I don't own these characters or profit from them.

Strawberry Panic: Afterwards

By, Clayton Overstreet

Tamao was walking back from her poetry club meeting the day after the Etoile election. She was thinking about the night before. When Nagisa had finally returned to their dorm room and had spent over an hour leaning against the outside of the door. Tamao knew about that because she had been on the other side, waiting to welcome her back. And she had, but it had still been another half hour before Nagisa had come into the room and she had still refused to look Tamao in the face. They had gone to bed silently and gotten up the same way. Even when she helped Nagisa into her uniform it had been a cold and quiet act, with none of the usual teasing.

"Ahem," someone said disinctly and Tamao jumped. She turned and saw Shizuma standing there watching her coldly. "Good afternoon."

Tamao pressed her lips together, her eyes hardening. "Etoile… I mean Shizuma."

Shizuma smiled a little. It was condecending. "You have something you'd like to say to me?"

"No."

"Then I'll make this quick. I want you to do me a favor." Tamao blinked in surprise. "I want you to take care of Nagisa for me."

"What?"

Shizuma looked away. "I'll be graduating this year. You and Nagisa still have two years to go before you leave the school." She turned back and glared at Tamao. "You're her best friend and I don't want her to be alone."

"I thought you didn't like me," Tamao said cautiously.

"I don't." It was blunt and to the point. "For the same reason you don't like me. If I could I'd have Nagisa all to myself. But she's not that kind of girl. She needs friends."

Tamao said, "I'm not sure that's true. When you're around or when she thinsks about you, you are Nagisa's whole world. Even I…" She felt her throat close up. She remembered when Shizuma and Nagisa had danced together. Nagisa had walked right past her without so much as a glance. "I always thought that… that if I tried hard enough I could be that important to her. That maybe if I had been the first person she met when she came here I could have been as important to her as you." She had tears in her eyes. "Why does she love you do much? She knows what kind of person you are."

Shizuma smiled again. "I'm sure you told her as soon as you could." Tamao nodded firmly. "When I first met her I thought she was cute. She had come tumbling down a hill and gotten lost in the woods and she bumped into me, dropping her things. I handed her something she dropped… a little charm.

"Then she looked in my eyes and she just sort of froze with this look on her face. So I gave her a little peck on the head and she fainted." Tamao had never heard that part of the story. All she had known was that Nagisa had met Etoile on the way in and fainted. But later she had seen Nagisa act the same way around Shizuma. "I decided to try again and again. But every time something seemed to interrupt me." She smiled, but this time it was a real one. Eyes unfocused Shizuma stared into the air, remembering.

Tamao frowned. "I can't take your place. I know that." She had really known it on the summer school vacation when the whole school had gone to the beach, leaving behind only those people, like Shizuma, who had other duties. Nagisa had been doing nothing but thinking about Shizuma the whole time and had run off to see her as soon as they got back.

Shizuma shook her head. "I don't want you to." She sneered. "In fact, if I could I'd keep you as far away from Nagisa as possible."

"I know."

"Good." Shizuma paused. "You know about Kaori?" Tamao nodded. "For a long time I… I think I looked for someone to take her place. Or maybe I was trying to stop that from happening." She shook her head. "And then I met Nagisa. And she did not take Kaori's place. She wouldn't." She shook her head. "She became something new. Something more." Absently her hand went up to her neck where the Etoile necklace had been before. "I know I'm not worthy of her. No matter what she tells herself she's so much better than me. When I am around her I want to be a better person." She looked at Tamao. "And I think that's why I don't like you. I barely know you. You're so different from me. But she cares about you too."

"She loves you."

"But she loves you too. It hurts knowing that if I had never met her she would have been yours. That she almost was."

"You're right. That is why I don't like you," Tamao said. They stood there quietly for a while. "So that's it? You want me to keep being her friend?"

"No, but she does. And I'd do anything for Nagisa." She narrowed her eyes. "But I'll also tell you this. You need to find someone else. Someone you can love."

"I…"

"Do you know why Nagisa really chose me over you?" Shizuma said.

Tamao was going to say no, but the word choked in her mouth. "Yes, I do."

"Is it because I'm pretty? Or because of how her body reacts around me?"

"No," she said quietly. Nagisa was not that kind of girl. She cared about everyone. Opened her heart up to them all completely. If you needed her she would be there. And she could have loved any of them. Not just Tamao or Shizuma. But there was one thing Shizuma did that none of the other girls had done. "She loves you because you know the real her."

Everyone in the school had heard about the new transfer student. And they had all formed their own opinion on what she would be like. Shizuma had been lucky enough to meet Nagisa alone in the woods and had probably been uninterested in the rumors. Tamao on the other hand had probably been the worst offender. She had been waiting for years for a roommate and had built one up in her head. Then when Nagisa had arrived she had tried to force her into that role.

"Of course she wouldn't have chosen me. I never let her be herself." She looked up at Shizuma. "If it hadn't been you it would have been someone else. I'm Nagisa's friend. I tried too hard to be more than that."

Shizuma's hard gaze softened a bit. "I know how you feel." She put a hand on Tamao's shoulder. "I have some advice for you. Be her friend. She needs you. But love someone else. Nagisa cares for you deeply. Someone worthy of being her friend like you are deserves to be happy."

Tamao wiped the tears from her eyes. "But not with her, right?"

"Right." They shared a real smile for once.

"Shizuma!" They both turned as Nagisa came around the corner. She was out of breath.

Shizuma giggled. "Nagisa, you were running in the hall again."

Panting a little Nagisa stuck her tongue out. "You're not Etoile any more. So don't lecture me on school rules."

Shizuma nodded. "True. So what is the hurry?"

"I have some news for you. I talked to my parents." She blushed. "They said that since you live nearby and were graduating that… if you wanted me to… I could spend the holidays at your place."

"You can?" Shizuma asked. "Did you tell them…"

Nagisa looked down and shook her head. "No. They don't know abou tus. I thought… maybe I'll save that until I graduate." She looked up at Shizuma.

Shizuma nodded. "Good. I don't want them to try taking you away from me." She stepped forward and put her hand on Nagisa's cheek. Nagisa smiled and felt her muscles relax. She could look into Shizuma's eyes these days and not immediately lose control of herself. But that all depended on wanting to keep control. As Shizuma pulled her into a hug and deep kiss Nagisa just let her. When they finally broke apart Shizuma said, "And I would love for you to stay with me on the holidays. If you don't mind."

Nagisa shook her head. "I want to." She reached up and touched Shizuma's hair. "It's like the Etoile necklaces."

"What?"

"They meant a lot to you and Kaori right? Well now they're Hikari and Amane's." She looked deep into Shizuma's eyes and said, "So I won't take Kaori's place. But I can make it my place instead. Because I'm not her. You and I did a lot of things you and she did. Working in the greenhouse. Playing the piano. And going to your vila. But we did them. So even if someone else did them before they're out memories. Nobody else's."

Shizuma smiled and pressed her forehead to Nagisa's. "You're right."

Nagisa was going to kiss her this time, but then she noticed Tamao standing nearby. "Oh…" She pulled back. Shizuma let her go. "I… I um…" She bowed her head to her friend. "I'm sorry."

Tamao smiled. "Don't be." She walked over and lifted up Nagisa's head. "Nagisa don't ever apologize for your choice. Promise me." Nagisa bit her lip, but nodded. "Okay." She stepped back. "I'll see you later. Our friends want to have a tea party tonight."

"Alright." Nagisa watched at Tamao walked away.

When they were alone Shizuma put her arm possessively around Nagisa's waist and they started walking away. "You never told me, what exactly do your parents do overseas?"

"Oh. Um, the way they explained it to me… they left because I'm a main character in an anime series."

"What?"

"Well they figured either they could move overseas and only visit around Christmas and New Years until I'm twenty-one or they could hang around and risk one or both of them dying."

"Explains what happened to my parents and why I own a big empty house and a three billion dollar bank account."

"I try not to think about it too much."

"Probably wise."

Two and a half years later

Nagisa, now almost as tall as Shizuma, pulled a tray of cookies out of the oven and took a deep sniff of them. Then she put the tray aside and began putting into small pink bags. Shizuma came in then and took the bags, giving Nagisa a quick peck on the cheek. Nearby a special machine they had picked up on their trip to Paris to celebrate Nagisa's graduation bubbled happily. The smells of several different kinds of tea filled the back room.

When she came back Shizuma smiled and said, "So, are you ready to open?"

"I hope so," Nagisa said. "Hey!" Shizuma had pulled her into a kiss. Nagisa felt her body respond. When they broke up she whispered, "Shizuma come on. We're supposed to open in ten minutes."

Shizuma smiled playfully and squeezed Nagisa to her tightly. "Oh dear. You think we might lose customers if we open late? However will we support ourselves." Shizuma was rich and neither of them ever worried about money. But they shared everything and after their vacation to France, which Shizuma had insisted on after all the work Nagisa had spent learning the language, they had agreed that they needed something to do to fill their time besides make love all day in their big empty house. For one thing, eventually they got, if not bored, then tired and sore.

So the two of them had spoken about it and decided on what they would like to do. They had considered becoming teachers, but the idea of staying at Strawberry Hall had seemed childish and really they would not have wanted to teach anywhere else. Shizuma had put it best when she said, "We graduated so that we could make our way in the world. Not go back. Besides, I can't imagine you sitting up all night grading French tests."

So Nagisa had suggested they do what they loved most in school. And they had set up their own small tea house, just between Strawberry Hall and the closest town. They named it "Strawberry Panic" because each had refused to have it named after them no matter what the other said. It was on Shizuma's family's land, isolated enough to be quiet but close enough to the roads to get some customers.

Shizuma nibbled on Nagisa's ear. "You just look so cute in that apron." They both wore black french maid outfits. They had been designed by their old friend Yaya of theirs from school who now owned a costume shop in town.

Nagisa smiled and with an effort of will pushed Shizuma gently away from her. "Come on. We have things to do." She grabbed the long braid in Shizuma's hair and tugged on it like a leash. Nagisa had braided Shizuma's hair herself. Both of them liked it that way.

Shizuma sighed and nodded. "Alright."

When they got out into the main room they saw people lined up outside, some of them pressing their faces against the large windows to see in. Shizuma and Nagisa stared for a moment and then, laughing, they went to open the doors for all of their old friends from school.

Amane and Hikari came in first. They had actually stopped being Etoile the year after Shizuma graduated because that was when Amane had to leave. Hikari looked good too, standing with her armm in Shizuma's. You'd never know that her parents had disowned her and that she had dropped out of school to move in with Amane. "Good to see you again."

"You too," Nagisa said. The girls all filed past them, heading for the tables. Kagome, Natsume, Miyuki, her husband Yosho, and their daughter Kaori. Kizuna and Minamoto, Shion, Hitomi… and finally Tamao and Chiyo, holding hands and smiling.

"Nagisa," Tamao said softly and hugged her.

Chiyo hugged them both tightly. "Big Sister Nagisa!"

Shizuma sniffed. "Nobody loves me at all."

"Darn right," Miyuki called out. Everyone laughed.

"How was Paris?" Tamao asked.

Nagisa rolled her eyes. "I totally blanked on how to speak the language."

"After all that hard work?"

"She got the hang of it fast enough," Shizuma said. "Come on in."

Shizuma took a place behind the counter and Nagisa got out a notepad and began taking orders. Soon everyone was seated and sipping tea while they chatted about old times and new. Amane for example had apparently opened up her own riding school and Hikari was singing professionally. Tamao had become a teacher and was waiting for Chiyo to graduate and then the two of them were going to go on a trip to Australia. Chiyo's great aspiration was to be a housewife. Minamoto had gotten a degree in art from a college and she had a gallery of her own. Not too surprisong since Strawberry Hall was a group of three private schools for girls from wealthy families. They were all doing well.

When everyone was served Nagisa and Shizuma took a seat at their own table in the back of the room. They stared out at tehir friends and sipped their tea. It was a special blend that they had agreed to keep to themselves. Nagisa and Shizuma grew all their tea in a special greenhouse they had built. And they had both agreed that the special English black tea was just for them alone.

Shizuma took a cookie out of the pink bag and took a bite out of it. "Not bad.. but something's missing."

Nagisa said, "I know." She took the cookie and dropped it into the bag. Then she crushed the bag between her hands and held it out.

Shizuma took a piece of crushed cookie and ate it. "Much better."

Author's note

What can I say? The original ending was a bit depressing.