momomi asked.

"Away," Kaname said. "That girl was pissing me off. She's so irritating."

"It's not like you to run away," Momomi said quietly. She sounded worried.

"I'm sorry," Kaname said harshly. "But I couldn't take it any more."

"I'm sorry," Momomi said instinctively. "I-"

"You don't have to apologise!" Kaname shouted.

Momomi pulled free and stopped, staring at her. "Kaname…" she began.

Kaname bowed her head, looking away. "You don't have to apologise!" she said. "Everything's my fault!"


"When you pretend," Kaname said. "To protect my feelings. That hurts most of all. It's too perfect!"

Momomi smiled thinly. "You can't solve every problem in this world by shouting at them, you know."

"You're doing it again," Kaname said, collecting herself. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"Funny, isn't it?" Kaname said, staring at her hands. "I can talk a lot, and act a lot, but it's just a mask I wear, to hide all those cracks inside…"

"Kaname…" Momomi said. "Stop talking about your cracks. Or I'll slap you."


"I wouldn't have fallen for you," Momomi said. "If you were cracked."

"But she's right," Kaname said. "You're right. All I can do is run away."

"If you live with the pain, that's strength," Momomi said. "Sometimes running away is the hardest thing to do, but you keep your pride, even through the pain."

"You're doing it again," Kaname repeated. "I can't run forever. So you talk to me. But where does that leave you, Momomi? You're not talking to me! You're just hiding, to make me feel better. I use you like that."

"I choose to be used," Momomi said. "I'm strong too."

"But when you've run so far, that the pain's too great, that you can't run away any more," Kaname said. "What will you do, then? If you're trying to spare my feelings?"

Momomi looked around. "We're close to the lake, aren't we?"

Kaname sighed. "Yes. You want to go there?"

"Sure? You remember, don't you?"

"How could I forget?" Kaname asked.

Momomi giggled, starting to walk. "I try."

Kaname shook her head, quickly catching up and looking about the forest. Light slashed down through the trees, shining on the fresh spring flowers that clustered at every break in the trees. It was a beautiful place. But she never really noticed, all that much. She'd been taught not to see beauty, and she'd become so good at it… until Momomi had come. A light that had devoured the darkness, because the darkness had been weak and she'd burned brighter than stars. The intensity of the little catlike longhaired girl. Like a lantern. You never saw it as you stumbled through the darkness, until it was focused, and blasted your sight away. No, she'd always been brilliant. But Kaname knew, instinctively, that the radiance she'd never seen before, on that day, was one that no one had ever seen before. Her Momomi had learned to keep her emotions locked within her heart, out of sight and mind, until they were released. And then, they were fascinating. But she used it like a weapon, in some ways. It was a purifying flame that had cleansed Kaname, scorched away so much of the corruption that riddled her. But behind the flame, something dark burned, and even Kaname had never been allowed to see that. "We need to talk," she said.

Momomi nodded and smiled encouragingly. "Talk, then. I'll listen."

Kaname sighed, resting her head in one hand for a moment. "I don't believe you, sometimes. You never stop acting."

"It's for you."

"That's the worst thing. But I want to tell you something."

They walked into the glade next to the lake. It was beautiful, blue water sparkling in the light, grass stirred slightly by the wind. But Kaname could only see that impassively. The weight of memory… that was far more beautiful.

Momomi collapsed onto a bank, leaning back and looking up at the sky. "It's a beautiful place. And today, we have it to ourselves. Just like before."

"The advantages of not doing clubs," Kaname said, sitting down by her. "But I'm going to tell you a story."

"A story?" Momomi smiled teasingly. "It's the weather for it, I guess."

"It's a story," Kaname said, looking out over the water of lake. "It's the story of a girl who was very beautiful, and very strong, and very unhappy. She thought she was cracked inside. Whether she was, or not, there were places in her that hurt no matter how hard she tried to keep her face calm and serene. Because she'd been taught badly. She was a woman who'd been taught to be a man. She'd been taught to fight. She'd been taught to hurt people. She'd been told to take what she liked, if only she could take it by force. And she'd been taught to survive in an unbelievably savage environment, a place that broke grown men and reduced them to sobbing children or worse. That place was where her father lived. She'd come to survive it, and enjoy it. But it had cut her deep, and changed her forever."

"Poor girl," Momomi said. "She sounds really unfortunate."

"You shouldn't feel too sorry for her," Kaname said. "She was a horrible person. She'd been strong in that savage world, and what she wanted, she'd taken it. But now she found herself amongst other strong people, and normal people too, people who didn't know why they should fear her, why she should always have her way. And she'd never learned how to deal with people. She couldn't make friends, only enemies. She did everything in the most direct way possible, and that always hurt people, and her, and gained her nothing. She hadn't been taught subtlety. She hadn't been taught kindness, friendship, love. She tried to learn on her own, but it was too hard, and she was too proud. So she was always alone, surrounded by people. And it was all her fault."

"That's not true," Momomi said. "All the people who didn't see. It was their fault. They were stupid."

"No, they were normal," Kaname said. "That makes the girl stupid. And there was one more thing. There was a Prince."

Momomi's breath caught in her throat.

"The Prince wasn't unlike the girl," Kaname said. Her fingers fluttered over the grass. "The Prince was very beautiful, and very strong, and very unhappy. But her reasons were different. She was a star, a star that shone bright in the darkness, and fell on the dreams of everyone. She was the chosen one. Everything she said and did was perfect. There were very few in her year that did not fall in love with her, just to see that. But the Prince was like the girl. She didn't care for company. She preferred to be alone. But where the girl reached out, only to drive everyone else away because of her pride, the Prince turned away. The Prince could have been friends with anyone she liked, but she chose not to do so. That annoyed the girl, so much. And no matter what the girl did, she could never beat the Prince. She could never be anything like the Prince, because she was a fake and the Prince was real. So she fought the Prince instead, and they hated each other, and every single battle, the Prince won. Because she had so many allies, whether she wanted them or not, the girl could never win. The Prince never knew that. But she reduced the girl to nothing."

"You'd think the girl would hate that Prince," Kaname said quietly. "And she did. But also, she really, really wanted to be that Prince. That Prince who defeated her at everything. If only she was like the Prince, everything would be okay. She began to obsess over the Prince. Skirmishes became battles, battles became wars, and every war was lost to the girl. But more and more, she focused on the Prince, until the Prince defined her very life. She never understood those feelings until it was far too late. The Prince was too self-centred to notice. They were both very stupid, very beautiful, and very alone."

"Sounds like us," Momomi said. But the jest seemed tired, anxious.

Kaname scowled, pulling a tuft of grass free and shredding it with deft fingers. "So the girl fought. And she never stopped fighting, for an entire year. She fought and fought and fought, until she'd lost everything, and still she fought. And she was desperate, so she was violent, savage, and cruel. She had no time for anyone but the Prince, and even then, only as an antagonist. The sisters despaired. She was moved to her own room, alone, because of that cruelty, and she was utterly alone. And then… and then…"

A hand gently touched her shoulder. "I think I know this bit," Momomi said. She smiled, but it was weak. And her eyes shone, moist, in the light.

"It's not like you to speak as much as you'd need to," Kaname said.

"Some things, you have to do," Momomi suggested. "But there was another girl. She came from a land far away, and a family who were very powerful, and who believed in great things she did not. But she believed in love, and they did not. She was young, but that was torn from her, and she said she'd never love again. And she was sent to a far-away land, and a far-away school, with people she didn't know. She understood, too, that there was no point in casting roots any more. There was no point in friends. She'd only be torn free again, the moment that she'd found them. And she was thrust into a strange place, and the strange room of a girl who was always alone."

"We'll call her the cracked girl," Kaname said.

"I hate that name for her," Momomi said. "But the other girl is the mirror girl, then. People looked into her, and all they saw was themselves. Because she kept herself locked up tight, within, and hid herself behind a veil of silver light."

"And the cracked girl hated her," Kaname said. "She seemed too perfect. Until the cracked girl confronted her, and stared into her eyes, and saw herself looking back. She was afraid. But she knew what the mirror girl was."

"And the mirror girl knew what she was," Momomi said nostalgically. "And for once, the mirror broke, that time, that confrontation, the pinnacle of a battle. And even then, they still reflected each other."

"They were terrified, I remember that," Kaname said. "But they were proud and strong and barefaced liars, so they hid that behind hostility and strength. And they fought."

"They took it so seriously," Momomi said. "And enjoyed it so much." She looked over the surface of the lake, and laughed. "It's funny to think of it. But they enjoyed it, truly."

"Neither of them really won," Kaname said. "And they were proud, so they never showed that they enjoyed it, but they fought instead. And for the first time in so long, the cracked girl was able to forget the Prince. That was a great gift, and when she noticed it had been given, she was afraid. She grew more and more determined to win… she focused all her energies on that. And no one else understood. All they saw was the savage, cracked girl settle at last. They never saw that battle. That battle that was a new obsession. This impudent, perfect mirror girl who stood her ground, even in the cracked girl's room."

"And the mirror girl, too, she was furious and afraid," Momomi said. "Because she remembered her own past, and saw her present, and feared for her future. Sometimes they were violent. Sometimes, they'd merely insult each other, loudly and softly, the cruellest barbs vicious minds could devise. They were smart. And they were silent. They fought beyond sight, less than literally, but with every word they said, every action they took, for as long as they were together and alone. The mirror girl was cut and cut back ten thousand times. But she never shed a tear, because she would not lose."

"It was a cruel fight," Kaname said. "Only disturbed children could have fought that battle."

"But, though they were so caught up in it, they didn't notice it," Momomi said. "They were happy, happier than they'd ever been in their lives."

"And they were glad, too, though they didn't notice it," Kaname said. "There was someone like them. We weren't alone any more."