Disclaimer: I do not own Strawberry Panic!, or make claim to owning it. I am merely borrowing the characters to flex my dusty literary muscles. If you like it, or even if you don't, leave me a review to tell me why. Constructive criticism is my best friend so please if you have anything to offer, drop me a line. If it isn't already apparent, this story takes place after the summer exam period, and will be an alternate retelling of the story from this point onward. While this story is mainly about Nagisa's relationships with the people around her, other characters and their relationships will be explored. There are very few characters in the Strawberry Panic! universe that will not be developed further in my story. Please read and review.
EPIPHANY - Chapter I
So I speak to you in riddles,
'Cause my words get in my way.
I smoke the whole thing to my head,
And feel it wash away.
The sounds of relieved sighs and excited mutterings rang out through the halls at Saint Miator's Academy; signalling the end of exams, and the official start of the summer holidays. Chairs scraped noisily along the stone floors and fabric rustled as students got out of their seats and headed to the nearest exit. A teacher's call for silence went unheard as girls chattered enthusiastically about the upcoming break, and their action-filled plans for their days off.
In the hallways outside, a young blue-haired girl searched frantically for her roommate amongst the sea of students now gathering lazily outside their respective classrooms. As she made her way through the crush of humanity, she smiled politely and quickly excused herself from classmates who started to strike up conversation.
Ordinarily she would have been more than happy to stay and unwind with her friends, but her top priority now was tracking down her best friend to find out how she did on the rest of her exams.
For the past week, Tamao had watched as her auburn-haired roommate drove herself steadily to exhaustion as she prepared for the fourth year exams; watched as she suffered first through a torturous nine-day revision-fest on French, and then a further two-night stint revising for her remaining — albeit stronger — subjects. Tamao couldn't help but marvel at the strength of her best friend's will — even though Nagisa had been getting very little sleep over the ten-day period, she had clearly lost none of the infectious exuberance that Tamao admired so greatly in her roommate.
A flash of red caught her eye, and a second later Nagisa appeared out of the crowd, rushing forward to hug Tamao with a huge smile on her face.
"Tamao-chan! We did it. All our exams are over… Thank God!" she sighed dramatically, releasing her friend's shoulders and stepping back. "All I want to do now is go back to our room, take a bath and sleep for three days!" she moaned.
Tamao chuckled. "I think you deserve it after all the effort you've put into these exams, Nagisa-chan," she said happily, latching onto the shorter girl's arm. "I have Literature Club activities at the moment, but when you get back we can celebrate properly."
Nagisa grinned and hooked her arm around her friend's, leading her towards the now empty classroom that served as headquarters for the Literature club.
"Sure. What do you have planned? Anything special?"
Tamao smiled lightly and pulled her arm out of Nagisa's. She turned the girl around, placing her hands lightly on her shoulders and stared down into her shorter friend's eyes.
Tamao glanced around before lowering herself closer to Nagisa's ear.
"Well, I was thinking that we could hold another tea party in our room tonight," she whispered, then paused slightly before adding, "Unless you wanted to share that bath of yours."
Nagisa stood stock-still and flushed prettily as Tamao drew back, smiling gently. As the heat finally left her cheek, Nagisa scowled at her supposed best friend.
"Tamao-chan—" Nagisa whined
"I thought I told you to quit that."
"Quit what, exactly?" Tamao asked innocently.
Nagisa frowned and smacked Tamao lightly on the arm.
"Teasing me! I don't think I've gotten through one day without you making fun of me in some way, shape or form," she murmured miserably, pouting and turning her back on her friend.
Tamao chuckled and grasped one of Nagisa's free hands, tugging the girl back around to face her.
"I only do it because you flush so adorably when you're embarrassed."
Nagisa felt a surge of heat travelling up her neck, and clenched her free hand; fighting desperately against the rush of blood that signalled the beginnings of a magnificent blush. The last thing she wanted was to give Tamao the satisfaction of seeing her react again so soon.
"Why are you my best friend again?" she asked sourly.
Tamao smiled gently and dropped Nagisa's hand, walking to the club's doorway before turning back to face her friend.
"I take it that you're choosing the tea party option then?" Tamao asked with an easy smile.
Unable to stay mad at her best friend for long, Nagisa smiled.
"Obviously! I'll see you back home then," she said, waving over her shoulder as she headed towards the stairwell.
Had Nagisa glanced over her shoulder at that moment, she would have seen a disappointed smile cross Tamao's face as she watched her friend walk away from her.
Despite the occasional teasing remark and multiple invasions of her personal space, Tamao was undisputedly her best friend. The past week had been a testament to that.
From her passionate declaration that she would not go to Summer School without her, to staying up until the wee hours of the morning to keep her company; Tamao had never once complained, but had instead provided her with enough gentle encouragement to keep Nagisa motivated — even through the most trying of times. Without Tamao, Nagisa was sure she would have given up on French — and the rest of her exams — many days ago.
Nagisa smiled to herself as she pushed open the doors to Miator's main hall and stepped out into the sunlight. Really she ought to get something for Tamao to thank her for everything.
She knew just the thing too…
The last time they had visited the nearby city; Tamao had made her wait for forty-five minutes as she scoured a back-alley bookshop for some crusty old book. Nagisa wasn't quite sure what it was, but from Tamao's brief explanation she gathered it was some very old story told in poetic verse.
It wasn't until Tamao had begun to recite some of it from memory, that Nagisa had come to understand her roommate's desire to obtain a copy for herself. It was really very beautiful.
Nagisa grinned as she imagined the look on her friend's face upon receiving the long sought-after manuscript; it was really the only way she could think of to thank the girl adequately for all her help. And even though Tamao would probably profess that she had done nothing to deserve such a gift, in that endearingly modest way of hers, Nagisa thought it would be nice to treat the girl who had made her transition into Miator and the Strawberry Dorms so pleasurable. So far she had managed embarrass herself nearly every day, but despite that, Tamao had stuck by her – providing invaluable moral and emotional support whenever she did something stupid.
Like she had during her first dinner at the Strawberry Dorms.
Nagisa cringed as she recalled the horrific events of that night. Not only had she had arrived late, but she had also nearly walked into the back of Miator's student council president, greeted a person who she thought was Etoile-sama, collapsed—
Nagisa stopped in her tracks. Etoile-sama. She'd completely forgotten about her.
In reality the stately Etoile had been the reason Nagisa hadn't started sobbing wretchedly as soon as she read the first question in the French exam. Shizuma-sama was the motivation that had driven her to excel where nothing else would.
Of course, there was always the threat of not being able to go to Summer School, but that seemed to pale in comparison to disappointing the silver-haired girl. I wonder when that changed? Summer School had been her dream for many weeks, and yet now she was more worried about disappointing one person. No, not just any person, Etoile-sama — the pride and joy of Astrea Hill.
Strangely enough to Nagisa, it seemed as though Etoile-sama had developed a bit of a fascination with her. Or she had in the past. For whatever reason, since the welcoming party for the first-years, Shizuma-sama had stopped trying to seduce her every time they met.
Nagisa wasn't quite sure how she should feel about that; on one hand it was relieving to know that Shizuma-sama was no longer trying to seduce her, but on the other it had been rather flattering to know the attractive and much-desired girl was interested in her.
Still, their experiences had paved the way for Nagisa to get to know the much-admired Etoile better. They were even at the point where she would consider the silver-haired girl… what? A friend? Nagisa's grip tightened on her schoolbag. Is that what they were? Then why did being around Shizuma-sama feel so much different from when she was around her other friends?
After a moment to reflect on her thoughts, Nagisa frowned, ducked her head and reached up with her free hand to scrub at her eyes. Maybe I'm more tired than I thought; this isn't helping me think of what to get her…
Thinking of what to buy Tamao-chan had been relatively easy, but getting something appropriate for the graceful figurehead of the three schools could prove rather more difficult.
Nagisa frowned and resumed walking again, taking the scenic route past the lake. Maybe a change of scenery would help kick her brain into action. At least, that's what Tamao-chan always did when she got stuck with her writing; maybe it would kick her creative muse into gear. Either way, it was better than standing in the middle of a dusty pathway staring blankly at her shoes. And even if no ideas came to her, it was a nice way to quietly unwind after a hectic and stressful week.
It didn't take long to reach the lake foreshore, and Nagisa let out a pleased laugh as she caught a glimpse of its shimmering surface.
The sun was going down, and the rays of light made it appear as though the lake's surface was liquid metal rather than water; a writhing golden mass that looked almost solid enough to walk on. It was truly a wonder of nature, and Nagisa couldn't help but be taken in by its beauty.
As she cleared the last row of trees, she realised that someone else had also decided the lake would be a good spot for some personal reflection; as sitting near the base of Nagisa's favourite tree was the silhouetted form of another girl.
She let out a mildly irritated sigh. She didn't want to disturb the other girl but she really needed somewhere quiet to think. It didn't really matter, as there were plenty of beautiful places around Astrea Hill where she could be alone. It was just unfortunate that she couldn't stay and marvel at the lake's magnificent beauty.
She had just turned to walk away when an inquisitive voice stopped her in her tracks.
Nagisa turned around and squinted in the direction of the voice. She was fairly certain that she recognised it, but maybe it was better just to make sure before replying. So, taking a few tentative steps, Nagisa made her way slowly towards the person by the tree. Recognition dawned as she got closer to the individual in question; the white uniform, deadly-straight waist-length black hair and busty figure were a dead giveaway. A genuine smile crossed her face as she came to stand just in front of the younger girl.
"Yaya-chan! I didn't expect to meet you out here," she said happily. "Would you mind if I joined you, or am I interrupting something?" she asked, indicating the open notepad and pen lying on Yaya's lap.
Following Nagisa's line of sight, Yaya swiftly flipped the book closed, and laid both pen and notebook on the grass next to her. Smiling back, she patted the ground.
"Not at all. Just killing time. Besides, it seems like forever since we last talked."
Nagisa sighed dramatically and sat herself rather ungracefully next to the black-haired girl, hugging her schoolbag to her chest.
"Doesn't it just? It's all because of stupid French!" she exclaimed loudly. Noticing Yaya's raised eyebrow, she added, "I had to cram three years' worth of French into a week to pass exams."
"Ahhhh. So that's why Hikari and I haven't seen either you or Tamao-san this week. We were beginning to think that you didn't like us anymore," she said jokingly. "So… are you finished with exams yet, or do you still have a few left?"
Nagisa shook her head. "No, we had our last one today. You?"
Yaya grinned. "Finished a few days ago." Ignoring Nagisa's jealous glare, she abruptly changed topic. "So what brings you out here anyway? I would've thought you'd already be back in your room either stuffing your face with cake or passed out, drooling on your bed."
Nagisa shot her an indignant glare. "Hey! I do have some self-restraint you know. I actually came out here to think of what to get Etoile-sama as a thank-you present."
Yaya raised a slender eyebrow. "A thank-you present?"
"Mmm, Shizuma-sama tutored me every night before the French exam." Catching sight of Yaya's amused expression, Nagisa frowned. "What?"
"Tutored? Is that supposed to be a euphemism?" she said with a wry smirk.
Nagisa stared back blankly. "A euphemism? What do you—" She stopped mid-sentence and blanched as she caught Yaya's implication. Not long after, a wave of heat shot up her neck and settled somewhere below her eyes.
Yaya snickered. "Should I take that magnificent blush as a 'yes'?"
Nagisa brought her schoolbag up to shield her glowing face. "It's not like that Yaya-chan! I mean she's a girl! And I'm not…and I don't…" she spluttered.
An amused Yaya cut her off mid-tirade with a raised hand.
"Okay, okay. Calm down! I was only joking."
Nagisa lowered her bag and clutched it to her chest, waiting for the blood to leave her cheeks. She scowled somewhat menacingly at a beetle crawling across the ground in front of her.
"It wasn't very funny, Yaya-chan," she mumbled sourly.
Yaya just grinned in response. "Well, knowing Etoile-sama's track record, one can't be too sure of these things," she said lightly.
Nagisa just stared at the beetle – brooding in silence. Yaya grinned to herself and ripped the schoolbag away from Nagisa, slinging her free arm over her friend's slim shoulders.
"Awww c'mon Nagisa-san, don't be mad. If you talk to me again I won't tease you anymore."
Nagisa glanced up at her from the corner of her eyes. "You promise?"
Yaya dropped Nagisa's bag on her lap and held up her little finger. "I'll even pinky swear it."
Nagisa shot her a scrutinising look before smiling heartily and linking their little fingers together.
Yaya masked her features, and in a completely straight-laced voice said, "I hereby promise to not tease Nagisa-san about the fact that Etoile-sama was giving her private lessons."
Nagisa growled and Yaya bit back a laugh.
"What?" she asked innocently.
"I heard that!"
"Making 'private lessons' sound so suggestive!"
"I did no such thing!"
Nagisa huffed in irritation, and Yaya recanted. "Okay. I'm sorry, but you're just so much fun to tease Nagisa-san!" she said, squeezing the redhead's shoulder.
Nagisa pouted. "So I've heard…" she muttered, thinking slightly bitterly of her best friend. "So… got any bright ideas?"
"For?" Yaya inquired.
"Oh, right… that." Yaya grinned. "Well, I'm not sure. But I can't say that I know her well enough to give you any good ideas…" she trailed off.
Nagisa's face fell in disappointment. "You're right, sorry. Guess I'll just have to think on it a little longer, eh?"
Yaya tightened her grip on Nagisa's shoulder and shook the shorter girl slightly.
"Hey… You're not doing anything tomorrow right?" Nagisa nodded. "Well, I was looking to go into the city tomorrow to order something, but I don't have an upperclassman to accompany me…" A light switched on in Nagisa's head and she turned to face Yaya, a smile spreading slowly across her face. "…so do you want to provide me with a suitable escort and in turn I'll give you some shopping company?"
Nagisa's grin spread. "Sounds great, Yaya-chan! Thank you!" she cried, turning in Yaya's grasp to loop both arms around the younger girl's neck.
The hug turned out to be a more difficult task than she had first envisaged as Yaya's considerable bust was now pressed awkwardly into her lower ribs and stomach. To ease the pressure, Nagisa sucked in her stomach and curved her spine, hoping she'd made her captive a little more comfortable.
Poor Yaya-chan. I wonder if she has to play human Tetris every time she wants to hug someone…she wondered idly. Then if Yaya-chan has it bad I wonder how Shizuma-sa—
"Why am I not surprised to find you in the arms of another girl, Yaya-senpai?" an irritated voice exclaimed, breaking Nagisa out of her thoughts.
Yaya grimaced and Nagisa loosened her hold on the younger girl's neck, peering over her shoulder. Standing not three metres away was Tsubomi, looking particularly displeased at her upperclassman.
"Hunh?" said the first-year, taking a momentary break from boring holes in the back of Yaya's still-turned head to glance at Nagisa. "Nagisa-sama!? Er… sorry, I didn't know it was you with Yaya-senpai."
To that, Yaya turned her head and frowned at the pink-haired girl.
"Why did I get abuse when Nagisa-san got a 'sorry'?"
Tsubomi frowned heavily and thrust a bundle of sheets in Yaya's direction.
"Because Nagisa-sama didn't ditch choir practice," she said angrily. "And Nagisa-sama didn't make me walk for ages trying to find her so I could give her next week's music."
Yaya rolled her eyes and Nagisa had to fight the urge to laugh.
"Well why didn't you just give them to Hikari to give to me later then?" she asked in an irritated voice, handing Nagisa's schoolbag back to her and standing up. She closed the distance between them and took the pages from the first-year's hand.
"Because Hikari-senpai had already left before I could, and it was easier just to come and look for you myself," she exclaimed with an edge to her voice. "Besides — and no offence to Hikari-senpai — but she's almost as forgetful as you are."
Yaya raised an amused eyebrow.
"What's this? Tsubomi-chan finding fault in her beloved senpai? What has become of the world?" she muttered sarcastically, turning her head to rifle through the various sheets of music. "And exactly how is trekking all around Astrea Hill to find me, easy?"
Tsubomi glared at her for a few short seconds, a faint tinge of pink slowly decorating the tips of her ears. "It's not," she grumbled finally. "But if Yaya-senpai shows up under-prepared again, the rest of the choir has to wait for her to be caught up."
Yaya's raised her head from the papers and met Tsubomi's gaze squarely before rolling her eyes and stuffing the sheets of music into her dress-pocket. Forcibly ignoring her underclassman, Yaya collected her possessions from the ground and offered Nagisa a hand up.
"Well, it looks like it's just about time to head back, eh Nagisa-san? Seems our mood has been soured," she finished wickedly, glancing over at a still stewing Tsubomi. "Oi, you coming? Or are you content to stand there gnashing your teeth for the rest of the night?"
Nagisa stifled a laugh as she made her way back to the Strawberry Dorms with arguing friends in tow.
Nagisa let out a weary sigh as the door to their bedroom closed, signalling the last of their guests leaving for the night. She walked over to her bed and sat down heavily on the edge, letting her upper body flop back onto the smooth mattress.
While she appreciated Tamao going to the effort of celebrating with all their friends, Nagisa would have liked nothing more than to sink into her big, comfy bed; curl up under the light comforter and drift off into heavenly obliviousness. Still… it had been rather nice having everyone together again and being able to unwind with people she liked after the torturous exam period.
"You jump in bed, Nagisa-chan. I'll clean everything up," Tamao said, startling Nagisa out of her reverie.
Nagisa pushed herself back up into sitting position.
"Wha? No, Tamao-chan—" she protested, before being interrupted by Tamao's light shake of the head.
"No buts about it. You're going to hop in bed and get a good night's sleep. I won't have you collapsing tomorrow because I organised a tea party and made you stay up," Tamao said. She sat at her friend's feet and rested her hands lightly on Nagisa's bare knees. "And don't worry about sleeping in tomorrow. I'll wake you up before you miss breakfast."
Nagisa smiled wearily back and laid her hands over Tamao's, brushing the pads of her thumbs lightly over them.
"Thank you, Tamao-chan, you're the world's greatest friend."
Something indescribable flashed through Tamao's eyes, before she averted them quickly.
"Don't mention it," she said quietly.
Nagisa frowned and squeezed Tamao's fingers, causing the other girl to turn back to face her.
"You okay, Tamao-chan?"
Tamao nodded and gave Nagisa a small smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.
"Yeah… I just had this wave of fatigue crash down on me… Sometimes you don't realise how tired you are until you stop," she laughed as she slowly stood up. "In any case, you should get some sleep," she said, her back turned to Nagisa. "I can't have my Nagisa-chan getting sick before Summer School now can I?" she finished, with a trace of her old enthusiasm.
Nagisa continued to stare worriedly at Tamao's back, watching as she busied herself with putting the tea set away.
Maybe she was just tired. Tamao had stayed up with her during most of her all-nighters, and she had sounded more like her normal self near the end. Maybe she was just thinking too hard.
Nagisa sighed and stood up, stripping off her light summer robe and climbing into bed. Oh, it's just as glorious as I thought it would be, she sighed, relishing the feel of the cool sheets against her exposed arms and legs. She would probably get too hot in a few minutes' time, but there was nothing quite like cocooning yourself in bed after a stressful day. She yawned heavily and curled a fistful of sheets tighter around her shoulders, barely hearing her roommate's soft 'Goodnight' before succumbing to the seductive embrace of sleep.