We learn from Chiyo’s manner of blushing around Nagisa that she has a crush on her, inspired by the accident in an earlier episode where Nagisa caught Chiyo in the midst of tripping. And, according to Yaya, Tsubomi has a crush on Hikari, and Tsubomi’s blush in hot denial seems to confirm this claim. Thus, we have two scenarios for the yuri feeling: among room mates, who have shared rooms since kindergarten and therefore resemble, as Nagisa puts it in "The Attic," "a married couple;" and the crush of the younger student on the older. Both scenarios domesticate yuri feeling, make it an ordinary part of life at school, almost indistinguishable from close friendship. So, in the case of the younger students’ crushes, neither Nagisa or Hikari respond to them, except as claims upon their friendship; and the partnership of room mates is ambiguous, seeming mostly to consist of the easy familiarity of long-married spouses, than of any romantic passion.
So the distinctive element in Nagisa and Shizuma, Hikari and Amane’s relationships is not that they are yuri, but how they stand out from the ordinary feelings of friendship and domesticity. And as they stand out, they also start from these very feelings. As we will see in the following episode "Greenhouse," Shizuma and Nagisa develop their relationship as friends, by doing ordinary domestic things together such as working in the greenhouse and playing piano together afterwards. Their ordinary pleasure with each other’s company indicates the deepening of their relationship, beyond what we saw in Shizuma’s earlier aggressiveness, which she admits was intrinsically frivolous.
This close affinity between friendship and love helps clear up several standing questions in the anime. If it is sometimes hard to recognize in Nagisa a lover’s passion for Shizuma, and if her motivations appear to the viewer to be indistinguishable from ordinary friendship, that must simply reflect the fact that in Strawberry Panic the two spheres of friendship and love are at base so very similar. Also, this affinity explains why Nagisa in her final break with Tamao at the conclusion is so ambivalent. It is not that she does not love Shizuma, or even that she does not want to disappoint Tamao: rather, here she is forced to break out passion from friendship, which she has never done in the whole series, and doing that is a difficult thing for her. Finally, we can make sense of why Strawberry Panic is a yuri drama. It is not for the sake of the yuri element itself, but in order to focus upon general human values–such as friendship, relationship. passion, aesthetic feeling–that become emphasized and intensified in a uniformly feminine world.
As we go on, it will be worth looking to see where we see Nagisa’s feelings toward Shizuma rise above friendship to passion.
I will finish by noting two odd minor points in the episode. The girls enjoy flouting authority with their midnight parties: Yaya explains that the parties are the more enjoyable just because the girls run the risk of being caught. Here we have Nagisa being something of a bad girl, a challenger to conventions, a free spirit–all for the sake of tea parties, the very essence of domesticity. The other point is the girls’ aesthetic interest in wearing maid outfits. One could work out a suggestive context here, since their conversation about the outfits follows the discussion of crushes, but the overriding idea is simply aesthetic pleasure and girls playing dress-up, and nothing more. Again, we have an incident that might be edgy, but is kept within perfectly conventional bounds. The effect of this restraint is paradoxically to make the domestic intimate the controversial. Tea parties and dress-up games signify obliquely and never definitely something daring. Conversely, the apparently controversial simply indicates the domestic: what seems to be daring is really simply cozy and conventional. This pattern of ambiguity is the defining characteristic of Strawberry Panic.