Strawberry Panic: The Passing Of Shizuma

By Joe Dees

After the scandalous snatching of Nagisa by Shizuma during the climax of the Etoile election, not even the intercession of Miyuki could persuade Sister Mizue to allow them to stay on at Astraea Hill. She only relented when Tamao told her that, to be consistent, Sister would have to expel her, as well, since she had pushed Nagisa into Shizuma's arms. Although Nagisa and Tamao continued on as roommates, Nagisa and Shizuma spent every free moment together, and Shizuma had much more free time now that she was released from her former duties as Etoile. Apart from giving Amane and Hikari infrequently sought advice concerning the performance of those duties, Shizuma had settled into being just another soon-to-graduate senior, although one much beloved by all. Miyuki supported Tamao to replace her as president of Miator, as much for her unquestionable abilities as to keep her occupied with duties to try to divert her attention from the ever-present ache of her longing for Nagisa, and Shion of Spica, having witnessed the remarkable growth of soul in Kaname since her tennis duel with Amane, supported her to succeed to the Spica presidency. Chikaru, president of Lilum, surprised all but those who really knew her by declining to run for re-election and instead supporting the bookish young Remon to replace her - an unusual choice, it seemed, for a school known for its devotion to the arts. But it soon became clear that Remon possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of them, and she continued to found new clubs, most of which Chikaru joined. Remon's election to the Lulim presidency also gave her the confidence to overcome her natural shyness and publicly acknowledge her longstanding relationship with Kizuna, who enthusiastically assisted Remon in her presidential duties. Miyuki, as she had long planned, fulfilled her familial obligations by marrying the man chosen for her from birth. Shion was hired as a corporate headhunter, and both Amane and Kaname considered the company in question to be lucky to land her, as they well knew both her persistence and her judgment. Of course, as Etoile and Spica president, Amane and Kaname worked closely together, but Momomi was not troubled. It wasn't even a matter of Hikari being always by Amane's side; Momomi knew that she now held sole possession of Kaname's heart. She didn't even mind their occasional tennis matches. As for Yaya, her pain at losing Hikari to Amane was pushed aside by an aggressively insistent Tsubome, and soon they became a tempestuous couple - one moment at each other's throats, the next in each other's arms.

Nagisa spent most weekends with Shizuma at her cottage, and after spring graduation, lived there with her almost continuously through the summer. Her radiant smile and sparkling laughter when she dropped in at Astraea Hill from time to time to catch up with her friends were those of a young girl joyously, utterly in love. She had even lost much of her shyness, and had blossomed in assertiveness and self-confidence, due to Shizuma's caring attention. Even Tamao, still heartbroken over her loss and yet possessed by anguished yearnings, could not help but feel happy for Nagisa, and reluctantly convinced that she had done the right things by freeing her from her Etoile partner candidate promise, and yet still wondered what kind of Etoile the two of them might have made if only Nagisa had so blossomed for her instead.

Lately, however, in the early fall, concern for Nagisa was once again appearing among her circle of friends at Astraea Hill. Chiyo, her devoted young roomkeeper, noticed a change. So, most keenly, did Tamao. The perceptive Kagome clutched her teddy bear Percival and kept her own counsel. But she had her reasons, and both she and Shizuma often thought of their meeting beneath the tree, and Shizuma also dwelled upon what had come before…

Shizuma didn't understand it. She had always been blessed with boundless reserves of energy, and now she was feeling bone tired by the afternoon. She wasn't even waking up refreshed. Twice within the last week, she had asked Nagisa if it was okay with her for them to stay in rather than walk the estate or take a trip to town. And when Nagisa had thought Shizuma had other reasons for wanting to remain home, and had passionately kissed her at the end of the evenings, Shizuma had only hugged her in return, then snuggled into her pillow and slept. What could be wrong with her, Shizuma wondered, concerned. She loved and craved Nagisa with a white-hot passion, and usually initiated their lovemaking, but now actually found herself refusing her! Not wanting to alarm Nagisa, Shizuma didn't mention this strange new fatigue to her, but made an appointment at a local clinic the next time Nagisa visited her friends at Astraea Hill.

The doctor told her that her tests showed that her red blood cell count was way down, but they couldn't tell why. They advised her to go to a specialist at a hospital in the city for a more thorough evaluation. So Shizuma phoned Nagisa at Astraea Hill and told her that she had been called away on business, and traveled to the city.

The specialist was somber as she handed Shizuma the envelope containing her medical report. "I'm afraid you need to prepare yourself for bad news, Ms. Hanazono," she said. "Do you want me to call a counselor, so we can go over and discuss these results together?" "That bad…", Shizuma whispered. Then, "No. I thank you for the kind offer, but I want to read this on my own."

Shizuma knew exactly where she would read it - beneath the tree at Astraea Hill that had given her so much joy and solace in the past, beneath the tree where she had always found her answers. She hastened to return to her cottage, then, after a night that offered little rest, she found her way to her special tree just outside Astraea Hill. Reclining against its trunk, she opened the report…

Shizuma sat there stunned, the read and re-read evaluation falling from her nerveless fingers. The results were disastrous, terminal. She was suffering from a particularly aggressive form of leukemia, one for which no effective treatment existed, and it had already reached an advanced stage. Her prognosis was three short months; no longer than Kaori had left when they had decided to run for Etoile so long ago. Shizuma winced at the memory…and the memory of what had followed, and the terrible knowledge of what the future now held for her. There was no hope; her death was soon and certain. There were no magic answers here for this; Shizuma had no choice but to accept the fact that her days on earth were numbered, and that the number was dreadfully small.

Hearing someone approaching, she hastily put the damning report away, and greeted the young Kagome with a forced welcoming smile. "Hello, Kagome; how are you and Percival doing today?"

"What's wrong, Shizuma-san?" Kagome clutched her ever-present teddy bear. "Percival says there's something wrong with you."

"Oh, I just worry about Nagisa sometimes, Kagome," Shizuma lied - then realized with a start that it was no lie, that her fatal news made her worry very much about Nagisa. However could she bear it?

"Percival says that's not it, Shizuma-san. At least not all of it. Your love for each other is stronger than it's ever been. No, something's wrong with you, Shizuma-san Something very wrong. And you haven't told Nagisa-san what it is." Kagome's penetrating gaze trapped Shizuma…held her…and then a low moan escaped Kagome's lips. "Oh…so sad! I think Shizuma-san has to go away. Poor Shizuma-san! Poor Nagisa-san!"

Shizuma was amazed. Nagisa had told her how Kagome had seen right through her false cheer after her terrible first night at the cottage. And now she had seen straight through Shizuma as well. There was no deceiving this girl. "Yes, you're right, Kagome. Something is very wrong with me. And I haven't been able to find the words to tell Nagisa about it. Please keep this a secret between the two of us until I can find a way." But she knew that there was no way to tell Nagisa such a thing without destroying her.

"Percival and I won't tell, Shizuma-san. But Nagisa's love can see into your heart. She's sure to know that something's very wrong with you as soon as she sees you."

Shizuma gazed at the ground. "You're right, Kagome. But I don't know how to tell her yet. So I can't let her see me until I figure out how." Shizuma retrieved the cursed report from her pocket, tore the blank bottom half of the last page away, and wrote that she was being called away on business again. "Could you please give this to Etoile for me?"

"Okay, Shizuma-san. And Percival says it will be all right. Love will always find a way."

As Kagome left, Shizuma marveled. "Kagome is a remarkable girl," she muttered to herself. "No one can hide their heart from her. If she so chooses, she might one day become the greatest Etoile Astraea Hill has ever known." A wry grin briefly flitted across her lips. "Or the scariest." Then she hurried away herself, before anyone else, especially Nagisa, could run into her.

That night, in her bed at the cottage, Shizuma tossed and turned, unable to sleep, wrestling with what to do about Nagisa. Of one thing she was certain. "Nagisa must never know," she breathed. "It would kill her soul. So I cannot remain here. Eventually she would come to me, no matter what I said. No, I must leave here, forever. And the only place I know to go is to Miyuki. I must call her, tell her I'm dying, and ask her and her husband to take me in until it's over." Miyuki had always been there for her, and Shizuma was certain that she'd be there for her now. "But what to tell Nagisa? I can't tell her that memories of Kaori have returned to haunt me. She knows that we have overcome that dear ghost together. And it wouldn't explain my leaving, and not telling her where I've gone…" But Shizuma knew from bitter experience that it was far more painful to be the one who lived on than it was to be the one who died, because the agony continued for the living left behind.

Suddenly, Shizuma sat bolt upright in her bed as the terrible answer came to her. It was an answer filled with pain, betrayal, deception, and a heart-rending request. "No! Not that! ANYTHING but that! There MUST be another way!" she raged. But even as she racked her brain for an alternative, any alternative, her heart already knew that there was none. Shizuma's breath froze in her throat as terrible visions came to her - Nagisa following her into death, Nagisa going insane from unendurable grief, Nagisa blindly stumbling through life, a doomed and hopelessly broken thing...she thought her heart would stop from the horror of it. "NO!" she screamed. "I cannot allow that to happen! I'll do ANYTHING to prevent that!" "Shizuma's shoulders slumped. "I must ask this of her," she whispered. "For Nagisa's sake. There is no other way." Her decision made, Shizuma fell back on her bed and cried herself to exhaustion, knowing that she would have to ask her dear Miyuki to bear an even greater, more painful burden than watching her die. And lying there, smelling Nagisa's lingering scent on the pillow, it was a long time before sleep finally came to her.

The next day, Shizuma went into town and sent Miyuki a telegram, telling her of her impending death, requesting to stay with her and her husband Ryoji for those last months, and asking her also, if they agreed to take her in, to please hurry there without delay to help her pack and prepare for that final journey. She dared not risk a phone call; she feared that she might break down and make that more agonizing request - and it was one that should only be made face to face. When she returned to her cottage, Shizuma once again gazed at the medical report - her death sentence casually lying on a table. She picked it up and crumpled it to her face, remembering how carefully Kaori had concealed her worsening condition up until those final days. "Please help me, Kaori, to be strong for Nagisa, like you were for me," she prayed.

Tamao couldn't stand it any longer. Nagisa had once again begun acting listlessly, spending a lot of time alone in their room, staring distractedly down at meals she was merely picking at, the sparkle drained from her eyes and the joy drained from her voice when she spoke at all. And this evening it was even worse. She was almost like she had been after that devastating night at Shizuma's cottage last fall, once Kagome had shattered her cheerful façade. To see her this way again was breaking Tamao's heart. So when Nagisa left the table that evening and plodded out without a farewell word, Tamao glanced once at the untouched plate she was returning, then followed her to their room and asked her what was the matter.

Nagisa hesitated, trembling, then broke into tears and buried her face in Tamao's chest. "Oh, Tamao-chan! Shizuma-sama was away all last week, and she would only tell me it was on business, and now she's called me to tell me she's too busy for me to come to the cottage this weekend, and she'll be away all next week as well! I miss her so!" Nagisa looked up into Tamao's eyes. "And I'm worried - worried that there's something she's not telling me. Lately she's seem distant, preoccupied with something, and she hasn't seemed as happy. And we haven't been going out or doing things like we did. Not even…you know…as much." Nagisa blushed, then looked down with sad eyes. "I keep wondering…wondering if it's something I've said or done."

Tamao gently patted her shoulder with one hand. "Nonsense, Nagisa-chan. No one could love her more than you. Not even Kaori-." Tamao stopped herself and winced. Could Shizuma's long-dead love have once again returned to haunt her dreams? Tamao could not believe it. But it was exactly the wrong thing to worry Nagisa with. And the thought did trouble her; it was written all over her face. "I'm sure it's nothing, Nagisa-chan. Shizuma-san's family is wealthy and prominent. She must have the occasional obligation to attend to. And they might not be the kinds of things she can invite you along on." Nagisa brightened. "Yes, that must be it. Shizuma-sama has responsibilities, obligations…things that concern her, things that she must attend to on her own. Thank you, Tamao-chan. I'm just being foolish. I feel much better now."

Tamao, however, was far less convinced, and still angry. She left Nagisa in their room wiping her eyes, went to the records office, and sneaked Shizuma's phone number, then placed a call to her. "Shizuma?"

"Yes...huh? Is this Tamao? Why are you calling me? How did you get this number? Did Nagisa give it to you? Is something wrong? Is Nagisa okay? Has she been hurt?" This last with some alarm.

Tamao lost all semblance of restraint. "She's not hurt, Shizuma, but she is hurting. And it's all because of you! Why have you been neglecting poor Nagisa-chan? She's suffering terribly because of it, and I just can't bear to see her this way - not again. I loved her enough that day to release her from her promise to me, to follow her heart to you. But she has cried far too many tears in my arms over you. I swear, if you keep mistreating that precious heart, I-"

"I'm sending the car around for you tomorrow, Tamao, to bring you to my cottage," Shizuma interrupted her. She didn't sound angry or defensive or indignant or haughty, just sad and tired. "Do not let Nagisa, or anyone else, know. I must speak with you in private. All your questions will be answered then." And Shizuma hung up on a suddenly speechless Tamao.

At the cottage, Shizuma stared at the telephone. "Yes," she murmured. "Tamao is the final piece in the puzzle. And Miyuki will arrive tomorrow, too. It all falls into place."

Shizuma was waiting for Tamao where the path to the cottage met the road. A lunch basket was in her hand. "I thought I should repay you for those delicious sandwiches you gave Nagisa for us earlier. We'll stop and eat these on the way." They walked in a tense silence until Shizuma stopped. "This is where Nagisa and I lunched on your sandwiches. I think it is only fitting that two people who love her as we do should share these here." "Shizuma," Tamao began, but was silenced by Shizuma's upheld hand. "Let us enjoy our lunch now. Our discussion will wait until we reach the cottage. But there is one question that I need to ask you before we have that discussion, Tamao. You apparently love my Nagisa, as I do. But just exactly how much do you love her?"

"Shizuma!" Tamao exclaimed. "How does one go about putting something like that into words? And why would you ever ask me such a thing?"

"I don't know how," Shizuma mused. "I've found it difficult, too. It's like words just aren't enough. But please try. Your answer is very important to me. Once we have our discussion, you'll know why."

Tamao stared off into space and thought for a minute, then angrily shook her head and thought a little more. Then finally, hesitantly, she spoke. "About the closest I can come to expressing it is to remember a poem I wrote when Nagisa-chan first arrived. It was about an unreachable rainbow, from which one could nevertheless not bear to turn away, because of its radiance and beauty. It wasn't written about Nagisa-chan, but when you won her love away from me, it became about her." Tamao paused, then took a sobbing breath. Her voice cracked, and two wet lines crossed her cheeks as she continued, desolation in her tones. "I know that she loves you utterly and completely, and that because of the depth of her love for you, my love can never reach her. You are her sun, Shizuma - her only sun - and her eyes and heart will ever and always be turned to you. And yet…and yet knowing this makes absolutely no difference at all to me. This doomed love of mine is totally beyond my control; I cannot bear to turn my eyes or heart away from her - no I cannot even conceive of it! She is radiant, beautiful to me. And every color of the rainbow shines through her eyes from her glowing heart. I worship Nagisa-chan, I adore her. For me there can be no other…" Tamao had run out of words. She wiped her eyes and cheeks, then looked back at Shizuma, and saw tears welling in her eyes as well. "That much," came her shocked whisper, as she also gazed at nothing. Then she turned her eyes to Tamao and slowly nodded. "Yes, that's enough. As much as I do. Thank you, Tamao."

They finished eating without another word, then completed the walk in silence, both lost in thought. When they reached the cottage, Shizuma produced a key on a chain, and they entered.

Shizuma led Tamao into a drawing room and offered her tea, which she politely accepted, but after her first sip, Tamao could contain herself no longer. "What is this all about, Shizuma?" "We must await the arrival of our other guest," Shizuma replied. "She should be here shortly, and then we can begin." "Another guest?" Tamao blurted. "But you said-."

At that moment there was a knock upon the door. As soon as Shizuma opened it, a clearly distraught Miyuki rushed in and threw herself into Shizuma's arms. "Oh my poor dear Shizuma," she sobbed. "Of course you can come stay with us! But are you sure that nothing can be done? And what about poor Nagisa?" "Miyuki-san!" Tamao exclaimed. "Tamao?" Miyuki exclaimed back, equally surprised. "What is she doing here, Shizuma?" Tamao stood and raised her voice. "You're going to stay with Miyuki-san? Nothing can be done? Poor Nagisa? Will someone PLEASE tell me just what the hell is going ON here!"

Shizuma gently detached herself from a clinging weeping Miyuki and turned facing Tamao. "Tamao, sit down," she said. Tamao defiantly remained standing. "I'm dying, Tamao." A whoosh of air escaped Tamao, and she fell back onto the couch.

"It's leukemia, Tamao. Very fast. And already advanced. Some kinds can be controlled or even cured. Not this one. That's the medical report on the table." The pointing hand then vaguely waved. "I've been feeling tired, weak, so I went to the clinic in town, and they referred me to a specialist in the city. Nothing can be done. I'll be gone before the year is out."

"Oh, Shizuma," Tamao wailed. Miyuki, still crying, wilted onto the couch beside her.

"I've already resigned myself to it," Shizuma said to them. But as she continued, tears welled in her eyes. "Of course I'm heartbroken that I must lose my dear Nagisa this way. I wanted us to grow old together. But," Shizuma was openly crying now, "what is really tearing me apart is what this will do to Nagisa. I remember the agony I went through losing Kaori. And now, after all the pain I put her through putting that loss behind me, Nagisa must lose me in the same way." Shizuma paused, then shook her head violently. "No, even worse! We all knew from the very first how ill and fragile Kaori was. But for Nagisa to be suddenly struck by this, and then to lose me so soon after, after all that I've already put her through?" Shizuma's chin fell to her chest, her eyes squeezed shut, her jaws clenched tight, her face became a mask of pain. "It would destroy her," Shizuma whispered. Then she raised her head and transfixed them both with a steely glare as she spoke in determined tones. "I can't have that. I WON'T have that. I couldn't live with it. I couldn't die with it. And that is why you must help me - both of you. Nothing can be done for me. But we have to do what we can to save poor Nagisa."

"Just tell us what we need to do," Miyuki quietly replied, and Tamao solemnly nodded.

"Who else here knows about this, Shizuma?" Miyuki asked, as she and Tamao sat and stared as if they were alien artifacts at the cookies and tea that Shizuma had brought them.

"Right now, here at Astraea Hill, only we and Kagome know. For now, let's keep it that way."

"Kagome knows?" Miyuki asked, surprised.

"Yes she does," Shizuma answered. "She walked up to me right after I had finished reading that report, and I couldn't manage to hide it from her. She's scary that way."

"Yes she is," Tamao replied, remembering what Nagisa had told her about their encounter in the piano room.

"But I swore her to secrecy. And I believe that I can trust her. So let's move on to our central problem. And that is what to tell Nagisa so she won't try to find me when I leave for Miyuki's to die." "Yes," Tamao agreed. "Nagisa-chan's love for you is so strong that she would leave Astraea Hill - leave everything - and search for you. And she would find you, because Miyuki's is the first place she would look." "I'm sure you're right about that, Tamao," Shizuma replied. Then, looking down at nothing, she added, "I know I would, for her." Shizuma looked back up at the both of them. "Which is why we must tell Nagisa something that will keep her from ever doing that."

"But what could we possibly tell her that would prevent it?" Miyuki asked. "Only one thing would," Shizuma answered. "She must believe that I have left her for another. And the only other that would convince her - is you, Miyuki." "Me?" Miyuki gasped. "But I'm married," she objected. "Then we must tell her that your marriage has failed. And that lie cannot come from either one of us, Miyuki. Tamao must tell her." A sharp intake of breath was heard from Tamao. "And telling her may still not be enough,: Shizuma continued. "This is the hard part, Miyuki. Nagisa must see with her own eyes."

Miyuki was aghast. "What do you mean by that, Shizuma?"

"I mean," Shizuma answered, "that in a few days, Miyuki, we must go to Kaori's room on Astraea Hill. Tamao must tell Nagisa that your marriage failed, and you fled to me for consolation, and then, Tamao, you must tell her that we just arrived at Astraea Hill and you saw us enter Kaori's room together. And when she goes there - and she will - Nagisa must discover us on Kaori's bed, in a loving embrace. Only then will she believe us when we tell her that we're in love and going away together. Only then will she not follow." Miyuki looked down and aid nothing.

"But Shizuma, do you realize what this will do to Nagisa-chan?" Tamao cried. "It will tear her apart!"

"Yes, I know," Shizuma answered. "And it will tear me apart, too, lying to her, feeling her bewilderment and pain, then leaving her like that, and not being able to spend my final time with her…" She shuddered and cringed, then recovered. "But one way or another, I must leave her. This way, at least, Nagisa will be spared an even greater, unbearable pain. And she'll have you to lean on, Tamao." Shizuma walked over to Tamao, sat down beside her, and took Tamao's hands in her own. "I'm entrusting my most cherished treasure to you, Tamao, as you did to me. You answered my question completely; I now know beyond doubt that you also love my dear Nagisa, with a passion as great as mine, and perhaps purer and more selfless. Please take good care of her heart. She will greatly need you in the time ahead." Shizuma bent forward and kissed Tamao on the cheek.

"I'll be there for her, Shizuma. I always have been and I always will be," Tamao assured her, as tears flowed down her cheeks.

"I know you will, Tamao. You loved Nagisa enough to want for her what she wanted for herself, even when you knew it wasn't you," Shizuma replied. "But I have faith that, in time, it will be." Then they embraced and cried in each other's arms for the girl whom they both loved.

All this time, Miyuki had been sitting like a stone, gazing at Shizuma, tears welling in her eyes and pain in her face. "How this must hurt you!" she finally said, as she stroked Shizuma's hair and softly touched her cheek. "And how it will hurt me to pretend this, feeling for you as I do." Shizuma looked up from Tamao's shoulder and gave Miyuki a measured look, then whispered to Tamao that it was time for her to go, and rose and called the car.

The door closed behind her, Tamao began the walk down the path to the road. Then she paused and shook her head. "I will go to Hell and do this thing," she muttered, "but I think that they both underestimate Nagisa. I think she knows all too well how much Shizuma loves her, and what she endured to find that love." Tamao continued down the path to the waiting car, her face grim.

After the door closed, Shizuma once again turned to Miyuki. "Tamao didn't need to hear this part," she said, "but I'm asking far more of you than mere pretense, Miyuki." Miyuki's jaw dropped and she simply gaped at Shizuma. "What…?" was all that she could say. Shizuma sat down beside her and took Miyuki's hands in her own. "No faking. It must be real," she said. "There must be no mistaking it. That, and only that, could convince Nagisa. And she must believe." Shizuma's eyes found and held Miyuki's, and she spoke in earnest tones. "I know full well what I'm asking of you, Miyuki, and it pains me more to have to ask it than you can ever know. But this is the only way I know to save Nagisa. And your husband need never know. Losing me to you would be a cruel and bitter blow to her, but having me die before her eyes - and she would insist on that, as I did - would be too brutal for her to stand. So please, Miyuki. I beg you. Help me to make her believe. Do this with me, for the first and the last time-."

As soon as Shizuma said the words, they both recoiled as if bitten, and Miyuki buried her face in her hands and sobbed. They both remembered Shizuma speaking those very words to Nagisa on the last night of Etoile dance training, and where that first and last dance had led. Shizuma awkwardly placed her hand on the small of Miyuki's back to comfort her, and that touch, there, brought back memories. Memories of Kaori hugging Miyuki from behind, after taking Shizuma from her, taking her place as Etoile, ingratitude for introducing her to Shizuma, and making a short span of happiness possible in a too-brief life. And memories of Nagisa crying inconsolably into her back, after hearing the story of Kaori's ghost love memory that would not let Shizuma go.

Miyuki half moaned and half sighed, then straightened and gazed at Shizuma with both anguish and resolution painted on her face. "All right, Shizuma. We will do this. For the first and the last time. For Nagisa. And my husband must never know."

After embracing and thanking Miyuki and apologizing to her once again for having to make such a request, Shizuma excused herself to call the stonemason and order her headstone as Miyuki cleared away the untouched cookies and tea. "I'm coming, Kaori," she whispered. "Beloveds should lie for eternity together." Then a sudden light dawned in Shizuma's eyes. "All beloveds," she added to herself, and changed her order.

The following Friday, Tamao got the call from Shizuma to speak to Nagisa in an hour. At the appointed time, she went to their room, where Nagisa had been spending all her time except for classes. Nagisa looked up from her bed with damp eyes and asked her, "Why hasn't Shizuma-sama called, Tamao-chan? It's been two whole weeks since I've seen her, and I haven't even heard from her this week…"

Tamao forced a smile. "Your waiting is over, Nagisa-chan! She's here now. I just saw her."

"Shizuma-sama's here, Tamao-chan?" Nagisa exclaimed, rising to her feet. "Where? Why hasn't she called or come to see me?"

Tamao dropped the smile. "Miyuki looked her up while she was away on business, I understand. Apparently, her marriage didn't work out. I think Shizuma's been trying to console her. I just saw the two of them enter Kaori's old room, and knowing how much you've been missing Shizuma, I hurried over to tell you she was here."

"Oh, poor Miyuki-san! She's been so kind to me! I must go and try to comfort her, too - and see Shizuma-sama!" And with that, Nagisa ran out of the room.

Tamao sat down on her bed, tears welling in her eyes. "Poor Nagisa-chan!" she whispered. "Whatever happens now will have to horribly hurt her. All I can do now is wait for her to return."

When Nagisa arrived at the door to Kaori's room, she heard passionate sighs from inside, and she very well knew to whom some of those sighs belonged. She hesitated, wide-eyed, then quietly opened the door without knocking, and stood there stunned and frozen.

Shizuma and Miyuki were naked, making love on Kaori's bed. The way they seamlessly flowed over and into one another seemed like a dance between partners who knew each other well. They were so focused on, so lost in each other, that they didn't even register Nagisa's intrusion.

It took her a while, but Nagisa finally found some fragment of her voice. "Excuse me," she managed to whisper. She tried to leave, but found that she was rooted to the spot.

Shizuma and Miyuki both looked up, surprise on their faces. "Nagisa!" Shizuma cried. Then, with a visible effort, she composed herself and spoke.

"I wish you hadn't found out like this, Nagisa. I wanted to tell you myself," she said.

Nagisa neither moved nor spoke.

"I'm sorry, Nagisa," Miyuki said in a sad small voice. "I realized that I couldn't remain in my marriage because it was Shizuma whom I truly loved, and so I left and sought her out."

"And after sharing a room with Miyuki for six years, only when she was gone did I realize how much I truly love her, and how inseparable we really are," continued Shizuma. "We're leaving our lives behind and going away together. This decision of ours, and how to break it to you, is what has been troubling me, and why I've been avoiding you. I just couldn't find the words to tell you, Nagisa. But now that you've found us like this…"

Shizuma pulled Miyuki's head down upon her shoulder, and Miyuki nestled it there with a sad smile. Tears welled in Shizuma's eyes as she concluded. "I'm truly sorry, Nagisa. Sorry for all the pain that I've caused you while I struggled to figure out my heart. You don't deserve this. Miyuki's husband doesn't deserve this. But love gives us no choice."

All that a visibly shaken Nagisa could do was whisper "Excuse me" again, and stumble backwards out of the room, still staring at Shizuma and Miyuki intertwined on the bed, till she pulled the door closed. Then the sighs resumed, and Nagisa wailed in anguish and bolted blindly down the hall.

Hearing Nagisa's fading footfalls, Shizuma and Miyuki hugged each other and cried, then rose somberly from the bed and silently dressed. But Nagisa had suddenly stopped, a look of realization on her face, and quietly crept back to the door.

Within a few minutes, Shizuma and Miyuki walked out of the room, their faces sheathed in sadness - and froze in their tracks as they saw Nagisa standing there waiting for them.

"I don't believe it," she flatly stated. Then, looking back and forth between them, she continued. "I know that Miyuki-san has always loved you, Shizuma-sama. There's no mistaking it. But even though you love her too, you don't love her like you loved Kaori, or like you love me. I know this from my heart. So why would you two, and Tamao-chan, too, go so far to try to deceive me like this, knowing how much it would hurt me? And why is Shizuma-sama going away? That much has to be true. Miyuki-san, you care about me, and Shizuma-sama and Tamao-chan both love me, so you must all think that you're helping me somehow. But how? What worse thing could you possibly be hiding from me? What could ever be worse, Shizuma-sama, than losing your love?"

Shizuma and Miyuki both looked at Nagisa, then at each other, then at the floor, and said not a word.

Nagisa's eyes suddenly widened, her mouth fell open, and she suddenly turned ghost white. "The only thing worse than losing Shizuma-sama's love would be…would be…OH NOOOOoooo…" Then Nagisa's face crumpled and she fainted dead away, only to be awakened by a rain of tears falling on her face from both Shizuma and Miyuki, as together they held her and rocked her gently. "Like Kaori…" Nagisa choked, and their tears mingled with her own.

When Nagisa had somewhat regained her senses, the first thing she did was to slap Shizuma squarely in the face, hard. Both Shizuma and Miyuki were shocked. But Nagisa was furious! "You dear thoughtless fool! How DARE you try to rob me of even a MOMENT by your side! I know that you were o0nly trying to spare me pain, so I forgive you - all of you," with a nod to Miyuki, "but can't you see that losing that irreplaceable time with you would have been a much greater loss? It would have been unbearable! Even if this deception of yours had worked now, I would have found out the truth eventually, and thoughts of all those lost moments together with you would have haunted me till the end of my days…" Then Nagisa pinned Shizuma with a penetrating gaze. "And you don't want to lose that time with me, either. At least now we can still love each other for a while and in the end say our goodbyes." Nagisa hesitated, then asked in a trembling tiny voice, "Our goodbyes…Shizuma-sama, how soon must they come?"

"By…by the end of the year, the doctors say."

A low moan passed Nagisa's lips. "So soon, so very soon…but forever would be too soon." Nagisa swallowed, then continued. "You were strong for Kaori, and she for you, Shizuma-sama. Let us try our best to be that strong for each other."

"I'm so sorry, Nagisa," Shizuma answered, awed. "I underestimated you. You're already being stronger than I ever believed you could be."

"My love for you gives me strength," Nagisa replied, "and your love does as well. Let us be happy together while we can, my love. And when I get back to my room, I have a few words for Tamao-chan, too!"

"Don't blame Tamao, Nagisa - blame me!" Shizuma pled. "Tamao loves you too - God how she loves you! - and she was only trying to help us help you."

"I know," Nagisa said, "and I must thank her. Who knows how much more time together we would have lost if you three hadn't tried this? Maybe all of it…" Nagisa paused and shuddered, horrified at the thought. "And then I have some more crying to do. Please give me a little time alone for that. The next time that I see you, I want to greet you with a smile." Then Nagisa rose and, shoulders quivering briefly but then striding firmly, left them without a backwards glance.

"I said it before when she first arrived, and I'll say it again; that girl is amazing," Miyuki marveled, shaking her head in admiration, as they both watched her go. "Before?" Shizuma queried. "Oh, that's right; when she persuaded me to welcome the incoming first year students…yes she is," she mused. "And she knows me so well. She saw straight through to the truth of me, even more deeply than that scary Kagome did. To have been loved twice in one lifetime by such extraordinary people is more than anyone dares hope to dream." Seeing Miyuki's downcast glance, Shizuma quickly added, "I'm sorry, Miyuki. Three times." Miyuki's tears then flowed anew, but she smiled, and hugged Shizuma, who hugged her back. "And now," Shizuma murmured, "I will be doing the one thing I never planned to do, at least nowhere near this soon - the one thing I had plotted and schemed and lied to avoid doing, for her sake - dying here at Astraea Hill with Nagisa by my side. She will insist upon it, and I could not bear to refuse her, to see what such a refusal would do to her. There's just no denying her for me. Just like with the first year students…and with this battered heart of mine. She never gave up on it." Shizuma paused, then continued. "She can be very stubborn and persistent when she wants to be. I remember the massive effort she put forth for her French test last summer…and practicing the piano so she could play better with me…everything she did to make Carmen a success…and learning how to dance so well for the Etoile election…" Shizuma was lost in thought for a while, then went on, "…yes…what Nagisa really wants, she always manages to get…she makes certain of that…" "Unlike me", Miyuki thought but did not say.

Shizuma sighed and shook her head. "You know, Miyuki, I urged Nagisa to become the Etoile with Tamao during their dance lessons, even though the very thought of it was breaking my heart. And only now do I realize that she already was the Etoile, with me, all along, that entire year…helping me in the garden and with the play, loving me, supporting me, encouraging me, pressing me to meet my duties…and you were the Etoile with me, too…thank you, Miyuki. Thank you so very much. For everything." Miyuki blushed and smiled as Shizuma leaned to her and kissed her cheek.

As they rose to leave, Miyuki remarked to Shizuma, "That Kagome really is a scary one, isn't she, Shizuma? It's like everyone's soul is naked to her." Shizuma nodded. "I'm just glad that she's such a good person," she replied. "If she were anything like Kaname used to be…" They looked at each other and shuddered.

"It didn't work, did it?" Those were the first words out of Tamao's mouth when Nagisa returned, and Tamao saw her stern face. "I didn't think that it would. But it was the quickest way to get Shizuma to tell you. I couldn't. It was tearing me up inside keeping that secret from you. But I'd promised Shizuma. And it wasn't mine to tell." Tamao let out a long sigh of sadness and relief. "I figured that you'd see right through it. You know Shizuma's heart better than she does. You know that nothing could cause Shizuma to lose her love for you - not after all she had to go through to find it. But it would have been useless to tell her that. She was blinded by her desire to lessen your pain."

Nagisa wonderingly beheld her. "Tamao-chan, whatever would I do without you?"

"You'll never have to find that out, Nagisa-chan. I'm your Miyuki." With a wince and a failed try at a grin. "I'll be by your side through it all, and beyond. And so will everyone else be. Now that you know, there's no reason for Shizuma to keep it a secret any longer."

Nagisa peered at Tamao with questioning eyes. "Tamao-chan, just what exactly is killing Shizuma-sama? She never said. Is it painful? Please don't let it be painful…" Nagisa's eyes began to liquefy.

"It's leukemia," Tamao quietly answered. "Advanced. Untreatable. But from what I remember about the disease, it won't be painful - not like Kaori was. Shizuma won't suffer like that; she'll simply weaken and fade away…"

Nagisa swallowed a sob, then another, then regained control of herself. "She can't keep staying alone in the cottage," she mused. "And I can't move in with her there. I still have my studies here - Shizuma-sama will insist upon it. But I will not let her leave me here to go off and die somewhere else without me. I won't stand for that. I can't. It would kill me as well. And she needs me, especially now. So she has to return here. She can move into Kaori's old room, and Miyuki and I can attend her there. She'd better just get used to the idea, because that's how it's going to be."

"Nagisa-chan can be scary sometimes," Tamao thought. But she had no doubt whatsoever that what Nagisa needed to happen would happen.

Unbidden tears began to fall from Nagisa's eyes - tears she could not stop, tears she knew needed to flow. "Please leave me for a while, Tamao-chan. There will be many times in the future when we will cry together. But now I must cry alone."

Kaori's old room was where Shizuma was resting while Miyuki was in the office, on the phone to her husband. "Shizuma's dying? Your dearest closest friend? By the end of the year? Darling, you must stay with her!" "Are you sure, Ryoji?" "Yes, dearest. We have the rest of our lives to spend together. I can wait for you. But Shizuma can't."

Miyuki thanked him profusely and hung up the phone. Her husband had turned out to be a kind and perceptive man who had no illusions whatsoever about what kind of love she felt for Shizuma. Such a man deserved Miyuki's love - and in that moment, he had it.

Shizuma's gaze swept the familiar room. "Ah, my dear Kaori. How strange it is that we should both find ourselves coming here to die…but also to love, as well. I've done all right, Kaori. Just like you asked of me. I'm sure you'd approve of my Nagisa. She has your same pure, clear-seeing heart…which is why she now has mine."

A knock came at the door. "Yes? Who is it?" Shizuma inquired. "It's Amane and Hikari," came the answer. A faint smile came to Shizuma's face. "Enter, Etoile," she replied in mock-serious tones.

"So you know," Shizuma stated to the sad faces.

"All Astraea Hill now knows," Amane answered. "Miyuki spoke to Sister, and an announcement was made. So many people want to see you! But considering your condition, and not wishing to tire you, we were chosen to come."

Shizuma nodded. "As it should be, Etoile," she replied. She paused, reflecting, then continued. "How lovely the two of you look together! I was being selfish, Amane, but I was right to interrupt you and Nagisa that summer vacation day."

"Amane-sama?" Hikari peered up at Amane, her eyebrows knitted together and a shocked expression on her face. "You? And Nagisa-chan?" Amane blushed and gazed at the floor. "We had not yet confessed our feelings to each other last summer, Amane-sama, but it was after we had met…and you had accepted my present…and we had already agreed to meet alone together…" Hikari gazed down, with a troubled look. "I already knew then that I loved you…and thought that you loved me. And yet…and yet…even then, I might have lost you to Nagisa-chan…" Hikari's eyes moistened, as Amane beheld her with dismay. "And Nagisa-chan already knew how I felt about you then…and still…she…" Hikari's face became more troubled still.

"Don't blame Nagisa, Hikari," Shizuma told her. "It was Amane who approached her." Hikari gasped, as Amane's blush deepened. "And don't blame Amane, either," Shizuma hastened to add. "She didn't yet understand her feelings for you."

"It was only a moment, Hikari," Shizuma reassured her, "and Nagisa was more surprised than anything else. But who knows where it might have led had I not interfered? Nagisa did seem quite impressed…in fact, I've never seen her freeze up like that with anyone before…except with me…" A strange, resentful expression momentarily flickered across Shizuma's face. "But if Nagisa had truly wanted Amane, Amane might well be hers by now. Nagisa has a habit of getting what she wants; she got me, after all, and after Kaori passed I never would have thought such a thing possible for me again…" Shizuma paused, reflecting, then continued. "In the end, however, everything happened as it should. You and Amane found your way to each other, as did Nagisa and I. We both ended up beside the beloveds that were meant to be for us. But I can see what attracted Amane to the both of you. You have that same wise heart - pure, clear, caring…Kaori had it too. Both she and Nagisa knew of my love for them before I did, as you did with Amane's love for you. And Amane and I are both well aware of how truly fortunate we are that the two of you love us in return." Amane and Hikari beamed at each other and their hands sought and found each other.

"Amane? Have you found what it is that only becoming the Etoile can give you"

"Oh yes, Shizuma," Amane answered, her embarrassment overcome. "Our shared responsibilities, and working so closely together so much to fulfill them, have deepened the bond of intimacy between Hikari and me. But more than that, the love and acceptance of us as Etoile from all of Astraea Hill has meant more to us than words could ever say."

"You have indeed found it," Shizuma confirmed. Then she swayed slightly, and steadied herself by grasping the back of a chair. "I grow tired. Please convey my deepest appreciation to all on Astraea Hill for their care and concern. But let them know also that I wish to spend the time left to me with those closest to me."

"I will," Amane answered. "And Shizuma?"

"Yes, Amane?"

"Thanks for interfering. Both them and now." Amane hugged Hikari to her, and Hikari nestled and sighed.

"It was my pleasure," Shizuma answered with a wink and a grin. "I've found out the hard way, more than once, that no secrets between beloveds is best. Nice scarf you're wearing, by the way, Amane." Neither Amane nor Hikari could help smiling at the tease.

Outside the door, Amane shook her head in wonder. "We came to Shizuma to offer her support and ended up saying almost nothing. Instead, she supported us…"

"Shizuma-san's time is short," Hikari replied. "She wants to say to the people dear to her what she has to say to them while she can."

Amane smiled. "Shizuma was right about you, my darling Hikari. Your heart truly sees with the clearest of eyes."

Hikari hesitated as Amane turned for them to go, then pulled at Amane's sleeve, and when she turned back to her, regarded her with a sad, caring gaze. "Amane-sama, I'm worried about Nagisa-chan - afterwards. It's going to be very hard for her. She will need someone to be there for her. Someone to console her…someone to help her bear her misery and despair." Then in a pained whisper, Hikari continued. "Nagisa likes you, Amane-sama. And you like her, too." Something caught in Hikari's throat. "It's all right with me if you comfort her, Amane-sama. Even…" Tears and sobs would not permit Hikari to go on. Amane marveled at the selfless care that she had. But she could not bear for Hikari's anguish to continue. "No, you dear dear girl. I could never do that, loving you as I do, any more than you could console Yaya in her pain, with your feelings for me. And I know how much it would have hurt me if you had. I could never hurt you like that. But Yaya found her way to Tsubome after she lost you to me. And I'm sure that Nagisa will find her way to Tamao, who loves her deeply, with Shizuma's blessing."

Hikari's tears and sobs ended. "Okay, Amane-sama," she said, "if you think she'll be all right. But I did console poor Yaya-chan," she added with a smile.

"What?" was all that Amane could say.

"I consoled her the same way you comforted me." Amane gasped, but then smiled back as Hikari took Amane's hand and held it to her heart.

Nagisa was in her darkened room, lying face down on her bed, crying into her pillow. But then she lifter her head and muttered, "It's not about me. I won't let this be about me." Then more loudly, defiantly, "I WON'T! This is about Shizuma-sama! She needs me! I must smile for her, be strong for her. She is having to go through this twice; I can do it once. I HAVE TO!" Nagisa wiped her tears away, went into the bathroom and washed her face, then tried a trembling smile. Then she went to the closed door. "You can come in now, Tamao-chan," Nagisa told her through it. "I'm all right now. At least for a little while." Tamao rose from where she'd been sitting against their door and entered their room, and Nagisa hugged her. "Thank you for being here for me, Tamao-chan. It means the world to me. And now I must go to Shizuma-sama."

Tamao smiled and her hands squeezed Nagisa's shoulders, and she followed her out the door and waved as Nagisa left, but her head dropped to her chest and her own shoulders sagged once Nagisa was out of sight. She had heard it all - Nagisa's love, her courage, her pain - and it had shredded Tamao's heart. She stumbled back into their room and threw herself down on Nagisa's bed, clutching her damp pillow to her as her face folded. Now it was her turn to cry.

The next day, Tamao knocked on Shizuma's door. Being told to enter, she did so, and said, "Shizuma-san, I have a request." "What is it, Tamao," Shizuma inquired. "I understand, now that your plan has failed, as I suspected it would, that Nagisa-chan and Miyuki-san will be caring for you here, until…" Tamao fell awkwardly silent. "Until I die, Tamao? Yes, you can say it." "Well, In would like to help Nagisa-chan and Miyuki-san care for you too!" Shizuma considered for a moment, then shook her head. "No, Tamao. I appreciate the offer more than you can know, especially coming from you, but you should devote your time and energy to taking care of Nagisa. She will have great need of you in the time ahead. If you feel the need to do more, please feel free to console Miyuki. She has her husband over the phone, but sometimes when one must cry, only a shoulder will do." Shizuma paused. "Remember that day during summer vacation when Nagisa lost your ribbon?" Tamao nodded. "It was I who removed it from her wrist. Nagisa told me that you wouldn't let her tell you about it, so I'm guessing that you'd already figured it out, and it would have just been too painful for you to hear it from her," - Tamao nodded again - "but I thought it only fair that you should hear it from me. For some strange reason, I felt like I owed you that," Shizuma stared off into space and shook her head slowly, "though I can't for the life of me say why. However," Shizuma continued, "you should also know that I wasn't the first one there; I interrupted someone else." "Someone else? With Nagisa-chan?" Tamao asked, surprised. "But who? Miyuki-san?" "No," Shizuma answered. "It was Amane, before she became committed to Hikari." Tamao gasped. "It's quite amazing, isn't it? There is something about Nagisa that just drew us all to her. Amane told her that day that it was her mysterious aura of freedom, in the midst of all of us who appear caged in our roles. But I think that it's that wondrous heart of hers. Please be more careful with it than I have been, Tamao. It is a truly precious thing." "It is my treasure," Tamao replied with melting eyes.

By the way, Tamao," Shizuma inquired as Tamao was turning to go, "how could you know that I would be staying in this room? I haven't informed anyone of that yet…"

Tamao turned back to Shizuma, shaking her head with a smile. "Yesterday, after she left you and Miyuki and came back to our room to cry, Nagisa-chan told me that this was the way it was going to be, and you had better just get used to the idea. So I knew that it would happen this way."

Shizuma grinned back. "Yes, that's my Nagisa, all right. There's just no stopping that girl. Once she makes up her mind about something, that's all there is to it. It is futile to resist, because she will get her way. What Nagisa wants, she will get. The rest of us have no choice but to agree."

Tamao's face became solemn, and she looked deep into Shizuma's eyes as she slowly shook her head. "No, Shizuma-san. It's not just that Nagisa-chan wants this. She needs this. And I think that you do as well, and that you know that. And now if you'll excuse me, I have to go arrange for a second bed to be brought in." Tamao turned and left, and Shizuma's eyes followed her out the door, beholding her with surprise and a new respect.

The following week, Shizuma, Miyuki, Nagisa and Tamao all received invitations to a Friday night meeting of the Lulim Tea Party Club. "Do you feel well enough, Shizuma-sama?" Nagisa asked her. "If you don't, then I can stay here with you." "Or I can," Miyuki added. "No, I'm feeling all right, and it sounds like fun," Shizuma replied. "It'll give us a chance to see some of our other friends, too. And it's been a long time since I've been invited to one. I'd love to go." "Now that it's an official school club, we don't have to hide and sneak around any more," remarked Tamao. "Yes, but hiding and sneaking around was kind of fun, too," Nagisa replied, as everybody grinned.

They met in a corner of the dining hall that night, with cookies and candles, and turned the overhead lights off. By some sort of unspoken agreement, no one brought up Shizuma's illness. Remon and Kizuna were there, as were Kaname and Momomi, and Yaya and Tsubome. "This could be a president's meeting," Tsubome quipped. "Not quite," Remon replied. "The Etoile aren't present. Amane and Hikari are staying in the stables with Starbright tonight. Amane has a competition to attend tomorrow." "They seem to do that a lot," Kaname mused with a half-grin. "They must like it out there." "Kind of like Shizuma-sama likes her tree," Nagisa said smiling.

"I guess you'll miss seeing Hikari tonight, Yaya," Tsubome teased. "I've already got my hands quite full enough as it is," Yaya snipped back with a grin. Kaname and Momomi glanced at each other and grinned, too.

"I sure hope things go well for Chikaru-san in her interviews," Remon continued. "I wonder who sent those videos of her playing Carmen to those theatre groups and movie studios? And are they interested in her acting, or in her costume designing?" "If they're smart, they're interested in both," Kizuna replied. Only Tamao and Shizuma noticed Nagisa's slight smile.

Then Kagome and Chiyo walked in, each holding one of Percival's arms. Amused glances were exchanged between Tamao and Nagisa, and between Remon and Kizuna. "Nagisa-oneesama? Tamao-sama?" Chiyo haltingly began. "The Tea Party Club needs help. We baked a lot of cookies. And Chikaru-sama is gone on the weekends a lot now. Would it be all right with you if I transferred to Lulim? Of course, if you still need me as your roomkeeper…"

"But Lulim allows students from any school to join its clubs, Chiyo," Remon interjected. "You should know that; you're already a Tea Party Club member." "But I want to be closer to…th-things," Chiyo stammered, briefly glancing at Kagome.

Tamao gave Chiyo a knowing grin. "I think we can manage, Chiyo; right, Nagisa?" Nagisa also grinned as she nodded. "But I was just wondering…is the Tea Party Club the only reason you want to transfer to Lulim?" "Umm…err…" Chiyo looked down and blushed, and Kagome gazed at her and smiled. "Love always finds a way; right, Kagome?" Shizuma winked and said. "Just not always the way we planned; right, Shizuma-san?" Tamao replied, and Shizuma, Miyuki, Nagisa and Tamao all rocked with silent laughter. Everyone else looked puzzled, except for Chiyo, who was still busy blushing, and Kagome, whose smile slightly widened.

"I'm just not used to not having to listen for Sister," Nagisa lamented. "I must admit it takes a bit of the fun out of it…" "Most of the time she discovered you having tea parties, she just passed you by anyway," Miyuki remarked. "She overlooked a lot of our tea parties, too. She only walked in on us enough to keep us on our toes, and keep the thrill of danger going, I think." Miyuki paused, then ruefully snickered. "Or when she needed some particularly distasteful chore done…" "Why would she do that?" Kizuna asked. "Not the chore thing, the overlooking thing."

"Didn't you know?" Shizuma replied. "I'm sure she used to sneak her share of tea parties herself. Sister Mizue attended Astraea Hill before she entered the Sisterhood. In fact, she was an Etoile from Miator." Shizuma reached into her dress for her pocketbook. "I actually have an old photograph of them here. It's been passed down between Etoiles for a long time; I'd just forgotten to give it to Amane." The picture was of two lovely girls, one older than the other, wearing the Miator uniform and Etoile necklaces and holding hands. The older one was definitely a younger Sister Mizue. Nagisa gasped once the picture was passed around to her. "That younger girl is my aunt!" she exclaimed. "No wonder you got transferred here so easily - and into Miator, too," Shizuma chuckled, "and no wonder you get away with so much! Tamao," she added, "please hold onto that picture for me, and pass it on to Amane at the next Presidents' meeting." "I will, Shizuma-san," Tamao assured her.

Remon had been listening to all this intently. She held up her hand for attention, then spoke. "I think we should disband the Tea Party Club. But only officially. We can plan our tea parties through the Cookie Club. Nagisa's right; forbiddenness and sneaking into each other's rooms in the middle of the night is much more fun - and I'll bet Sister misses it too!" Hearty chuckles ensued, but Tamao, noticing the troubled look appearing on Chiyo's face, quickly added, "But Chiyo's transfer to Lulim still goes through; okay, Remon?" "Of course, Tamao; no problem," Remon replied, with a wink to Hagome, as Chiyo's smile returned. The vote was unanimous.

Everyone enjoyed their tea, cookies, candlelight, conversation and cheer, and Nagisa in particular was happy to see the sparkle in Shizuma's eyes at the end of the meeting.

The weeks flew by far too fast, and Shizuma's condition steadily declined. Nagisa attended her between classes, and almost always spent the night. Miyuki was there when Nagisa couldn't be, and they often attended her together. It was late autumn now, and Shizuma could barely stand. Nagisa and Miyuki pushed her around in a wheelchair when she left the room at all. But as much as all of them were suffering - Tamao, too - they kept smiling for each other. When Nagisa had to cry, she cried in Tamao's arms, and Tamao cried with her. Miyuki cried over the phone to her husband, and occasionally made use of Tamao's offered shoulder, and returned her own.

Then one bright morning, Nagisa asked Miyuki to join her and Tamao in their room. "Shizuma-sama grows weak," she said. "I think some fresh air might do her good. Let's have a picnic by her tree today. Could you make us up some picnic baskets, Tamao-chan? We'll take her out in her wheelchair, and sit ourselves on some blankets in the shade." "She'd like that," Miyuki replied. "Yes, Nagisa-chan, that's a great idea. I'll go make up the baskets now," Tamao said, leaving. "And I'll go get some blankets," Miyuki added. As Miyuki turned to follow Tamao out, Nagisa caught her arm. "There's something I want you to do for me, Miyuki-san," she said. "And for Shizuma-sama."

It was a glorious sunshiny afternoon when they arrived at the tree; unseasonably warm, and with the leaves in riotous color, stirred by a gentle breeze. Miyuki pushed the wheelchair, while Nagisa and Tamao each carried a picnic basket, and Shizuma held the blankets in her lap. They spread them out under the tree, then eased Shizuma down and sat down around her. She looked around, clearly delighted , then reached out and touched her tree. "Oh, the memories of this place!" she exclaimed. "This is where I first loved Kaori, and where I first met you, Nagisa. It's also where I first realized I loved you, the day of the Etoile election. I left the hall, and fled to this tree, so special to Kaori and me. But all I could think about was you, dearest. That's when I had to run back and snatch you. And Tamao loved you enough to let you go."

"I still love Nagisa-chan, Shizuma-san," Tamao replied, staring at the ground, "and I always will. Just like Miyuki-san still loves you." Miyuki stared at the ground herself. "Anyone who doesn't realize these things just hasn't been paying attention. But we also both knew that there was no one for either of you but each other. That was obvious, too." Miyuki nodded.

"One other thing," Shizuma continued somberly. "This is also where AI first read the medical report that informed me that my death was soon and certain." The other three gasped and looked at each other in shock. They had not known. "And Kagome happened upon me here, and knew immediately, without me telling her." "I've been there before," Nagisa nodded. "Scary, isn't she? But oh so kind and caring."

"Been there?" Shizuma replied. "Nagisa, you've done that. With Miyuki and me, that day at Kaori's room." "Yes, I suppose I did," Nagisa pondered. "I guess that love can see things hidden in the beloved's heart." "Yes," Shizuma agreed. "Kagome said that to me too that day, that you could see into me, and I believed her, which is why I didn't dare let you see me." Shizuma turned to Tamao. "And Tamao, you never thought our ruse would work. You believed it too; that the moment Nagisa saw me she would know." Shizuma turned back to Nagisa. "Because Tamao's love lets her see into you, Nagisa. And Miyuki," Shizuma turned again, "you could always see into me. But," Shizuma admitted, turning to Nagisa once again, "as much as I love you, dear Nagisa, I was totally wrong about you. I never thought you'd be strong enough to bear this. And for the longest time, I didn't even know my own heart about you. I've always been the blindest one among us." Miyuki and Nagisa vigorously shook their heads in disagreement, but Shizuma had to grin when she caught Tamao stifling a nod. Shizuma then shook her own head wonderingly. "But Kagome…Kagome can see into everyone. She has an amazingly clear-sighted heart." "Yes she does," Nagisa agreed, then turned to Tamao. "I'm just glad that she found someone so special to share it with. And I'm so happy that our dear Chiyo has placed her own heart in those most capable of hands." Tamao nodded. "And I'm so happy that I did, dear Nagisa," Shizuma added quietly, with glistening eyes. Nagisa smiled and palmed Shizuma's hands, her own eyes shining. "That we both did, my Shizuma-sama" she gently corrected her.

They were all quiet for a time, pondering. Then Nagisa broke the silence. "Shall all of us people who love each other have our picnic now?" As Miyuki and Tamao were setting out the baskets, Nagisa slipped behind Shizuma's wheelchair and and pulled out the picture of Shizuma and Kaori from the pouch where she had had Miyuki place it, then she stood it up on the blanket opposite Shizuma. "All of us who love each other should be here for this picnic," she said, to the gasp of surprise from Shizuma. Then their faces were clothed in smiles and tears as they all hugged Shizuma and each other, and Nagisa pressed the picture to Shizuma's breast.

Shizuma amazed the doctors. She could no longer get out of bed, and she grew thin and frail, but she survived the winter. Miyuki remained by her side; her husband insisted that she stay with Shizuma for as long as it took. Once, right after a doctors' visit, when Nagisa and Miyuki came in to ask her what they said, Shizuma managed a weak laugh. "They asked me how I was managing to hang on," she said. "I told them that I wasn't hanging on at all - that those who love me were hanging on to me. Remember that letter from Kaori that I let you two read?" Miyuki and Nagisa both nodded. "She wrote that she felt like a hothouse flower, but I was one to walk in the wind and the rain. Well, I'm the hothouse flower now; my leaves are wilted and my bloom is gone, but I am still shielded and protected from the cold and the dark by the care of those who love me. Like Kaori, though," she continued, "I will never leave this place. Please prepare yourselves; I feel my time approaching. Love can only delay; it cannot deny. But the delay was blessing enough. I got to spend more time with you than anyone thought possible." Miyuki and Nagisa each took a side of the bed, squeezed a hand, and kissed a cheek.

As the winter surrendered to spring, Shizuma continued to weaken. Finally, one early April evening, the doctors told her that she would not last the night. Upon hearing this sad news, Shizuma asked Miyuki, who came in at the end of the visit, to summon Nagisa and Tamao. When they arrived, Shizuma simply said, "It's time." Then she weakly pointed towards a bedside dresser. "There are three letters in there, one for each of you," she said. "one for each of those who love me, and one for the one who loves my beloved as much as I do. Please do not read them until you arrive at my gravesite." After pausing to gather her remaining strength, Shizuma continued.

"Do you remember, Miyuki, when you told me that Amane and Hikari were entering the Etoile election?" Miyuki nodded. "I said that I could feel safe then that when I left the position, the Etoile would be passing into good hands. I feel the same way about you, Tamao - secure that Nagisa will be cared for by someone who loves her as much as I do when I'm gone." "Oh Shizuma-sama!" Nagisa sobbed. Tamao just dropped her head and cried. "You didn't think that, with Tamao's mind and Nagisa's heart, they would have been good hands for the Etoile to pass into, Shizuma?" Miyuki asked? "I certainly thought so." Shizuma chuckled faintly. "I think some part of me already knew that I would snatch my Nagisa away. And you kept hinting at me to do something." Shizuma glanced from Tamao to Nagisa. "Thank you again for releasing her to me, Tamao. Would the two of you come closer?"

Tamao and Nagisa bent over the bed to Shizuma, who reached for Tamao's collar, and shakily removed her ribbon. "I took your ribbon from Nagisa's wrist one summer day, Tamao. And later, on Etoile election day, you yourself removed it from her hair." Then Shizuma, with some difficulty, reached around Nagisa's neck to her hair with both hands. "I retie it there now, and release my beloved Nagisa back to you, Tamao, into your loving care. You two have my blessing."

"No, Shizuma-sama!" Nagisa cried. I will not untie the ribbon that my love's hands have tied, but I am yours and yours alone every moment you remain with me…and I will never stop loving you."

Shizuma sighed, then smiled. "I'm glad that it is me who is passing, dearest Nagisa. If it were you instead, I don't see how I could bear it. Forgive me, dear Kaori, but I may love my Nagisa even more. Tamao, could you please let Miyuki come to me?" Tamao, eyes streaming, squeezed Shizuma's hand, then moved away from the bedside, and Miyuki took her place. Each of them held a hand.

"I have said and done all that I can now," Shizuma weakly whispered, "and I can leave peacefully and with no regrets. I consider myself to have been most fortunate. In my short time on earth, I have loved, and been loved, more than one with a full lifetime would have a right to expect. Know that I love you both, and feel blessed by your love for me. Truly blessed…"

Shizuma's hands went limp, the fire faded from her eyes, and a last sigh escaped her, as her head fell to one side, towards Nagisa. Nagisa and Tamao collapsed onto her sides in tears, Hagisa kissing her lips and cheeks and Miyuki burying her face in her hair, as Tamao fell crying at her feet. "I came to love you, too, my sister," she sobbed.

The funeral was held in Astraea Hill Chapel, and attended by all the school, as well as by Shion and many other alumni, and Miyuki's husband Ryoji, whose appearance had many who did not know who he was wondering if he was Shizuma's brother, as he shared her pale hair and piercing olive eyes. Shizuma was dressed in her Miator uniform, as she had requested. As Amane and Tsubome sat side by side in the pews, Yaya and Hikari dueted a lovely aria, and many tears were shed by all, especially when Nagisa removed the Miator ribbon from her hair, tied it around Shizuma's wrist, and kissed her cold lips one final time. She still wore Tamao's ribbon in her hair. When it was time for her to give the eulogy, Nagisa began, "There has never been anyone like Shizuma-sama at Astraea Hill, and I do not think there will ever be again. Many of us loved her. I will love her forever…" Then she broke down and could not continue, and remained there standing and crying with her face buried in her hands until Tamao went up to her, hugged her, and gently led her away.

Shizuma had also requested that only Nagisa, Miyuki, and Tamao continue to the gravesite. The hearse and following car drove to Shizuma's estate, and took a leaf-covered dirt road leading to a high meadow topped by a single great tree. Underneath its spreading branches was Kaori's grave, with a new headstone that simply read My First Love. Next to it was Shizuma's open grave, with a headstone reading Beloveds Should Rest For Eternity Together. All three of them gasped to see a headstone in place for Nagisa on the other side of Shizuma's grave from Kaori's, and a headstone for Tamao on the other side of Nagisa's from Shizuma's. Nagisa's headstone read My Last Love, and Tamao's headstone read The Other Who Loved My Beloved. They opened and read their letters from Shizuma as her coffin was readied to be lowered into the grave.

To My Dearest Nagisa,

My love, I had wished with all my heart for us to grow old by each other's side. But it was not fated to be. Now I tell you what in her letter Kaori told me. You must live on without me, and love another. I die loving you, so it is all right that losing you is the worst part of dying for me, the part that consumes my thoughts. Please do not allow losing me to be what the rest of your life is about.

My love for you is, like my love for Kaori was, a great but selfish love, that wants what it wants, regardless of anyone else, caring nothing about consequences. I am certain that Tamao's love for you is fully as great as mine, and as I once told her, I believe that it is purer and more selfless. She loved you enough to free you to follow your heart, even while knowing that it led you away from her to me. I doubt that I could have done that. And even after you embraced my love, the love of another, she has continued to love and care for and encourage and support you, even until now and beyond. Such a love deserves to be respected, and I believe, returned. I truly believe that would be best for the both of you. No one alive could love you as much as Tamao does, or could try as hard or as ceaselessly to make you happy. It was only the knowledge that she would be there for you when I was gone that made my passing bearable.

I did not think after Kaori's passing that I could ever love again. But you showed me that my heart was big enough for two. I believe that your heart is far bigger than mine, Nagisa, and hope and trust that you can find room for Tamao inside.

My Undying Love Always,

Shizuma

To Tamao, My Trusted Rival

I reluctantly leave my dearest treasure in your loving care. Had I a choice in the matter, I would live on with Nagisa by my side, and deny you her love forever. But I don't. And you deserve my dear Nagisa; the depth of your love for and devotion to her has proven that to me beyond any doubt. Please be patient with her. It took a long time after Kaori's passing to find room in my heart for another. But I tell you what I told my beloved Nagisa; her heart is far bigger than mine, and there is room for you inside. She already cares deeply for you, and knows how much you love her. I did not meet Nagisa until after Kaori's passing. So maybe it will not take as long for her as it did for me. Just comfort and console her for now. When she is ready for more, as I think she eventually will be, she will let you know.

Remember that time I once teased Nagisa that whenever I thought about her being taken by someone else, I got so worried that I couldn't sleep, and you muttered that you wished that you could say those same words back to me? I now feel as you must have felt then; I am jealous of you, and envy you your future with my dear Nagisa. But I'm not worried about her, because she will have you, and you are worthy of her, and that thought both stings and consoles me. Thank you, Tamao, for loving and being there for my lost beloved, in her time of greatest need and beyond.

With Gratitude And Respect,

Shizuma

To Miyuki, My Rock

From the moment we began attending Astraea Hill together until these final moments, you have never stopped loving and supporting me, even when I loved others, even as I grieved a beloved's loss, even as I die leaving another beloved behind. Your constant and continued devotion to me never ceased to amaze me. I never felt like I deserved it, because your situation, and your acceptance of it, together with your love for me, ensured that my very presence returned you pain. Please know that you would have been my chosen one had your decision to honor your family's arrangements not prevented it. That is the only reason that there is not also a headstone for you, Miyuki. You were promised to a good man, and being a woman of loyalty and integrity, you honored that promise, even though you did not make it, and you came to love that man, and your resting place should and will be by his side.

I wish the two of you strong, bright, healthy children, and hope for at least one daughter to attend Astraea Hill. And also know this: however painful the circumstances, I have ever and always cherished that one time we made love. It was everything I ever dreamed it could be, and could have been, between us, and more.

Your Dearest Closest Friend,

Shizuma

As the coffin was lowered and the grave was closed, they shared their letters, their hugs, and their tears. When Tamao read Miyuki's letter, she looked up at her with a questioning glance. Miyuki looked down, nodded her head, and smiled, a sad smile that reminded Nagisa of her smile that day in Kaori's room. Tamao then remembered the extra hour she was told to wait before talking to Nagisa that day, and murmured, "What a gift of memory…" As they left the gravesite, Tamao quietly remarked, "I think Shizuma-san underestimated the size of her heart. I think she had the biggest heart of us all." Nagisa and Miyuki both nodded.

That night, back in their room in the Strawberry Dorm, after their baths and pajamas, Nagisa asked Tamao, "Can I please sleep in your bed with you, Tamao-chan? I don't think I can bear to sleep alone tonight." "Of course you can, any time you want, Nagisa-chan," Tamao answered. "Let me hold you. It's going to be all right." Nagisa snuggled her face under Tamao's chin, hugged her shoulders, and wept. Tamao put her arms around her, and looking down, noticed that Nagisa was still wearing Tamao's ribbon in her hair. She reached up with one trembling hand and touched it, and Nagisa felt her touch. Haltingly, Nagisa spoke.

Tamao-chan, Shizuma-sama was right about everything she said in her letters. Right about you. And right about me, too. I've known for a long time how much you love me, and I know that I can love you too. But I will need some time."

"Of course, dear Nagisa-chan," Tamao answered. "Take all the time you need. I'll care for you and wait for you and comfort you while you're grieving."

"I know you will," Nagisa acknowledged. "I know from my heart that you love me that much; enough to console me in my grieving for the beloved who won my heart from you. That is why I will continue to wear your ribbon. It is a promise from me. As is this." Nagisa raised her head and gave the stunned Tamao a soft lingering kiss, then lowered her head back to Tamao's chest. "I'm not ready to love again, Tamao-chan. I don't think I will be for a while. But when I am ready, it will be you."

Then Nagisa resumed her crying, and Tamao cried with her…but Tamao guiltily realized that her own tears were leavened with joy.

A few months later, Miyuki returned from her obstetrician's appointment to find Ryoji at home. "Why aren't you at the office, dearest?" she asked. "Because it's ultrasound day, and I want to see the pictures," he answered. Miyuki smiled and handed the folder to him, and he opened it and leafed through the sonograms inside. "Oh, it's so cute!" he exclaimed. "What's in this little envelope here?" "That's the sex of our child," Miyuki replied. "I haven't peeked. I didn't want to look unless we both agreed we wanted to know. Shall we?" "Yes, let's!" Ryoji enthused. They opened the envelope and looked at the card inside together. "It's a girl!" both of them exclaimed. Ryoji smiled at Miyuki and said, "Let's name her Shizuma. What do you think?" "Oh Ryoji, you dear dear man! I would so love that!" Miyuki squealed.

Ryoji paused. "It's all right, you know, Miyuki," he said quietly. "What's all right, hon?" she asked, puzzled. "What happened between you and Shizuma at Astraea Hill," he answered.

Miyuki gasped. "How did -", she started, then caught herself and looked away in distress. "You've been keeping a secret from me, Miyuki," he answered, "and keeping that secret from me has been troubling you deeply. I could see it in your eyes, hear it in your voice, feel it when we embraced. And I happened upon her letter to you. No," he hastened to add, as she looked up sharply, "I didn't read it. I would never do such a thing without your permission. But it is telling that you never offered to let me read it. I just want you to know," he added, "that whatever happened between the two of you, for whatever reason, you must have believed it to be the right thing to do at the time for your dear friend, and I accept that."

Miyuki's eyes brimmed with tears. "Oh Ryoji, you are just too good for me! And it has been weighing heavy on my heart, keeping it from you." And like a finally burst dam, Miyuki poured it all out - the plan to deceive Nagisa for her own protection, what they thought was necessary to convince her, how it failed anyway, that it was only the one time…then she went and retrieved the letter from what apparently had not been the best place to conceal it, and silently handed it to Ryoji to read.

After he finished reading it, Ryoji was also silent for a while, considering. Then he took Miyuki into his arms, gazed into her eyes, and said, "If Shizuma's plan had worked, and after making love with her, you had immediately brought her here to die, I cannot see how you, the most honest person I know, could have borne such a burden. Not for that many months. The weight of that secret would have been so much greater with you both here together with me, and with each other. It would have eaten at you inside. I'm glad that her plan failed, and that you were spared all that, even if it meant we had to be apart for that time. It was far better for Shizuma, too, to be in familiar surroundings, and surrounded by all those who were dear to her. I suspect she lived on longer because of it. I'm happy for Nagisa, too, that she didn't miss out on that time with Shizuma. And finally," he concluded, "if you had chosen to break our marriage arrangement those many years ago and stay with Shizuma instead, she would have been the luckiest woman in the world. I'm certainly the luckiest man -", and found himself interrupted by a passionate kiss, and in insistent pull toward the bedroom.

Later, Ryoji absentmindedly picked up a framed family photo of Miyuki and her parents. Miyuki had her father's dark hair and eyes, but her mother had the same pale hair and olive-green eyes that Shizuma and Ryoji had. "Hmm," he mused, "I wonder if that's a reason Miyuki was attracted to Shizuma, and to me. Well, it looks like there's going to be another Shizuma at Astraea Hill, and I'd say there's about a fifty-fifty chance she'll look like the first one!"

Nagisa and Tamao left the car, Tamao carrying a picnic basket, and began walking up the path to Shizuma's cottage. "I still can't believe she left it all to me," Nagisa wondered. "I wouldn't have expected her to leave it to anyone else," Tamao replied. After a while, they reached the lunching spot. "Finally we get to have that picnic under the leaves together that I promised you so long ago," Nagisa said, smiling. Tamao smiled back in answer. "Shizuma-san and I had lunch here, too," she said, "the day she enlisted Miyuki-san and me in her plan to deceive you. Fat chance that had of working!" They both giggled. "She meant well, though," Tamao continued. "Yes, she did. About all of it. For everybody. And she really tried, "Nagisa softly replied, staring into space, "but still, even with all the love we shared between us, there was always so much pain with Shizuma-sama. And there wasn't much she could do about it. It wasn't her fault that Kaori died and left her that way. It was nobody's fault. And it wasn't her fault that she died and left me." Nagisa's intense and yearning gaze seized and held Tamao's eyes, and there was desperation in her tones. "But I'm tired of hurting, Tamao-chan; so very tired of it. I have hurt far too much these last few years. I want happiness from now on. I am done with pain." Tamao reached for Nagisa's hand, found it, held it, squeezed it. "I know all too well how much all this has hurt you, Nagisa-chan," she quietly said. "I've been right here beside you through it all, doing what little I could to console you, and seeing you suffer so has broken my heart into pieces. But it's over now. You will never have to face such misery again, not with me, because I will always try my best to make you happy, and I will never cause you pain." Nagisa smiled. "I know, Tamao-chan. That's the way you are about me. Let's eat!" When Tamao opened the picnic basket, she saw that Nagisa had placed the picture of Shizuma and Kaori inside. "There's already one here," Nagisa said, "but I decided to bring this one home as well. I'm thinking of sending one of them to Miyuki-san." "I'm sure she would appreciate that, Nagisa-chan," Tamao said. They ate their lunch, admiring the lovely autumn colors, then continued their journey.

When they arrived at the cottage, Nagisa said, "Tamao-chan, I'd like us to go to the meadow tomorrow and bring them both flowers. But now, I'd like to give you this, my love. I think I'm ready now." A surprised smile came to Tamao's lips as Nagisa placed a key on a chain around her neck. "Oh, Nagisa-chan…" Tamao breathed, as tears of joy filled her eyes, and they embraced. Nagisa kissed those smiling lips. "As soft and warm as I remember," she whispered. Then she opened the door with her own key, and took Tamao's hands in her own. "And now, my dear Tamao-chan, I have something to ask of you. Amane-sama graduates next spring. Would you please stand for Etoile with me again, for our senior year? I think Astraea Hill would benefit from your capable hands, and I'd love to get back in that greenhouse. Since Kaname-san is graduating too, there'll be no other strong candidates, so all we'll have to do is, like Miyuki-san once told Shizuma-sama about her and Kaori, just show up and stand on the stage. And I promise to just stand there this time, dearest," Nagisa finished quietly. "No more running out on you for me. And you'll never be able to push me away again. This time, I truly want this with you…"

Oh, yes, Nagisa-chan," Tamao agreed, thrilled. "We can have a picture of ourselves as Etoile made, and send a copy to Miyuki-san. And we'll get your aunt's picture back for a while, and make copies of it, too, and when our year is done, Kagome and Chiyo will be next in line." "Now that's a scary thought," Nagisa chuckled. "You're probably right, though, if she wants it. I have the funny feeling that whatever Kagome wants, Kagome gets. But it's about time that Lulim had an Etoile, and Chiyo has always dreamed of being one, and those two have made remarkable strides lately. I'd support them. And now, my dear dear Tamao-chan," Nagisa added softly with shining eyes, "let's us go inside and practice our dance…" Tamao blushed and trembled, and her own eyes shined back as she nodded and smiled. And hand in hand, they entered Nagisa's cottage and closed the door.