STANDARD DISCLAIMER: I own neither Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito nor Strawberry Panic. I own none of the characters within. What I do own is a plot bunny that refused to die after I watched these two series back-to-back. This is my first attempt at writing in an anime setting, and I hope to do the characters justice.
For those who've seen one of these and not the other, please see the footnote at the end of this chapter for extremely brief rundowns of the characters and situations. For those who've seen neither, you are very brave to consider reading on.
Red Bows In Her Hair
by Suzume CA
Part 1: Hazuki
If nothing else, Hazuki decided, at least the transitions themselves were getting easier.
Their search for Hatsumi had taken them from one world to another, from one book to another, and by now, at least, Hazuki could manage the journey from library to book-world without wracking nausea. For Lilith, stepping between worlds seemed as easy as breathing, and as a consequence Hazuki had decided early in the search that she was never going to allow her companion to see even a moment of weakness.
As the glow of transition faded and the world repainted itself around them, the first things Hazuki noted were the trees, many of which were bare of leaf. That, along with the chill in the air, suggested winter, or at the latest early spring, but where?
"Where are we this time?" she asked.
Lilith, the keeper of the Great Library, gave a melodramatic sigh. "You always ask me that, Hazuki-chaaaaaaan," she replied, stretching the honorific into a plaintive whine.
"And you seldom give me a straight answer."
With another flouncing sigh, Lilith leaned into Hazuki, her face twisted into a childish pout. "You should relax more and enjoy the journey, Hazuki-chan. Is my company so terrible?"
"Where are we, Lilith?" Hazuki asked again, determined not to let the librarian see her discomfort at the near-constant flirting.
Lilith gave a humph-sound, apparently giving up for now. "I've never been into this story, but Ken-chan is certain Eve has been here."
Has been here, Hazuki thought to herself grimly. That was always the way. They had followed Hatsumi (or Eve, as Lilith knew her) through at least half a dozen of these world-stories, but in each of them had found only traces of her sister's presence: marks she had left on the world, and its inhabitants. Lives she had changed. Lives like Hazuki's own.
Taking a deep breath to center herself for the search, Hazuki set off through the woods, sword sheathed for the time being.
"Where are you going?" Lilith asked her.
"This way," Hazuki replied, simply.
"Oooh, you're impossible, Hazuki-chan," Lilith growled, but she followed all the same.
After a brief, silent walk through the oddly peaceful woods, Hazuki pulled up short. "Listen," she hissed.
Lilith tipped her enormous hat to one side and cocked her head. "Voices," she whispered.
For a moment, Hazuki felt strangely disoriented. They were voices, yes, but there was something unsettlingly familiar about them. Girls' voices. Happy, laughing, chattering, sometimes even squealing with glee: a combination she hadn't heard since leaving her own world seemingly months before.
Impulsively, she took off running, leaving a surprised Lilith calling after her. Closer the voices came, until she emerged from the cover of the trees and into a scene she had begun to think she might never see again.
"A school?" she whispered to herself.
There was no mistaking it: from the building itself, which positively screamed "boarding school," to the uniforms worn by the many young women (most of them pink and tan, with short checkered skirts), Hazuki had, against all possibility, wandered into a modern-day Japanese academy for girls. Had Lilith somehow brought her back to her own world after all?
"Hi there!" a voice bubbled beside her. "Are you here for the Transformation Club?"
Hazuki shook herself back to reality (such as it was), and was surprised to suddenly find herself confronted by three of the pink-uniformed schoolgirls. "Uh," was all she had time to say before the older two of the three (one with light brown pigtails, the other with rectangular glasses and hair that actually appeared to be a shade of green) were suddenly all over her.
"Oooh, I love the uniform! Perfect sailor-fuku!"
"Are the bandages part of the costume, or is your leg really hurt?"
"That sword! Oh, how beautiful! It's not real, is it? The Sisters wouldn't let you keep a real one on school grounds, would they?"
"It's a great look! Very tall, dark and bishoujo!"
"Hey, I don't recognize you. Are you from Miator or Spica?"
"Uh," Hazuki repeated, not able to get anything else out through the barrage of friendliness.
"Oh, we're so rude!" the pigtailed one gasped, but then quickly smiled and gave a small bow. "My name is Hyuga Kizuna," she beamed.
"Natsume Remon," the bespectacled girl bowed, copying her friend's pose.
Baffled, but feeling no real danger, Hazuki returned the introduction. "A- Azuma Hazuki."
"We're so happy to meet you, Hazuki-san!" the one called Kizuna grinned. "So are you from Miator or Spica?"
Hazuki was about to explain that she did not know what either of those meant, but Kizuna and Remon were suddenly looking past her, eyes wide, each giving a tiny gasp. Hazuki looked around to see that Lilith had emerged from the woods, looking a bit winded from her pursuit. "There you are, Hazuki-chan!"
With twin squeals of unmitigated delight, Kizuna and Remon all but knocked Hazuki over as they pounced on the new arrival. The brief look of terror on Lilith's face was almost enough to make Hazuki crack a smile.
"You look amazing!"
"That hat! I could swear the eye is really looking at me!"
"Your hair! It must have taken you hours!"
"Are you some sort of naughty witch?"
"Did you make this yourself?"
Still babbling questions, the two schoolgirls each took one of Lilith's hands and practically dragged her along with them, Hazuki apparently forgotten for the time being.
"You have to show us how you did this!"
"Can I try the hat?"
"How do you make the eye move like that? It is like a puppet?"
Hazuki watched them go, the smile still threatening to emerge. It was somewhat satisfying to see Lilith the target of such attention for a change, but Hazuki realized that she should probably rescue her if they were going to continue their search for Hatsumi without alerting the entire school, or indeed its superiors, to their presence.
Before she could take a step, though, she felt a tug at her skirt. Looking down, she found herself peering into the deep, unblinking eyes of the third and youngest of the pink-uniformed students. This one carried a teddy bear, making her look perhaps even younger than she was.
"Hello," Hazuki said, crouching down beside the diminutive girl. "I'm Hazuki."
The little one stared at her for a few moments more, then looked into the eyes of her bear. "Percival thinks you're not from Spica or Miator," she said in a tiny voice. "Are you here looking for someone?"
"Yes," Hazuki blinked, somewhat surprised by the perceptiveness of the odd child. "I'm looking for my sister. What's your name?"
"Kagome," she all but whispered. She then waved one of the bear's arms at the older girl. "This is Percival. He thinks he knows who can help you. I think so too."
Without another word, Kagome again grasped the hem of Hazuki's skirt and led her toward the main entrance to the school building. Sitting on the wide front steps was another student, this one older than either of the three she'd met thus far. She was busily sewing something - a dress of some sort - and she had long, black hair, decorated with...
"Hello, Kagome-chan," the girl smiled warmly, before turning that smile up toward Hazuki. "And who is this?"
"Chikaru-sama, this is Azuma-sama," Kagome said by way of introduction. "She's looking for someone."
Setting aside her sewing, Chikaru stood to get a better look, and while her smile did not fade, a line appeared between her brows as she studied Hazuki carefully. "Greetings, Azuma-san," she bowed. "My name is Minamoto Chikaru, Student Council President of St. Lulim's."
Hazuki only half heard Chikaru's words, as she was staring mutely at the red bows in the other girl's hair. The face was completely different, the dark hair was the very opposite of Hatsumi's golden halo, but the bows...
Realizing suddenly that it was her turn to speak, she choked out "Hazuki. Azuma Hazuki."
"I'm glad to meet you, Hazuki-san," Chikaru replied, holding out one hand in a friendly manner.
Absently, still distracted by those familiar red bows, Hazuki reached out to take the other girl's hand. As soon as their fingers touched, however, a jolt of energy passed between them, and the world momentarily flashed green behind Hazuki's eyes. She snatched her hand back, letting out an involuntary gasp, and as her vision focused once again she looked from a staring Kagome to a startled, but still smiling, Chikaru.
"Ha- Hatsumi..?" Hazuki said in a cracked whisper, finally recognizing the energy for what it was. She had been bathed in this same emerald radiance the night Hatsumi had disappeared, and had felt the tiniest traces of it during her travels through the worlds her sister had touched. Never before, though, had it been as strong as it was with this Chikaru.
Had this girl known her sister?
Chikaru studied Hazuki a while longer, tilting her head from one side to the other as she did. At last, she looked fondly at her classmate and said "Kagome-chan, when the rest of the club arrives, please tell them I won't be joining you today."
"Yes, Chikaru-sama," Kagome nodded, dismissing herself. "Percival says he hopes you find your sister, Azuma-sama."
Once the other two were alone, Chikaru collected the dress she'd been mending, then once again held out her hand to Hazuki. "Would you like some tea, Hazuki-san? I have a new herbal blend I've been meaning to try."
"Thank you," Hazuki replied, still somewhat shocked. She gingerly took the other girl's hand, feeling once more that surge of energy indicating Hatsumi's presence.
Chikaru blinked twice at the contact, apparently feeling the jolt as well, but it did not affect her smile in the slightest. "Afterward, you must tell me everything that brought you here, Hazuki-san..."
Still feeling slightly dazed, Hazuki was led away from the main building of St. Lulim's, and eventually to a large, triangular dormitory. They passed dozens of other students as they went, from the pink-checkered Lulim girls to those wearing close-fitting short white-and-gold dresses and elegant black-and-white gowns (the uniforms of St. Spica and St. Miator, as Chikaru explained). Absently, she noted that her new companion seemed to be fairly popular, as Chikaru was given warm greetings and friendly waves all the while. She felt many of those girls' eyes on her, as well, but no one asked any questions.
Finally, they arrived at what Hazuki guessed to be Chikaru's dormitory room. Once inside, Chikaru smiled and indicated a small tea table, then went to start up an electric kettle.
It was easily the most personalized living space Hazuki had ever witnessed. No surface had gone undecorated, and the small space was filled near to bursting with bolts of colorful fabric, costume and clothing items in various stages of completion, stuffed animals and puppets that appeared handmade, and not one but three easels, two of which held incomplete watercolors.
Hazuki slipped off her shoes and knelt at the table, laying her still-sheathed sword across her lap. A few minutes passed as Chikaru bustled about with the tea preparations, and Hazuki tried to think of something -- anything, really -- to say. Compared to the worlds she'd experienced since starting her search, this setting was almost surreal in its familiarity. For the first time, she truly felt the depth to which the journey had changed her. Did she truly belong anywhere any longer?
At length, Chikaru poured each of them a sweet-smelling herbal tea, then knelt opposite Hazuki and fixed her once again with those knowing eyes. "So, Hazuki-san," she smiled placidly, "you've come looking for your sister?"
Hazuki nodded. "Yes. My adoptive sister, Hatsumi. At least... she was Hatsumi to me." She still felt the need to tell everyone who would listen that Hatsumi was not her relative by blood, as though this would somehow absolve her of her self-loathing.
"Do you mean she might not go by that name anymore?"
"I... don't know," Hazuki sighed, taking a sip of the tea to buy herself some time. Suddenly the whole story felt ridiculous to her. How could she explain the impossibility of it all to someone so... normal?
"Has she been gone long? Would you recognize her if you saw her again?"
This, at least, she could answer. "She disappeared on her sixteenth birthday. A... friend has been helping me trace her since then, and we've been following her trail for a few months. One of my friend's... contacts led us here."
"Intriguing," Chikaru nodded slowly. "So you think she might have transferred here, to one of our academies?"
"No, nothing so simple," Hazuki said, shaking her head. "It's... complicated. There's a lot I can't tell you."
Chikaru raised her eyebrows. "Perhaps intrigue was the right word after all. Would speaking of it put you or me in danger?"
Hazuki shook her head again, then took another sip of tea to steady herself. "No, it's nothing like that at all. It's just that if I told you... you'd think me insane."
A long silence ensued, and Hazuki looked anywhere but at Chikaru and her seeking eyes.
"Is it possible," Chikaru asked, delicately, "that Hatsumi might not want you to find her?"
"No, she didn't leave like that," Hazuki frowned, her frustration building. Of course that thought had occurred to her, in the lonelier moments of her travels, but she could not allow herself to believe that Hatsumi would be so cruel.
"May I ask why you need to find her?"
"She's my sister," Hazuki snapped. "Isn't that enough?"
"Yes," Chikaru nodded, "but there's more to it than that, isn't there?"
Hazuki gritted her teeth. "Yes, there is."
"And you can't tell me about it."
"It doesn't matter," Hazuki growled. "I just need to find her. There were... things left unsaid between us, and I have to find her... to tell her... Whatever it takes, however many worlds I have to go through, I have to find her..." She ground to a halt, realizing too late that she had said too much. She looked away from Chikaru, silently praying that the other girl hadn't noticed the slip.
After a long sip of her tea, Chikaru broke the silence. "Tell me," she asked, "how many of these worlds have you been through thus far?"
Hazuki turned wide eyes on her. "I..." she started, but could not continue.
Chikaru set down her tea, then folded her hands on the tabletop and leaned forward slightly, filling Hazuki's vision with those uncanny eyes. "Perhaps," she suggested, "you should tell me the whole story, Hazuki-san."
In brief, the improbably named Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito tells the story of Hazuki, whose beloved adoptive sister Hatsumi disappeared on the night of her sixteenth birthday in a pillar of green energy, leaving Hazuki to pursue her from one world to the next alongside Lilith, the keeper of the Great Library in which all the myriad worlds are kept safe in books. As it turns out, Hatsumi is Eve, the original keeper (and Lilith's actual sister), who has taken to "visiting" the worlds one by one until departing each as she turns sixteen. Lilith wants to find Eve to make her take her job back, while Hazuki wants to find her because in spite of the guilt and shame she feels for it, she loves her desperately. Got all that? This series has been criticized for its storytelling style, which could charitably be called non-linear, its tendency toward blatant fanservice, and for its rather unsatisfying ending, but it seems that most everyone can agree that Hazuki is Awesome.
Meanwhile, Strawberry Panic tells the story of three neighboring girls' academies, and the endless crushes and romances that develop between their students. Yuri as far as the eye can see. Most of the intrigue takes place in the academies of St. Miator and St. Spica, with St. Lulim more or less rounding out the cast as the Hufflepuff of Astraea Hill. This story will largely feature characters from St. Lulim's, who actually appear to be some of the most well-adjusted and happy students in this drama-bomb setting (yes, even the girl with the teddy bear). This series has been criticized for its sometimes lol-tastic dialog, its melodrama, its exponentially increasing fanservice as you go along, and its very existence as a pastiche of cliches from innumerable other animes, but it seems that most everyone can agree that Chikaru is Awesome.