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Strawberry Panic ~ The Gravity of Love
Winter Term, Prologue

"Did you know?"

In the din of the clearing cathedral, over the noise of the chattering girls and the soft murmurs of the Saintly Chorus ushering them home, you could be forgiven for presuming the question had gone unheard. But glazed eyes staring at the open doorway by which the assembly was leaving, the door by which she had left only hours before, Miyuki Rokujō stood in complete and total absence.

"President Rokujō?"

The sixth year snapped back to the world, and turning to face the voice she found herself before her school council assistants, Mizuho Kanou and Hitomi Tougi. The reception was un-typically cold; Hitomi's arms were crossed with her stature tall and formal, her slate-gray eyes dripping with accusation. Mizuho hovered only a few paces behind, her own expression mirroring the sentiment from beneath her long, dark shroud of hair.

"Did you know?" Hitomi repeated.

"Did I know what, Tougi-san?" Miyuki frowned, unaccustomed to the short tone. From one so close, it caught her off guard and for a second, she found herself back in that dark hallway from many years before, crying and curled up against the wall alone. Brushing her dark bob back defensively, she turned from Hitomi's openly hostile gaze.

"That Shizuma still had feelings for her," Mizuho cut in, her continuation just as frosty, "for Aoi-san?"

Miyuki sighed. She'd spent the past hour so pre-occupied with the afternoon's events that she hadn't considered their implications. The remainder of the presentation had been and gone and she'd spent the entire time in personal turmoil. She shifted stance and gathered herself before replying.

"I wasn't entirely convinced by her sudden composure of late, no," she said as she turned back to look the pair in the eye as she'd been taught to. "She seemed like she was hiding something." Coolly she gestured toward the stone altar at the back of the hall as she finished. "Evidently, she was."

"So you knew, and still President Rokujō entered Suzumi-san and Aoi-san together?"

"I thought I was doing them a favour," Miyuki snapped, all at once flustered by the continuing interrogation. Inwardly she caught herself questioning the favour's recipient, but unsurprisingly chose to keep the addition private. "I thought the distraction would do them both good."

Evasive replies for naught, Miyuki knew where this was going regardless.

"By burying former-Etoile's feelings?" Hitomi rolled her eyes, "Under what? Duty to Miator?"

The auburn haired assistant shook her head and sighed, her scruffy fringe covering her eyes as she looked down at the floor in disgust.

"Don't you think she's suffered enough duty already?" Mizuho echoed, her attention lost among the train of underclassmen shuffling along the aisle next to her, the younger girls oblivious of the argument and happily recounting the day's spectacle.

"I didn't think it would end this way," Miyuki offered. "I didn't mean to hurt either of them, especially not Aoi-san, not again. She went through enough learning of Kaori."

For a moment the trio stood in silence, each deep in their own thoughts and far removed from the conversation. Eventually it was the Tougi girl who chose to disturb the vacuum.

"Then for Rokujō-san's sake," she began, her words chosen carefully to reflect the dark thoughts that had spawned them, "I do hope the former-Etoile is in a forgiving mood."

The statement bounced from the stonework, its tone ominous and telling.

o o o

A gentle breeze carried cold air from the Dormitory attic's open skylight, drawing goose bumps to Shizuma's exposed shoulders. The peaceful form of a sleeping fourth year warmed the rest of her body, a poorly fitting blanket draped across the pair of them for shelter. The former-Etoile sat with her back against one of the attic's many boxes, propped up by a pile of dust sheets and several battered cushions borrowed from a stack of chairs piled up in the corner of the room. Nagisa lay curled upon her, her head resting on the older girl's bosom. Long silver hair fell loose about them, the shining cascade covering Shizuma's face whilst the limp fingers of Nagisa's right hand still hung entwined in its flowing strands from when she'd been playing with it as she fell asleep.

Aside from the soft rhythm of Nagisa's breathing, the attic had long since fallen still.

Shizuma glanced down at the girl beneath her, a content smile on Nagisa's lips, her fine brown eyelashes framing restful eyes. The former-Etoile smiled fondly, Shizuma basking in the sense of serenity that had followed their reunion. Despite the gruelling weeks leading up to this, everything seemed so right now. Finally, it was right.

Looking up at the skylight above them, Shizuma could see the pale disc of the moon hiding behind the growing clouds, its chill shades stark against the night sky framing them. As she gazed thoughtfully, a vivid image of Kaori's face sprung to mind, the mental spectre staring down toward the young couple huddled together beneath her. To her surprise, rather than the sad, solemn expression they usually bore, those soft brown eyes carried behind them a smile, the same fond regard that Shizuma had shown for Nagisa only seconds before.

A smile of absolution.

Shizuma glanced back to the sleeping form she cradled so lovingly, thumbing wayward strands from the Aoi girl's restful brow. The closing words of Kaori's final letter repeated in her mind, and looking back up at the empty sky light, Shizuma whispered quietly,

"Thank you, my love. Thank you."

o o o

A sharp rap on the wooden door shook Tamao to focus, drawing her eyes across the dark dormitory expanse toward the shadowy portal behind her. Panicked, she wiped her eyes with the bed cover and sniffed back further unshed tears, the fourth year willing her breathing back toward to normal. After a pause, she called, "Who… who is it?"

The soft voice of Lulim's student council president, Chikaru Minamoto, replied in return.

"May I come in, Tamao-chan?" she asked.

Tamao started again, blindly attempting to straighten the bed as she stumbled over her discarded Etoile dress in the darkness. She brushed down her uniform as best she could before groping for the light switch and flicking it on as quietly as possible. With a breath and a final pause before continuing, she cracked the door ajar.

"Um, can I… can I help you, Minamoto-sama?" she whispered.

Chikaru peered through the gap. "I wanted to see if Tamao-chan was okay."

The lump returned to Tamao's throat, and with effort she choked back another wave of tears. Courtesy instinctively taking charge, she stumbled over the words as she opened the door further.

"Of course I'm okay, Chikaru-senpai," she bluffed poorly, "who wouldn't be after such a wonderful ceremony?" She lowered her red-tinged eyes from Chikaru's preying gaze, bluffing poorly, "Didn't Hikari-san look beautiful in her dress?"

Chikaru's face remained shrewdly unconvinced. With her tone soft, she replied in a quiet but gathered manner.

"Yes, didn't she just, Tamao-chan."

The older girl followed Tamao's sweeping invite, and as she crossed the room to the waiting table that Chiyo had much earlier set for tea, she regarded the crumpled blue dress lying on the floor, tear stains spattered across its front. Chikaru bent to retrieve it, smoothing the fabric down before folding it neatly.

"You shouldn't be so careless with such a delicate dress, Tamao-chan," she smiled. "You'll only ruin it."

Tamao's shoulders slumped as she put the door to, looking back across the room toward the empathetic fifth year. Her mask cracked further still, the glimpse unwittingly betraying her turmulent soul.

"I imagine I shan't have another opportunity to wear it," she muttered quietly.

The pain was obvious in her voice, and sighing softly, Chikaru replied, "Now now, Tamao-chan, don't be so silly. Someone as beautiful as Astraea's great poet will always have cause to own a pretty dress."

Tamao looked down at the floor again, hoping her long hair would hide the gathering tears. Draping the dress across the back of Tamao's desk chair, Chikaru moved swiftly to attend the crumbling figure before her.

"Tamao-chan…" she sighed as she gathered the younger girl into a motherly embrace, and Chikaru gently kissed the fourth year's bowed forehead. At this Tamao broke, her streaming tears testament as each wail of dismay and heaving sob shook her.

"Nagisa-chan..." she cried.

Heavy silence echoed Tamao's mumbled anguish, and Chikaru led them awkwardly across the room so she could perch Tamao on the Dormitory bed behind, sparkling tears now covering the front of her checkered Lulim uniform.

"Nagisa…" the fourth year repeated, "my Nagisa-chan…"

o o o

"Yaya-chan?"

Hikari leant her slight form against their dormitory door, turning the handle as quietly as she could, hoping dearly to avoid the customary creak of birch-wood under strain.

"Yaya-chan?" she whispered again.

No reply returned her call.

Peering into the void behind the door, she strained to make out the dormitory beds, the cluttered desk and the flowing white curtains behind. Both beds were empty.

"Yaya-chan?" she repeated.

Flicking the light switch, Hikari squinted in the brightness, her eyes protesting as they adjusted to the sudden glare. She looked quizzically at the scene surrouding her: Yaya's white Spica uniform lay strewn across her bed, the sheets an untidy mess of imprints and scuffed covers. She tipped the door quietly to behind her, doing her best not to catch the edge of her Etoile gown as she did so. Stepping further into the room, a strange smell caught her nose: perfume, deliciously sweet and unexpected, despite being only a linger from earlier that afternoon.

Puzzled, the young Etoile stood with her hands crossed before her, surveying her confusing locale.

"Yaya-chan, where are you?"

o o o

Shizuma shivered in the cold air. The temperature was dropping, and she knew it was time to move the pair of them before someone caught cold. Ever so gently, she bent her lips to the fourth year, Shizuma kissing Nagisa's crown. Reddish brown hair shuffled as the Aoi girl stirred, her fine auburn eyelashes cracking apart, and soft brown eyes soon peering up from behind them.

"Shizuma-sama?"

The fond smile returned to Shizuma's lips.

"Nagisa."

The fourth year shuffled in her warm cocoon, pulling the blanket tighter around her shoulders as she released Shizuma's tangled hair. She closed her eyes again as if to return to sleep.

"I must be dreaming," she mumbled.

The corner of Shizuma's lips curled further in reply.

"No, if you were dreaming, it would be of patisserie my love, not of me."

Nagisa opened one eye, grinning back at the former-Etoile.

"Mmm, cookies," she teased.

Shizuma chuckled.

"Yes dear, cookies." She ran a finger across Nagisa's soft cheek. "We should get up Nagisa; it's getting cold. The snow has started again."

Nagisa rolled onto her back, looking up at the starry void above them through the wooden skylight. It was beginning to clog around the rim with a fluffy white lining.

"Look - marshmellows too! I am dreaming."

Shizuma's emerald eyes sparkled with playful rejection.

"Why so obsessive my love? I'll develop an inferiority complex if I lose you to candy."

Nagisa's voice ramped pitch as she replied, "But Shizuma-sama has left me so drained after today's awful ordeal..."

She'd meant it as a tease, but a serious look crossed Shizuma's careworn face, stifling the happy shine in her eyes.

"Yes, she has…"

And after a pause, she added, "And she's deeply sorry."

Nagisa sat up, the tone shaking off the evening's sleepy haze. She tilted her head, looking directly into Shizuma's troubled eyes.

"Shizuma-sama?"

A mark of regret washed across the older girl's face, and she pressed a finger to Nagisa's lips.

"It wasn't supposed to happen like this," she began.

For a second, Nagisa looked worried.

"When I met you Nagisa," and Shizuma's silver hair fell forward as the former-Etoile dipped her gaze from her girlfriend's eyes, "I missed her …I missed Kaori so, so much."

With a gentle touch, she traced the line of Nagisa's bare shoulder as her point of focus dissolved into a vague blur of pale skin and coarse blanket.

"I'd spent so long waiting for that pain to end, I hadn't thought about what I needed to do to make it happen."

A tear pooled in each of her yawning emerald wells, Nagisa watching quietly as they did.

"It wasn't until I took you to the summer house, until that night in Kaori's room, that I realised I still had to deal with my pain - that I needed to put things behind me before I could move on." The tears rolled free, racing across Shizuma's cheek and down toward her chin, meeting there in unison.

"I didn't want to hurt you," she continued. "Even then, I was certain I loved you, Nagisa."

The red head wiped the tears away attentively, her own troubled expression calling for Shizuma to stop, the look in the young girl's eyes stressing to the older that an explanation was unnecessary. But the former-Etoile seemed intent, continuing on despite more tears and a flustered warmth spreading across her skin.

"The day I returned our Etoile necklaces, Nagisa, Miyuki and I …we found a letter from Kaori. It'd been hidden in the necklace case where Kaori thought only I would find it."

Shizuma sobbed openly now, adding with obvious difficultly, "She wrote it not long before she died."

Nagisa's expression turned to one of agonised pity, the youngster wishing for a way to end her girlfriend's obvious distress. But just as before, she focused on listening intently; Shizuma obviously needed to say these words, or she wouldn't have embarked on sharing them in the first place.

"In it she asked what would become of me after she had gone. She said she hoped for me to stay as she'd met me - as the girl that made her happy and helped her feel alive. It was only then that I realised what I'd become, what I was doing to the people around me…"

The tears finally slowed, and a look of sincerity took to Shizuma's intent face. She stared directly into the brown eyes regarding her, holding their attention firmly.

"I loved you so much, Nagisa," she stressed, "even then. I just needed time."

Crippled by returning confusion and an act that had thoroughly devastated her, the red head immediately drew away, choking back her own rising tears as the recent weeks' events sprung back to mind. Struggling to control her nerve, she pushed an ever present question from her lips.

"But… that night in the greenhouse. The night you took the Summer House key back. You said…"

A scowl crossed Shizuma's face, twisting her lips into a sneer as she looked away once more. She straightened her back in obvious anger and annoyance.

"Miyuki," she spat the word out, "had a convincing way with words."

"But she said you'd given your approval to our entry in the Etoile election!" Nagisa exclaimed, recoiling almost completely, anguish racing through her heart. The evening had been so perfect, and yet suddenly it seemed to be going wrong. "You said so yourself –"

"No!" Shizuma snapped, returning her focus to Nagisa's contesting eyes. "I gave approval for her to choose, Nagisa. I didn't care who became the next Etoile, as long as it set me free."

She leant forward, taking the fourth year's hands in hers, drawing the red head back towards her.

"It wasn't my choice to enter you both; it wasn't until after she'd told Tamao that Miyuki informed me of her decision." Holding Nagisa's hands firmly, she forced the fourth year to look at her. "I only said what I did that night because I thought I wasn't ready. I was stupid. I didn't want to hurt you any more than I already had, but instead I only made things worse."

The girls fell silent for a moment, their breathing slowing gradually.

Catching memories as they sprang to mind, a weary smile crossed Shizuma's delicate lips.

"I smashed my room up the morning she told me you were entering together."

She looked away, caught up in her own thoughts, the silver river that shrouded her face shifting in the light. Her words were little more than whispers as she continued the afterthought, "I was so angry, so scared I'd lost you altogether."

Absorbing the air of regret, Nagisa carefully traced the scar line on Shizuma's left hand, its source now explained, the wound still obvious and raw. Her furrowed brow quickly softened, her gaze lost in the myriad lines that raced alongside the tender mark.

Shizuma continued, returning her eyes to the beautiful girl she held before her.

"I just needed time to gather myself, Nagisa. After facing it all again, I just needed to figure myself out… I'm sorry I took so long, my love."

The fourth year looked up at Shizuma, exploring her pretty face, rereading the open expression. For only the second time since she'd met the former-Etoile, Nagisa saw the senior blush; the previous time being that very morning in the cathedral grounds. Reassured, and with the beginnings of a smile creeping to her lips, Nagisa replied in the quiestest of whispers.

"It doesn't matter how we got here, Shizuma."

She leant forward slowly, drawing her mouth to the older girl's lips. The coy flush of playful embarrassment she'd worn shifting into a look of placid serenity, before being twisted by slowly building desire. She parted her lips again, this time brushing Shizuma's cheek.

"I'm here, with you now. That's all that matters."

And Nagisa's whisper trailed off, her final words consumed by a long, lingering kiss.

o o o

The stairs creaked as the two girls closed the attic door and tip-toed out into the Dormitory corridor. The dull light of the moon spilled through partially obscured windows, leaving the way before them broken by sporadic lines of elongated shadow.

"What now?" Nagisa asked timidly, the fourth year peering back toward her girlfriend.

Shizuma flashed a theatric smile in return.

"What makes you think I have an answer for that yet?"

Nagisa giggled, squeezing the other girl's hand as she did.

"Because you're the brainy one, remember?"

Shizuma grinned back, and after a moment's thought, replied more seriously.

"Then it's time you returned to your room, Nagisa. You have a friend there I'm sure is in need of a hug."

The fourth year tilted her head as she reconciled Shizuma's directive.

"Tamao-chan?"

"I could only wish for a friend like her, Nagisa. Regardless of our relationship, you shouldn't lose that. You mustn't lose that."

Nagisa bowed her head for a moment, consequence and concern catching up to her.

"But…" she began, her voice small and questioning, "I…"

She looped the subject briefly, Shizuma undoubtedly in the right, and Nagisa simply trying to avoid the matter. Just as she was about to vocalise an admittance as much, another, just as troubling possibility sprung to mind.

"You won't…?"

Shizuma pre-empted her words and cut her off outright.

"What, after today? After this evening? No, of course not, don't be silly."

Nagisa beamed.

"Then yes, I have a friend I know will need a hug."

Happy with her partner's choice, Shizuma returned the smiles with a brief nod of resolve, before glancing down the hall into the plunging darkness ahead.

"And I," she muttered, "…I have something to deal with myself."

The words floated into the hall, not needing a reply. Nagisa knew what portent they carried.

o o o

It was late when Chikaru left Tamao to herself. A half empty teapot of cold red tea sat in the middle of the low table at the centre of the room, and Tamao gazed at it as she stood with her back to the door; the fourth year remaining where she'd been ever since bidding Chikaru farewell and closing it behind her.

It was quiet, and cold. How long had she been there now?

A shiver ran along Tamao's spine, and with a defeated sigh she considered the prospect of going to bed.

In reply to her sigh, the swish of fabric against wood came from the other side of the door.

Tamao looked up, at first puzzled, but then with solemn realization. This late at night there was only one potential candidate for her previously silent companion.

A moment passed, and then, with slow refrain, she managed the words, "Welcome back, Nagisa-chan."

And as she leant forward, away from the door, the handle slowly turned.

"Tamao-chan…"

The voice was quiet, steeped in nervous trepidation.

For a second, the girls regarded each other in stoic silence through the open doorway. Nagisa's Etoile dress hung about her, creased and dishevelled from the evening's previous activities. Her hair fell messily across her shoulders, the flushed look in her cheeks betraying fresh tears and the evening's other emotions.

Tamao looked a mirror, Chikaru's soft perfume radiating from her clothes.

"I – "Nagisa started.

"Hush, Nagisa-chan." Tamao smiled wearily as a gentle sob shook her young body.

Nagisa stepped forward, but Tamao shook her head momentarily, her hand up to push the other fourth year away. But then, with an air of finality, she chose to let the tears go and embraced her dear friend closely.

The girls stood in the dark, holding one another, unspoken regret and apology passing between them. It didn't need saying; each knew the other's words.

"Welcome back, Nagisa-chan, welcome back…"

o o o

Shizuma pushed away from the wall, slipping from the open doorway to the younger girls' room. Regretful, but satisfied, her attention turned to the next problem at hand, and again, a dripping sneer of disdain crossed her lips.

With a purposeful stride, the former-Etoile of Astraea Hill headed back toward her own dormitory corridor, and a long overdue confrontation with student council president Miyuki Rokujō.