DISCLAIMER ONE: I own neither Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito nor Strawberry Panic. Et cetera.

DISCLAIMER TWO: This is a further continuation of a story that began with Red Bows in her Hair and continued with Hand Me Downs. I can't promise the details will make a lot of sense without having read those stories. ("Wait, what the hell is this Souma thing? Wasn't he the guy in Kannazuki no Miko?")


Strange Fire
by Suzume CA

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I come to you with strange fire, I make an offering of love
The incense of my soul is burned by the fire in my blood
I come with a softer answer to the questions that lie in your path
I want to harbor you from the anger, find a refuge from the wrath
This is a message, a message of love
Love that moves from the inside out, love that never grows tired
I come to you with strange fire

-Indigo Girls

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Part 1: Fourplay

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The last place Hazuki wanted to be (or indeed expected to be) on the first day of the new semester was the office of Sister Mizue Hamasaka. But here she was.

As with her one previous visit, the sister spent the first several minutes of the closed-door meeting pacing in front of the tall Spican girl, shooting her the occasional thoughtful frown. Hazuki wondered if this was standard for such meetings: a test of patience, perhaps?

"I find myself in a quandary," Mizue said at length. "I have been placed in a situation that puts me in conflict between my role as a woman of faith and my role as the administrator of this dormitory."

While this was no end of confusion, Hazuki did not ask for elaboration, figuring that this would come regardless.

"Because this matter concerns you directly, Azuma-kun, I also find myself in the rare and awkward position of seeking the advice of one of my charges. I hope you understand that I would not do so lightly."

"Yes, Sister," Hazuki nodded.

Mizue faced her then. "I have learned the identity of the person who entered your dormitory room last semester, stole the registration documents for your sword, and then notified the police of your so-called transgression."

Hazuki let out a held breath. Apparently Kaname was still hard at work with her ongoing string of apologies. "Sister, I..."

"What was done to you, Azuma-kun, is nothing less than a criminal action, and this is where my conflict lies. By all accounts, the responsible party should be expelled from this school and duly prosecuted. However, considering that the perpetrator confessed these actions to me directly, seeking forgiveness for the shame that was brought to this institution, I find myself strangely at odds. I believe in forgiveness, Azuma-kun. It is intrinsically linked with my role as a woman of God. However, I am far from the only one to have been wronged. And so I ask you: what would you do, in my position?"

"Sister," Hazuki said quietly, "Kaname-san already apologized to me for everything, and I've accepted. I've already forgiven her."

Mizue stared silently into Hazuki's eyes for several long moments. "What happened between the two of you over summer break, Azuma-kun?"

"We came to an understanding," Hazuki said, unable to fully conceal her smile. "I can't say we're necessarily ever going to be the best of friends, but I think we've reached a point where we can respect one another and move on with our lives."

"I see," the Sister nodded slowly, then arched an eyebrow. "I trust there was no use of force in this understanding of yours?"

"No, Sister, of course not. I mean... nothing more than a good kendo spar, anyway. It's amazing how that sort of thing can bring you together."

"Indeed," Mizue said dryly, and Hazuki could tell that the Sister knew very well that information was being withheld. "I likewise trust there will be no further... duels?"

"No duels, Sister. Though we intend to continue the friendly spars."

"As long as everything remains... friendly, then," the sister nodded. "However, I'm sure you will understand that if I hear otherwise, severe disciplinary actions will be taken. While Kenjyo-kun seemed sincere enough in her apology, her resignation from the student council was wholly unexpected, and I would be greatly disturbed to learn that she had been intimidated into these actions."

Hazuki literally rocked back on her heels. "She... resigned from the council?" she whispered, eyes wide.

The Sister studied her reaction carefully. "You didn't know, did you?" she asked, sounding as close to surprised as Hazuki had ever heard her.

"No, Sister."

After a thoughtful pause, Mizue resumed her pacing. "Until the change is announced at the evening meal, that news is not to leave the room. I am fully aware of the speed at which rumor travels in these halls."

"I'll keep it quiet, Sister."

"Very good. You are dismissed."

Hazuki bowed, turned to go, then paused. "Sister," she asked, "who will be the new president of Spica?"

"That decision is out of my hands, Azuma-kun; the administration of St. Spica will select a replacement this afternoon. It seems most likely, however, that they will choose Kiyashiki-kun, based on her record of service."

"I see," Hazuki nodded. "Thank you, Sister."

After bowing again, Hazuki left the office with as much haste as politeness would allow. Maybe there was still time to find Kaname and talk her out of this.


Absently rubbing her aching head, Kaname closed the door of her dorm room behind her. For a moment, she just stood there in the welcome silence and breathed deeply. Not that this room was a place of complete safety anymore, of course, but after the series of meetings she'd just endured, it would do as a bolt-hole for now. At least she'd have the place to herself for a time while Momomi met with the administrators. Even a few minutes of quiet would be a relief at this point.

Her eyes popped open, however, as an unexpected voice broke the silence, accompanied by the soft rustling of bedsheets. "Mmm, I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever come back."

Kaname turned to see a smiling face framed by blonde curls peeking up from her bed. "Lilith?" she gasped.

"The one and only," Lilith grinned widely, shifting under the covers, which were currently pulled up to her neck. "Happy to see me?"

"What are you doing here?" Kaname asked softly as she slipped off her shoes and put her book-bag on the floor.

"Waiting for you, of course," Lilith giggled. "Eve owes me about ten thousand years of favors, so I thought I'd take some time off and surprise you."

"Well, it worked," Kaname snorted.

"Poor Kaname-chan," Lilith frowned. "You look like you've had a terrible day."

"Not one of my best, no."

"Let's make it all better, then, shall we?" Lilith winked. She then pulled back the covers, and Kaname's eyes widened as she took in the sight of the Keeper lying there without a stitch of clothing.

"Lilith," she whispered, closing her eyes as she sat down on the side of the bed.

"Hmm?" Lilith replied, taking Kaname's hand and kissing it, sending a surge of green energy flooding through her.

"We really shouldn't," Kaname whispered, pulling the covers back over the shapely form in her bed before daring to open her eyes.

"I beg to differ on that opinion," Lilith giggled.

"Okay, then I really shouldn't," Kaname sighed. "Lilith, I have someone else here that I'm trying to work things out with."

Lilith made a sour face. "Is it Momomi in this world, too?"

"Yeah."

"I never liked her much."

"Maybe, but I loved her, at least at some point. We used to have something good, and... even though it's been a mess for a while now, I can't walk away yet. I need to know if there's a chance to get back what we used to have, and that's never going to happen if I'm sleeping with you during your coffee breaks."

"I preferred to think of it as a lunch break," Lilith growled playfully.

"You're not helping," Kaname sighed, but she smiled as she said it.

"Does she know?" Lilith asked in a more serious voice.

"About us? Yeah. I told her I met someone over summer break, one thing led to another, and..."

"And what did she say to that?"

"Nothing. She hasn't spoken to me since. For all I know, it might already be over between us, but I..." She closed her eyes. "I need to try, Lilith. Please understand."

"I do," Lilith said softly. She pulled back the covers again, and this time she was fully dressed in the outfit she'd been wearing back in the Great Library. "Even when we were together, I could feel the conflict. Eve did a number on you, didn't she?"

"No less than you did," Kaname laughed. "But it was damned confusing to have one angel finally convince me that forgiveness was possible, only to have another angel immediately give me something to be forgiven for."

"Ehh, you weren't that bad," Lilith winked. She then sat up beside Kaname, took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "I must say, I was looking forward to a little more practice. Or even a lot more."

"Are you angry?"

"I wouldn't say that," Lilith said with a shake of the head. "You're just trying to do the right thing, even though it's with someone who probably doesn't deserve it, and is nowhere near as hot as I am, and... I can wait. I've had a lot of practice waiting."

"But what if things do work out for Momomi and me?"

"Then I can wait for that, too," Lilith smiled. "You're going to live a long time, Kaname-chan, and I'm not going anywhere."

Kaname closed her eyes at this reminder of her newly extended lifespan. "That's going to take some getting used to."

"Immortality can be a real bitch," Lilith nodded in agreement. "But it has its good side, too. You can have a nice long life with whosit, and still come play with me later. Think of it as a win-win situation."

"Nice way of looking at it," Kaname snorted. "Except for the part about having to watch her die."

"You're going to see a lot of people die," Lilith said in a much more serious voice. "All the more reason to remember the constants in your life. You have your three friends here in this world, for starters."

"I still don't know if I can call them my friends, really."

"There's time. And you've got this red-hot blonde waiting to jump your bones, so don't forget that."

"How could I?" Kaname snickered, giving Lilith an evil grin. "She keeps reminding me."

Lilith then leaned in to give her a warm, relatively chaste hug. "We'll be expecting you for tea once we've finished mending the library. Don't disappoint me."

"I'll be there."

"Good." The Keeper then rose and looked off to one side. "Time to go, Ken-chan."

A blob of yellow launched from a high shelf and wobbily flew to Lilith's shoulder. "Ah, disappointment," the round parakeet sighed. "Perhaps another time, lady samurai-han."

Kaname's eyes bugged. "Wait, have you been here the whole time?" She then narrowed her gaze at Lilith. "You were going to let him watch?"

"He was my ride," Lilith shrugged, giving Kaname an evil grin of her own. "Sometimes you have to pay the ferryman, right?"

Then, with a last saucy wink, both Keeper and bird were gone in a flash of green.


Not far from Strawberry Hall there was a short grassy rise with a particularly sturdy old tree at its summit. Tamao had long ago decided that this was her favorite Reading Place, and she liked to visit it at least two or three times a week, weather permitting. Today, the hot summer wind was making it difficult to keep the pages from flapping, but this time she found that she didn't mind a bit.

Rather than continue trying to read, she set her book down, stood, stretched, and turned to face the wind. After a few moments, she impulsively untied the ever-present scarf that kept her hair in check, and shook out her dark locks, letting the wind take them as well. Smiling softly now, she spread her arms ever so slightly and just felt the air rushing over her, around her, and seemingly through her.

After a long while, she heard a familiar voice from close by. "Tamao-chan?"

She looked to one side to see a puzzled but smiling Nagisa standing beside her. With a squeal of glee, she launched herself at her roommate and hugged her so forcefully that they lost their balance and fell to the grassy hill, Nagisa landing more or less on top of her. "Nagisa-chan! You're back!"

With a small "meep" of surprise, Nagisa rolled off of Tamao to sit beside her. "Tamao-chan, people are going to get the wrong idea!"

"Let them," Tamao grinned. "We know better."

"Yeah, but I don't want it getting back to Shizuma-sama that I'm the newest member of Tamao-chan's harem." Nagisa winked as she said the last word.

In reply, Tamao stuck out her tongue. "I don't have a harem. I've only kissed one of them, and it can't be an official harem until I've kissed them both. Anyway, where have you been? You missed your first day of classes!"

"We phoned ahead that I'd be late getting back," Nagisa sighed. "One flight delay after another. We should have been back yesterday morning, but we ended up losing a full day. It was terrible!"

"Poor Nagisa-chan," Tamao said with an exaggerated frown. "I can tell how painful it must have been to sit those long hours in the airports, with only Shizuma-sama to comfort you."

Nagisa gave a small half-grin. "Well, when you put it that way..."

"You look wonderful, Nagisa-chan," Tamao smiled, taking in the slightly altered appearance of her dear friend. She was certain that Nagisa's normally pale skin was a shade darker, and her red hair that much lighter. Obviously wherever she and Shizuma had been in France, they had made a point to take in some sun. "I'm glad you got to take your vacation together after all."

"Me too," Nagisa smiled in reply, absently brushing her wind-blown hair from her eyes. "I've been looking for you since I got back, but I'm kind of surprised to find you outside, with all this wind."

"But doesn't it feel nice?" Tamao giggled, rising once more to her feet and turning back to face the rush of air. "Over the break I've been doing a lot of reading about T'ai Chi, and one of the authors said something that really stuck with me. Science tells us that our bodies are made of atoms, and every atom is made of these tiny particles separated by wide, empty space. When you think about it, most of what we are is that empty space, along with the energy that holds all those pieces together. So if you let it, you could feel as though the wind were just passing right through you."

"You think so?" Nagisa said somewhat doubtfully as she looked up at Tamao.

"I do," Tamao sighed happily. "Ever since the day we saw Naoko-sama again, I've not only felt the wind blowing through me, but I've felt like part of it stays with me always. No matter where I am now, indoors or out, if I close my eyes and let go, I can feel the wind blowing inside me, and it's wonderful. I don't know that I've ever felt so alive."

There was a long pause, and when Tamao looked down, she saw Nagisa gazing up at her with an unreadable smile. "I sense a poem coming on," the redhead said softly.

"Oh, most assuredly."

"Could Tamao-chan teach me?" Nagisa asked then. "Teach me to feel the wind blowing through me?"

"Anything for my Nagisa-chan," Tamao beamed, extending one hand to help the other girl stand. Still holding hands, they turned their faces to the wind and closed their eyes. "So how was France?"

"Shouldn't we be... meditating or something instead of talking?"

"Not necessarily. The wind will still be there regardless of what we do. You look like you've spent some time at the beach, certainly."

"Yes, we did. And there are very... interesting beaches in the south of France."

"Oh, do tell! Interesting how?"

"Well... let me put it this way. I'd show you my tan lines, but... I don't actually have any."

"Ooh! Well... you could show me anyway."

"Tamao-chan!"

"Teasing! Teasing!"


Chikaru reached to retrieve a tissue from the box on her headboard and passed it to the girl lying beside her. "Your nose just started bleeding, Kizuna-chan."

The younger Lulim girl dabbed at her face, then looked quizzically at the spots of red on the tissue. "Huh. I wonder what brought that on?"

"Perhaps you were thinking naughty thoughts again?"

"Actually, for once I don't think I was," Kizuna mused, her voice slightly altered as she pinched her nostrils closed. "Must be all this dry wind we're getting."

"Must be," Chikaru agreed. "But I don't think the weather was what you came to talk to me about, was it? Particularly since you're alone?"

"No, it's not," Kizuna admitted, blushing slightly. "I need your advice, Chikaru-onee-sama. But... you'll tell me if I get too personal with the questions I ask?"

"Ask me anything," Chikaru nodded.

Kizuna removed the tissue, dabbed at her nose a couple more times to make sure the bleeding had stopped, chewed on her lower lip for a moment, then blurted out "How does a threesome work?"

"I see we're going to ease gently into the personal questions, then?" Chikaru giggled.

Blushing even more, Kizuna let out a short sigh. "I'm sorry, onee-sama. You don't have to answer."

"I don't know that I can answer," Chikaru smiled. "I'm hardly an expert on the subject: It's not as though I have years of practice."

"But you're the only one I know who's been in that kind of relationship and made it work. I mean, apart from the other two, because I know them, certainly, but I couldn't ask them this the way I can ask you, and..."

Chikaru held up one hand to stop the barrage of words. "Why do you need to know, Kizuna-chan? Somehow I doubt it's for salacious reasons. Well, for only salacious reasons, at any rate."

"We've been... well, we've been watching the three of you, Remon-chan and I," Kizuna went on. "And, you know, at first it was all for fun, like speculating which of you were bread and which were filling..."

"Bread and filling?" Chikaru repeated, raising her eyebrows.

"Oh, that's where..." Kizuna began, earnestly.

"I can guess," Chikaru interrupted. "Go on."

"Well, over the break, I had a lot of time alone to think about things. I mean, I still talked to Remon-chan on the phone all the time, but then I'd find myself lying awake at night thinking, and..."

"You're wondering where things are heading with you and Remon-chan and Kagome-chan."

"Yes," Kizuna nodded. "I mean, Remon-chan's my best friend, but... sometimes we're more than friendly. And Kagome-chan... she's such a little sweetheart, and way too innocent to think anything naughty about, but every day it's harder to imagine her not being a part of my life, and I know Remon-chan feels the same way because I've asked her. And so... what does that mean?"

"Well, first of all," Chikaru said patiently, "it doesn't have to mean anything. What you're describing doesn't make you a threesome: it makes you friends. Very close friends, dare I say even intimate friends, but friends nonetheless. Maybe you'll become more as you go, but there's no hurry. You're fourteen, fourteen and thirteen: there's plenty of time to figure it out."

"When did you and Hazuki-senpai and Tamao-senpai figure it out?" Kizuna asked in a small voice.

"Who says we have?" Chikaru winked. "We're still figuring it out, and I imagine we will be for the rest of our lives. We're really not that much different than the three of you."

"Except for the mind-blowing sex."

"Hmm, I daresay our actual sex lives can't possibly compete with whatever you're imagining."

"Are there... protocols for everything? Sort of like... can two of you fool around if the third one's not there?"

"Kizuna-chan," Chikaru said firmly, "we don't have all the answers."

"But you're perfect," Kizuna sighed. "You're like the Platonic ideal of threesomes."

"And you're biased, but I'm glad you've been paying attention in Philosophy, at least. No, Kizuna-chan, as much as I hate to squash your young imagination, sex is actually nowhere near the center of what we have. We're three women who've made a commitment that we're still figuring out as we go, but it's the commitment itself that's truly at the heart of everything." Chikaru smiled to herself as she thought about how much "figuring out" still lay ahead of her in particular.

"Then... that's how it works? You just make it up as you go along?"

"Well, if you want more than that, I'll tell you something I told Tamao a few months ago, when this all started to happen. In my opinion, the only way three people could ever truly share a long-term committed relationship is that each of the three needs to love the other two as individuals, and love the other two as a couple. So far, the three of us seem to be meeting that particular challenge. Speaking for myself, I love Hazuki-chan, I love Tamao-chan, and I think they're wonderful together. I love them... and I love them."

Kizuna thought hard about this. "Well, I love Remon-chan, no question. And I love Kagome-chan. But..." she frowned. "I can't even imagine the two of them as a couple."

"There's a lot more to think about than who gets to be in the middle of the cuddle," Chikaru nodded. "But there's no hurry, Kizuna-chan. If you want to make a commitment to them now, start with the part about always wanting them to be a part of your life, and always wanting yourself to be a part of theirs. The rest will follow, one way or the other. Don't be in such a rush to understand everything."

With a slow nod of her own, Kizuna leaned in and let her senpai hold her. "Thank you, Chikaru-onee-sama. You're amazing."

"Mmm, no, I just have a reputation to live up to," Chikaru laughed. "Was there anything else you desperately needed to know about threesomes?"

"Well... it's hard to picture some of the, erm, mechanics of it sometimes. I mean, where do all the arms and legs go?"

"I think your nose is bleeding again."

"Whoops."


As the interminable day finally began to draw to a close, Kaname sat propped up on pillows in her bed, reading the same page for the fifteenth time while she pointedly tried to ignore the sounds of Momomi bustling about in the bathroom getting ready for bed. Her roommate and possibly off-again lover was up to one of her old tricks, where she very deliberately did everything in her evening routine as loudly as possible, as if making sure that Kaname could not possibly shut out her presence. It had been like this every time they'd fought in the past, but this time Kaname was in no mood to deal with the passive aggression. She'd told the truth, and she'd serve her penance, but that was all.

Finally, she looked up from her book to see, to her surprise, that Momomi was standing there beside the bed, hands on hips, glaring at her. To be honest with herself, Kaname wouldn't have expected a confrontation this soon into the stormy silence.

"Answer me this," Momomi said in a hard, edged voice. "Did you quit the council to make up for cheating on me?"

Kaname shook her head. "No, I did that for myself. But congratulations on your appointment all the same. You'll do well, I'm sure."

From her scowl, this was obviously not the answer Momomi had wanted to hear, but there was no sense lying to her at this point. "So what is it, then? No spine for the job anymore?"

"No patience for it," Kaname muttered, "but call it what you like."

Even though her bed was only a few feet away, Momomi managed to flounce into it. Kaname almost smiled in spite of herself. She had told Lilith the truth that afternoon -- she truly wanted to try to make things work out with Momomi -- but she'd be damned if she let herself beg. Best to give it some time.


As it turned out, Tamao was the last of the three to arrive at Chikaru's room that evening, as she'd been up late talking to Nagisa about her trip, so it came as no surprise to see that Hazuki and Chikaru had started without her.

For a while she watched the two of them as they sat opposite one another on Chikaru's bed, eyes closed, hands joined, expressions of near-complete peace on their faces. Not for the first time, she wondered what miracle had brought her into their circle.

Then, as she watched, the hands closest to her unclasped and reached toward her. Tamao smiled, sat up on the bed, and took the offered hands in her own, completing their circle. With a rush of warmth, she felt their Souma surge through her, and felt her own join with theirs and flow back in response. The wind she'd described to Nagisa was joined now by Chikaru's familiar fires and the waters of Hazuki's rolling river.

Now, the expressions of peace were truly complete.

"Good evening, Tamao-chan," Chikaru whispered, even though no words were necessary.


Next: Run


AUTHOR'S SUBSEQUENT NOTE: Okay, so I have no real idea where I'm going with this, but that's how HMD started out, so what the heck. This may be less of a story than a series of vignettes or a collection of smaller tales of the second semester post Hand Me Downs. Or it may become something else. We'll have to see. At any rate, though, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the ride!