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Epilogue - Kaoruko

Kaoruko woke to the usual sounds of Futaba bustling around their shared dorm room. “Ugh, keep it down!” she mumbled, throwing the blankets over herself further.

“Kaoruko, it’s noon. You have to get up or we’re going to be late,” Futaba chided.

“For what? It’s Sunday…”

Futaba drew back the blinds fully, and even the blanket couldn’t keep the bright sunlight from Kaoruko’s eyes. “Today is the party, remember? You dragged me all around by the station picking out wagashi yesterday…”

Kaoruko did remember then. It was Nana’s birthday, and her strange request was to have all of the former HiME attend a gathering. In truth, Kaoruko had tried to actively avoid the HiME when possible since the night she regained consciousness, with the exception of Maya and Claudine, and of course Futaba, but she wasn’t so rude as to forgo her position as headmaster’s daughter. If a student had a request, such as having a few classmates over for a birthday dinner, she was going to grant it, and she wouldn’t be coming empty handed.

With a sigh, she stood up and shuffled into her slippers, walking to the bathroom to brush her teeth and begin dressing. She stared at her just-woken, sullen face in the mirror. Truthfully, things had been difficult since the HiME Carnival. All the students and teachers had returned to the school, but there was a lot of confusion about what exactly had happened - not to mention the property damage. People looked to leadership - like Kaoruko, Maya, and Claudine, for answers, but they really didn’t have any to provide. They couldn’t exactly say that they were given magic powers to fight a battle royale to keep a magic invisible star from destroying the earth, could they? She laughed, and began brushing her teeth.

In the end, they gave Karen a statement to read over the announcements - something about earthquakes, land management projects, and an unpredicted military exercise. They apologized profusely for the disturbance to everyone’s education, but Kaoruko didn’t know the major impacts, as that was her father’s domain. And honestly, she didn’t much care if this whole ordeal caused him a ton of trouble.

She left the bathroom, changing into a long pink skirt and a flowy cream blouse. Absentmindedly, she sat down at her dressing table by the window to apply makeup. The revelations about her father’s mistress were disappointing, but not exactly unexpected. Kaoruko had been critical of her father since his separation from her mother, but to find out that woman was Hikari’s mother… just made her pity Hikari, truly.

To be honest, to wake up from that… ‘suspended state’ to the sight of Karen as her savior, with Hikari and Mahiru beside her irked her even more than it would have to see the face of Tendo Maya, somehow. For all intents and purposes, Kaoruko had been dead, and had lost Futaba along with her, but for all her efforts, for all her struggling and strategizing, it was happy-go-lucky Karen who had come out on top. Kaoruko wasn’t sure what Karen had to face in the end, and of course she was glad she won, but it just didn’t feel… right… that someone like herself or Maya or Claudine or Nana should be defeated in the earlier rounds, just to have Aijou Karen, who couldn’t even summon her Child until the Orphan battles were long underway sweep in at the end.

Kaoruko finished getting ready and gathered her things, herself and Futaba meeting Maya and Claudine in the hallway. She caught Claudine’s eye for a moment before Claudine fell back into stride at Maya’s side, and Kaoruko remembered her words from a couple days after the Carnival ended. “It was Aijou, she defeated my Odile.”

In the moment, Kaoruko could imagine it perfectly. Though she and Futaba had already been defeated at that time, she could see Karen’s wild Tokyo Tower shooting a massive laser at the Black Swan, and Claudine realizing a moment too late that Maya was doomed. It had happened to her, after all. Kaoruko had been closer to Maya over the years they were at Seisho, largely because of they both came from older Japanese houses, and because Futaba always took up Claudine’s attention anyways, but now she found that they had something in common - a guilt they would share for a momentary lapse that caused the defeat of their most precious partners. What a bond to share, she thought sardonically.

It was an unnaturally chilly evening for July, but Nana’s dormitory was warm and inviting. It seemed Karen, Hikari, and Mahiru had not yet arrived, which was just as well, in Kaoruko’s opinion. Kaoruko handed the wagashi over to the hosts. Nana and Junna, it seemed, had spent hours preparing for this party, and the effect was a room filled with party decorations, and a table filled with an assortment of delicious looking dishes.

Kaoruko knew something was up, however, as the normally borderline gluttonous Maya hung just inside the entrance, and didn’t even glance at the spread. Futaba and Claudine greeted Nana and Junna, wishing Nana a happy birthday, while Kaoruko nudged Maya back into the present.

“Ah yes, happy birthday, Daiba-san,” said Maya, “And good evening, Hoshimi-san.”

No one commented on Maya’s return to formality with a student council member she worked with daily, at least before the Carnival. Honestly, Karouko wasn’t sure if Junna had returned to working with Maya and Claudine, and if not, she wasn’t sure why. She suddenly regretted this lapse in her nosiness.

“Junna-han, do you not go to the student council room anymore?” asked Kaoruko, moving a little further into the room. Instantly, everyone aside from Nana tensed. Kaoruko almost laughed at Futaba’s clenched jaw, as Futaba wasn’t even involved. Nana likely was involved, but was an expert in faking placidity, it seemed.

“I assure you I am not shirking my duties,” Junna said. “I am performing all of the necessary tasks of the student council secretary and discipline committee chair.”

“Please, come in and have something to drink,” Nana offered, aiming to diffuse some tension.

Kaoruko did indeed take a cup of barley tea, and the others moved into the living room as well, but she was not finished. “Certainly you are still a model representative. However, you didn’t answer my question. Kuro-han, does Junna-han come to the office anymore? What did you do to her?”

Kaoruko was making a bet that the one Junna did not want to face was Maya, and not Claudine. If Claudine had managed to defeat Nana or Junna or otherwise traumatize Junna in the Carnival, she likely picked a bad approach.

Out of sight of Junna, Claudine gave Kaoruko a split-second annoyed expression, but played along. “I’m not sure… sometimes I hum while I work and she tells me she likes to work in silence. Once I cracked a tea cup of hers and I didn’t confess, but I think she always suspected me…”

Maya opened her mouth as if to say something, but before she could, Junna, who looked like she very much didn’t want to speak, but also looked ready to burst, began: “It’s not you! Or rather, it is, but it’s mostly Tendo-san!”

She stepped closer to the pair, looking at Claudine first. “You just ran away when you knew what was going to happen to us! If it’s true you didn’t have powers, maybe you couldn’t fight, but you could have tried to talk to Maya, you know she listens to you!”

Claudine looked annoyed to be having this conversation after the Carnival, and at a party, but indulged Junna, as they were in her dormitory. “One way or the other, we were all going to have to face off. You two were better off facing Maya when I was powerless and unable to assist. What reason did you give me to side with you over Maya? When would you ever do the same for me?”

Kaoruko wondered if this is how Claudine felt in the moment, or just how she was making a case to Junna. Either way, it seemed to take some of the wind out of Junna’s sails.

“We stopped you… before… in the forest…”

“You stopped Kaoruko and Futaba, and Tendo Maya. I wasn’t involved. And, if I remember correctly, you nearly shot an arrow through my head.”

Still frustrated, but with no remaining avenues, Junna turned to Maya. Kaoruko wished for a replay of this battle that had Junna so fired up because it seemed to have been intense. “Tendo-san, I looked up to you! I felt like my entire high school life came crashing down at once when you just plowed through Nana and I to reach your goal. I just… that’s not how the student council president is to behave!”

Maya stood still as she absorbed this information. “I apologize, Hoshimi-san. And to you, as well, Daiba-san. You are correct, that was not the behavior of the student council president. That was the behavior of one very desperate girl, who absolutely could not lose.” Maya bowed low, returning to her perfect posture after several seconds. “I am glad to see you well, I was so worried.”

Junna was speechless for a moment, obviously not expecting this apology or the bow. “Was… was winning that important to you?” she asked. “What was your wish?”

Maya shook her head, a light blush on her cheeks. “Winning wasn’t my goal, it’s like I said: I absolutely could not lose.”

The implications of her words began to sink in, and Claudine turned a deep shade of red. Before Kaoruko had a chance to tease either of them, however, there was a knock on the door, and Karen, Mahiru, and Hikari arrived.

The newcomers exchanged greetings and they began to eat as a group of nine, the air cleared between six of them, at least. Kaoruko watched as Junna chatted once again with Claudine, and how Futaba asked Nana about various dishes she had prepared. There was, however, a sort of divide between certain members. It seemed that Nana and Karen were on good terms, but Junna and Karen were not as amicable. Hikari and Claudine chatted a bit, but the others largely ignored Hikari. Futaba sat far away from Mahiru, and the others didn’t seem to want to engage with her much either.

The earlier reconciliation inspired Kaoruko, however. “Karen-han, have you been adjusting to life without powers?” she asked. She smirked internally - it was a charged question from the get-go.

Mahiru looked concerned, but Karen retained her usual cheerful expression. “I’m happy to have our normal school life back,” she said. “I miss Toto a bit, though, so Mahiru and Hikari and I are going to see the real Tokyo Tower on our school break!”

Claudine cringed at the mention of the laser powered Child, and even though Kaoruko didn’t know which Child defeated hers, there was a one in three chance that Karen was the culprit behind her defeat as well. Hikari and Mahiru certainly noticed the change in their expressions. She wondered if Karen did. “It’s a good thing the real one has no lasers,” Kaoruko teased. At this jab, she got a disapproving look from Mahiru, but she knew Mahiru wouldn’t tell her to stop. No, Kaoruko was holding court here.

Karen wasn’t sure how to reply to this comment, so she just nodded, sipping her tea. It was the first hint of remorse Kaoruko detected since the end of the Carnival - not that she spent much time with Karen. “I-”

Kaoruko’s next comment was cut off by Nana, who had just returned from the kitchen with her own birthday cake. “I think it would be nice if you could tell everyone what happened the last night of the Carnival, if you’re feeling up to it,” said Nana.

“Oh! I guess you all were mostly just lying there in the desert,” Karen said, as if she hadn’t considered that the others wouldn’t know what happened that night.

“What desert?” asked Junna.

“Well, Hikari, Mahiru and I realized the Carnival wouldn’t end unless we fought each other, so I went down to the bay and thought maybe there’s an alternative - if I destroy the star itself…”

“You broke the HiME Star?” asked Claudine, leaning her elbows on the table.

“Well, Toto and I did. And when we did….”

Karen continued, explaining how she landed in a different dimension, how she met the giraffe again on the Tokyo Tower, how she joined Hikari and Mahiru below fighting off some sort of shades, and how they proceeded to destroy as much as possible. Honestly, from start to finish, it was the kind of solution that only someone like Karen could come up with.

Strangely, hearing the story, eating cake, and relaxing on a summer night, Kaoruko felt more content than she had in a long time. “Honestly Karen-han, I came here to confront you,” she said, leaning back after finishing her piece of cake. “I was upset about you winning that dumb Carnival. But now I feel like we had a group project and I got to sleep through it and still get credit at the end, while you three did all the work.”

Futaba laughed, nodding in agreement. “Kuroko and Maya, you both put in some good work too.”

Claudine laughed as well. “Daiba-san and Junna put in a lot of work, too. Honestly it was just you sleeping through the assignment, Kaoruko.”

Kaoruko thought of about five comebacks in less than a second, but for once in her life, decided to let this one go as everyone joined in the laughing, dotting Karen’s face in frosting as a congratulatory prize.

Somehow, Nana knew the party was necessary. Somehow, it wasn’t until that night that the Carnival truly felt over.

That night, Kaoruko walked back to her own dormitory with Futaba beside her like always, and Maya and Claudine a few steps ahead, their hands curiously close together, though it was hard to see in the dark.

“I have a kendo match this weekend,” Futaba said tentatively.

“Oh? I don’t have plans,” Kaoruko said with a smile.

“Good. Because I love that candy and I don’t really care for flowers.”

“Yes, we need something to put on the front of the school paper besides torn up grass. You and I will do nicely indeed.”

“It’s a date.”