Well I don't know where it all begins
And I don't know where it all will end
But we're better off for all that we let in

-Indigo Girls

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Epilogue

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Graduation came with all the ceremony and pageantry that students of the Astraea academies had come to expect. Speeches were made by Etoile, administrators and representatives of the three schools' graduating classes, honors were bestowed, and another group of girls was ushered into life outside the hallowed halls. It was a day of cheers as well as tears, of proud families and relieved instructors.

To Kizuna and Remon, however, it was the single worst day their young lives had ever known.

"What will we do without you, Chikaru-onee-sama?" Kizuna sobbed against her former school president's dress.

"You'll be wonderful, my dears, Chikaru whispered to her as she took both girls in her arms while Kagome stood close by and watched. "I have high hopes for you: perhaps next year we'll see St. Lulim's first Etoile in a generation."

"Do you really think so?" Remon sniffed.

"I do. You'll keep the clubs running, then?"

"Of course," Kizuna replied.

"You'll keep the pride of St. Lulim alive and well?"

"We'll try," Remon nodded.

"And if things get too unbearably sad at any time, you'll let Hazuki-chan and Tamao-chan take care of you in my absence?"

"Hai," they said together.

"That's what I needed to hear. Now, gather around, all three of you. I have something important to pass on to you before I leave these halls."

With the three underclassmen in a close circle around her, Chikaru reached into her pocket and produced a beautiful antique comb. "This belonged to my sister Naoko," she told them, "who has long been my inspiration, just as I've always hoped to be yours. I'm entrusting you with this, so that she can always remain a part of St. Lulim. Kagome-chan, I'll leave this in your care. Let her spirit guide you, and when the time comes for you to graduate, pass this on to a worthy successor."

Kagome nodded solemnly, accepting the comb from Chikaru with both hands. "Thank you, Chikaru-sama," she said quietly. She then studied it carefully. "It's... green," she then added in an even softer voice. "Just like you."

"Um, Kagome, sweetheart, it kind of looks red to me," Kizuna pointed out.

Chikaru, however, only nodded at her young charge, not surprised at all to know that she somehow understood. "I think I'm leaving it in good hands, my darlings. Meanwhile, please keep me in your hearts."

"Always," Remon whispered, as the three younger girls piled onto their former president in a final desperate hug.


Hazuki watched the Lulim girls' exchange from a distance, and then drifted off to people-watch some more while she waited for Tamao's duties to be complete. Suddenly, amidst the crowds, she noticed a familiar flash of gold earrings, and on closer inspection she grinned at the sight of Aaya, dressed entirely too convincingly in a St. Lulim uniform. He was watching her carefully, and when she met his gaze, he gave her a wink and a thumbs-up.

Part of Hazuki wanted to chase him down again to ask some of the endless questions she'd had since the whole business with the dragons had ended. Who was he, anyway? Where did he fit in with the whole Maker-Healer-Guardian trinity of the supernatural? Was he the one who had pulled them into the library at the moment Tamao had grabbed her hand and completed their circle? Was his the voice that she had heard on the wind that first night of Summer School? For that matter, was the wind that had sparked their Souma and forced them to tell Tamao the truth about themselves his doing?

In the end, though, none of those things mattered. She had been slowly learning to let go of the deep regrets she still felt when she thought about losing Hatsumi a lifetime ago, because that pain and emptiness had eventually led to this incredible life with these two remarkable women. Similarly, it didn't really matter whether or not still another hand, divine or otherwise, had played a part in bringing about these events. Hazuki had gained much since that terrible fall from the Universal Garden: in a very real sense, she even had Hatsumi back again, this time without the heartache and guilt. Why go on questioning her good fortune?

So instead, she simply gave Aaya a bow from a distance and continued on her way. He returned the gesture, then disappeared into the crowd.

As she walked along, she passed Yaya and Tsubomi, both of whom flashed her the Kachou Kamen hand-signal that had somehow caught on over the past semester. She grinned and returned the gesture. "See you both in a few weeks."

She spotted Amane and Hikari speaking to an older pair that she guessed to be the equestrienne's parents. Part of her wondered whether this separation would be the end for them, since Amane would soon be entering training with the Japanese national team in preparation for the next Olympics while Hikari still had two years of schooling to complete. She still did not know them well enough to make an educated guess, but she had hope for them all the same. Perhaps it would take a miracle to keep them together, but both of them now knew that some miracles could be real after all.

Even as she looked away from the handsome pair, however, she found her eyes drawn to Kaname and Momomi engaged in conversation. Momomi's eyes were filled with tears as she leaned in to embrace her long-time girlfriend, and then she slowly stepped away, their joined hands lingering for a moment before she turned her back and walked toward a crowd of relatives. Kaname sighed visibly, then walked away as well. Hazuki followed, feeling pretty sure that she knew what had just transpired.

She caught up with her former council president not far from the soccer field where the two of them had shared some truly legendary sparring sessions. "How did it go?" she asked.

Kaname sighed, then gave Hazuki a half-smile. "I didn't break up with her."

"Wait, wait, wait," Hazuki said with a laugh. "What happened to all that talk about I've Been Using Her and We're Different People Now? Are you telling me all of that was for nothing?"

"Not at all," Kaname went on, the rest of the wry grin appearing. "I didn't break up with her because she broke up with me first."

"Oh," said Hazuki. "I'm sorry. Except, do I get to say I'm sorry if you were going to end it anyway?"

Kaname looked out across the field. "Her parents are marrying her off to a family that's even richer than hers. She told me she'd never forget what we had, and that I'd always be special to her, but it was time to move on with our lives. She says she even likes the match, so more power to her, I guess."

"Well, then I'm still sorry," Hazuki smiled. "Even though the end result is the same, I imagine no one wants to be the one to get dumped."

"At the same time, it's quite a relief," Kaname mused. "There was love there. It's a shame that so many other things kept crowding it out."

Hazuki gave a brisk sigh. "Well, I think it's safe to say that things aren't going to be the same here without you."

"I'm going to miss our spars," Kaname admitted. "I may even miss working with Kojima-sensei again, but don't you dare tell her I said so."

"I won't. And I think what you're really going to miss are the crowds we started drawing there at the end."

"Yeah, well, it's about time someone else got an Ohtori-level audience."

After a pause, Kaname gave her formal rival a sideways look. "Why aren't you with the others, anyway?"

"Chikaru's taking care of her girls, and Tamao's got Etoile duties yet. I'll see them again soon."

"You know, I never did figure that out. Why didn't you run for Etoile with Tamao? You'd have won easily, and split-school Etoile are allowed, even if they're rare."

Hazuki smiled. "I was told I'd have to give up teaching Kachou Kamen," she said simply. "In the end, I guess I wanted that more. And anyway, Nagisa and Tamao should do a fine job together, even if it's a year later than they originally intended."

"True. And I guess you won't have to worry much anymore about the two of them cheating with one another, right?"

Choosing to ignore this, Hazuki changed the subject. "You've never told me what you're going to do next. Where will you go from here? University?"

Kaname snorted. "No, my parents are still trying to find a match for me."

"You're kidding."

"I wish. But it doesn't matter in the end, because before long they're going to get their wish: they won't have to worry about me ever again."

There was something downright ominous in those words, and Hazuki gave the other girl a genuinely worried look. "What are you saying, Kaname?"

"She's saying that she's got other plans," came another familiar voice.

Hazuki turned to see Lilith approaching them, with Ken-chan perched on her shoulder. After giving Hazuki a hug and a kiss on the cheek, she slipped one arm around Kaname's waist and leaned in to kiss her in a much more familiar fashion.

"And what exactly do the two of you have in mind?" Hazuki asked, though she had a pretty good idea of it already.

"Lilith's going to show me some of your old stomping grounds," Kaname smiled. "Plus some of her favorite vacation books, as long as we're at it."

"I guess you decided not to do the born-into-new-worlds thing anymore?" Hazuki asked the Keeper.

"Please," Lilith snorted. "Having to go through puberty again and again? Maybe Eve could enjoy it from a circle of life point of view, but not me." She smiled up at Kaname. "A different kind of journey, though, without the fate of everything at stake? That I can go for."

"And who knows? Maybe I'll find a world that needs me more than this one does," Kaname continued, the look on her face something Hazuki had simply never seen before. "Maybe there's still a place for a wandering samurai with a dark and mysterious past. Maybe I'll even run into your friend Chou'un and show her some of the moves you're teaching in her name."

"Give her my best if you do," Hazuki laughed. "Just don't ever try to steal her menma."

Kaname looked out at the soccer field again, then turned to Hazuki and gave her a very odd smile. "So... I'll see you around, I guess."

"I'll be pissed if you don't show up for tea," Hazuki nodded.

The two samurai then embraced one more time, for the road if nothing else. Lilith, of course, could not let the opportunity pass. "Mmm, where's a camera when I need one?"

"You'll send word if you need me," Hazuki said, as a statement rather than a question.

"I will. Tell Chikaru and Tamao thanks for everything."

"Is there anything you want me to pass on to Eve?" Lilith asked.

Hazuki thought about this for a moment, then smiled softly. "She already knows. But tell her I'm looking forward to the next tea party."


The sun was already low in the sky by the time Chikaru, Tamao, Hazuki, Nagisa and Shizuma gathered one last time at Naoko's tree. Even though she knew she'd be back at some point, to visit if nothing else, this was the last place Chikaru wanted to see before truly leaving Astraea Hill as a student. Not the eerily bare walls of her empty dorm room where she'd spent so many happy nights with her loved ones, not the second-home familiarity of the club rooms at St. Lulim: she wanted her last memory as a student to be of this place, where her life had changed forever.

While the others watched from a respectful distance, Chikaru knelt at the tree and placed a bouquet of white lilies on the spot where Naoko had been sitting that night. She then closed her eyes and offered a silent prayer of thanks.

She then returned to the arms of her dear ones, and they began the slow walk back toward Strawberry Hall, where Shizuma had arranged for a limousine to take them for a festive night out before the necessity of another brief post-term separation.

"I hope you'll get a chance to come see the house soon," Shizuma smiled at Chikaru. "I have to say, I'm very much looking forward to having a roommate again."

"Is it okay if I'm a little jealous?" Nagisa sighed. "Still one more year before I can leave this place and come be with you."

"All the more reason to study hard," Shizuma nodded sagely. "Not that I'd in any way pressure you to choose one specific university over another, but it is an awfully nice house we'll be staying in. Plenty of room for, oh, I don't know, at least five post-grads."

"At least five, eh?" Tamao grinned knowingly.

"Well, probably more than that, but five seems a fine number. Then some of the other rooms could go to... other uses. Perhaps an art studio, or a music room, or a library. Not to mention the enclosed patio that could easily serve as a place to, say, practice martial arts?"

"But not that you'd pressure us to choose one specific university," Hazuki snickered.

"Not at all," Shizuma smiled widely. "But it would be a shame to waste all that space, wouldn't it?"

"Ah, Shizuma," Chikaru grinned. "I'd kiss you, but... well, I've seen the way your fiancee handles a naginata."

"Oh, that reminds me!" Tamao said brightly. "Wasn't there a certain wager between the two of you? Something about graduating an Astraea school without being kissed?"

Chikaru pulled up short, having completely forgotten about that. "Huh. I guess I did, at that," she said with a sardonic smile.

"Hmm, we never discussed what exactly we were wagering, did we?" Shizuma frowned, turning to face her future housemate.

"No, I suppose we didn't. But bragging rights over a Hanazono have to count for something."

"Well, yes, if that's something you want to brag about," Shizuma snorted.

"Chikaru," Tamao said then, laying one hand over hers.

Chikaru looked into Tamao's eyes, and felt her breath catch in her throat. There came a movement of energy that started in their joined hands and fired behind those matchless violet eyes. Tamao leaned closer, filling Chikaru's vision with those pools of darkness and color, and then, with a warm surge of their joined Souma, Tamao kissed her softly and deeply. At first Chikaru was too surprised to do much but allow herself to be kissed, but something very real stirred inside her at this touch, and she felt herself melting against this wonderful girl, the familiar feel of her energy now joined by sensations that were equal parts physical and emotional. It was a kiss of love in all its purity.

Meanwhile, strong arms were slipping around her from behind, and she felt the familiar curves of Hazuki's body pressing against her. This was no warm bedtime cuddle, however, and when she broke from Tamao and looked over her shoulder, Hazuki leaned in and kissed her as well. This time the joining of energy was lightning and fire, and the love, while very much present, carried with it an undeniable subtext of raw hunger. Tamao lay her head against Chikaru's shoulder as they enfolded her in the warmest of embraces, and along with their shared Souma, Chikaru could all but hear their words echoing through her.

Let us love you.

Let us embrace you.

Let us desire you.

Let us show you what you mean to us.

Let us share ourselves with you.

Let us pleasure you.

Let us make you happy.

Let us make you--

"Come on, Nagisa," Shizuma said from a million miles away. "Let's give them some space. They'll catch up... eventually."

After a long while, they broke, and Chikaru looked from one of them to the other, feeling the mix of love, desire and anxiety in their expressions as they waited for her reaction to what she knew had to have been a choreographed moment. How long had they been planning this, anyway?

"Chikaru?" Hazuki whispered.

Chikaru smiled. "Okay," she nodded, somewhat breathlessly. "I... think I might be able to get used to that..."

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The End

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"Hand Me Downs" by Rain Fletcher (Suzume CA)
12 October 2009 - 3 January 2010


AUTHOR'S NOTES:

First and foremost, thank you one and all for reading what has been, for me, an engrossing, exciting and occasionally deeply therapeutic story. I haven't written this much this quickly in ages, and it's been one of the most rewarding creative experiences I've had in some time. And now, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to take a few lines for notes.

Soundtrack:

As odd as it may seem to give a story based on two anime a soundtrack of modern American folk music, this story was very much written to the music of Indigo Girls. It's been a pleasure to re-acquaint myself with both their incredible harmonies and their insightful lyrics. Some struggles are universal, and there are messages in their music that reach across lines of gender, lifestyle and nation. Who better to help me imagine this story about these women struggling to find love and truth in their tumultuous lives?

The following songs were used for chapter-opening lyrics:

From STRANGE FIRE (1989) : Strange Fire
From INDIGO GIRLS (1989) : Closer to Fine, Secure Yourself, Prince of Darkness, Love's Recovery
From NOMADS INDIANS SAINTS (1990) : World Falls, 1 2 3, Hand Me Downs, You and Me of the 10,000 Wars
From RITES OF PASSAGE (1992) : Love Will Come to You, Chickenman
From SWAMP OPHELIA (1994) : Least Complicated
From COME ON NOW SOCIAL (1999) : Faye Tucker
From ALL THAT WE LET IN (2004) : Fill it Up Again, All That We Let In, Tether

Additionally, some of these songs have specific scenes attached to them, so please indulge me as I match the music with the scene I attempted to write:

"Chickenman" - Chapter 5, Hazuki pursues Aaya -- also Chapter 20, Hazuki and Kaname on the road
"Love Will Come to You" - Chapter 11, Chikaru and Tamao's theme
"Tether" - Chapter 15, the first meeting of Kachou Kamen
"Faye Tucker" - Chapter 17, the duel
"Love's Recovery" - Chapter 23, the trinity

"Hand Me Downs," the song used for the title of the overarching story, was chosen first for a Hazuki who was seeking wholeness in this hand-me-down life, but somewhere along the line it became very meaningful for the relationship between Hazuki and Kaname (yadda yadda, more alike than different, blah blah), so sometimes soundtrack details dovetail without the author even expecting it.

The Yamibou arc (which I mentally dubbed the "Far Cry" section) was written to SNAKES AND ARROWS (2007) by Rush, with lyrics used from the songs "Far Cry," "We Hold On" and "Workin' Them Angels"

Other lyrics shamelessly used as chapter intros included "She Said She Said" by the Beatles, from REVOLVER, and "Grey Seal" by Elton John, from GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD

Legalese:

While I am certainly never going to make a dime off this story, please do not redistribute it without my permission.

It would appear I managed to get away with only one original character in the person of Kojima-sensei. (I'm not going to count the Devourer.) All other characters belong to their respective copyright holders.

These particular versions of Chou'un Shiryuu and Ryofu Housen were from Koihime Musou and its sequel Shin Koihime Musou, a pair of bawdy retellings of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms with an almost exclusively female cast. Certainly not intellectually taxing, but Chou'un is one of the best deadpan snarkers of all time. Kachou Kamen!

Azuma Hazuki, Azuma Hatsumi (Eve), Lilith, Ken-chan, Aaya, Seiren, Kogechibi, Youko, Milka, Fujihime, Gargantua (seriously, that was his name), Ritsuko, Yamiyama and the Siberian Tiger were from Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito. May it one day be licensed for a Western audience.

All other characters were, of course, from Strawberry Panic. But you wouldn't be here if you didn't know that.

Thanks:

Big thanks to Ninemil, of course, without whom this never would have happened. Thanks for many emails, FFN messages, thoughts and well-wishes. Thanks for making me think more about Kaname. And of course, thanks for saying "DOO EET!" a couple of months ago when I sent you that email talking about this wild idea I had for a Big Left Turn in the narrative...

Thanks to Lewy, who from the beginning was giving me things to think about, and whose input had a greater effect on the shaping of the story than I think he knows.

Thanks to EmperorOfLemurs for some truly entertaining reviews. DRAGON!

Thanks to World of Dragons Productions for both reading and writing, and I look forward to seeing more from you.

Thanks to Aoishiro for sheer enthusiasm!

Thanks to Deathcurse for showing such obvious affection for the characters. It was so nice to see they weren't just real to me.

Thanks to ZIIIX for giving me a try in spite of never having seen Yamibou, and I owe you a bunch of reviews yet for Snow Fall.

Thanks to MissIzzyB for proclaiming herself a new fan. Wow. I never know what to say to that.

Thanks to RemiLou and Swift for very welcome thoughts.

Thanks to Hashkorns and KoSSa and everyone else who cared enough about these girls to wave a shipping banner. I hope "Tamazukaru" did not disappoint in the end.

Thanks to DarkShinji8003 for keeping tabs. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

And thanks to everyone who read and did not review, of course! I know the hit counter is not the most accurate gauge of readership, but it's still kind of cool to be closing in on 5000 combined hits here at the end of HMD. You all make me a very happy writer.

Now, before I go...


Shizuma shifted under the sweat-drenched sheets, propping herself up on her elbows and looking down at Nagisa, who like her was glistening with perspiration yet again. She knew she'd never get tired of that look of post-coital bliss on her darling's face.

Nonetheless...

"Should we ask them?" she said in a happily exhausted voice.

"Maybe we should," Nagisa admitted. She then made a half-hearted effort to get up before flomping back onto the mattress.

"Shall I, then?" Shizuma smirked.

"Would you mind? I honestly don't know if my legs work anymore."

With a smile, Shizuma leaned in to kiss this woman she had fallen so deeply in love with. "Don't fall asleep before I get back," she growled playfully, "or I will punish you."

"Mmm, don't tempt me," Nagisa giggled.

Shizuma rose unsteadily from the bed, slipped on a light robe, and padded out of their bedroom and down the hall. After a couple of turns to enter the opposite wing, she staggered to the door of Chikaru's Room, as they all still called it.

Sure enough, there was a warm green light shining out into the hall from the crack under the door.

She knocked twice. "Excuse me," she called. "Not to interrupt anything, but as much as we both love you... would you mind keeping it down for the rest of the night?"

The light immediately faded, and there were a few giggles from behind the closed door. "Sorry!" three voices called in rough unison.

"Thank you," Shizuma chuckled as she shuffled back down the hall. "See you in the morning."