Actions

Work Header

Maya-HiME

Chapter Text

Chapter 1 - Kaoruko

Kaoruko set down a cup of tea, having spent the better part of the past forty-five minutes performing a tea ceremony with a couple of younger students. She enjoyed the way her kimono felt around her, much better than her itchy uniform. Her hands worked deftly as she moved items around on the tatami mats, the sights and smells of her youth familiar and comforting.

“Hanayagi-senpai-”

Kaoruko cut off the younger student with a sharp look, and the girl sat back in silence at once. “We’re here to appreciate the tea, and to study the art of the ceremony. If you have questions or comments, we will share them at the end.”

It was still close to the beginning of the school year, and all the students in the club were new, so she had to run the ceremony each time. Soon enough, they would understand the basics, and she would only have to correct the details, and show them how the ceremony and the room changed with the seasons.

“I’m sorry, but, senpai, someone is here!” said another, bolder student.

Before Kaoruko could turn, she realized what was happening. The last bit of tea in the cup began to show little ripples from something distantly shaking the earth. As expected, she turned to see Futaba leaning in the doorway, her kendo uniform still on. “Kaoruko, I need to borrow you,” she said, her tone not letting on the seriousness Kaoruko could sense was evident beneath these words.

“Alright,” she said with a sigh, intentionally taking her time getting up. “Your first test as members of the Tea Ceremony Club will be to correctly clean up and put away this equipment. Do this well, and I have some special wagashi to share next week.”

The kouhai’s faces lit up with a task from Kaoruko, coupled with the prospect of sweets. Leaving them to their task, Kaoruko followed Futaba out of the tea room, sliding the paper-panelled doors shut gently behind her. She changed from her slippers to the normal loafers she wore to school, feeling silly pairing them with the kimono.

“What is it, now?” asked Kaoruko, as soon as they were out of earshot. Kaoruko had a pretty good idea of what it was, as she followed Futaba’s quick footsteps across the school grounds and into the surrounding forest.

“Orphan,” said Futaba lowly. “Big one, too. On the back side of that hill. Kuroko texted me.”

“Well if Kuro’s there, Maya’s there, and if the two of them are there, why can’t they just handle it?” asked Kaoruko, now almost out of breath with Futaba’s pace.

“You can’t just leave everything to the student council,” said Futaba. “You have the tattoo too, you can help once in a while.”

Kaoruko hummed in reply, too tired to bother arguing. Her parents, while not involved in the daily happenings, did own this school, so she was more than familiar with the layout of the grounds, and of the entire island the school was situated on. They still had a ways to go to catch up to the Orphan, but already Kaoruko could feel the trembling of the earth growing stronger, and the faint clash of metal.

“Kaoruko, hurry up!” called Futaba, grabbing her hand to pull her along.

“Easy for you to say, you’re not in kimono,” she grunted.

Finally, they rounded the edge of the large knoll that obstructed the orphan from site. It was somewhat like a saber-toothed tiger, but the scale of it was massive. Kaoruko would have been able to touch its underbelly, if she reached with all her might, perhaps. Its large claws curled into the dirt, and its fangs were bared at Claudine and her Child. Maya and her Child, meanwhile, seemed to be trying to sneak behind it. Futaba held Kaoruko back to allow those two to execute their plan, as if Kaoruko had any plans of jumping into that action.

“Have I ever told you that seeing their Childs together makes me want to vomit?” muttered Kaoruko quietly into Futaba’s ear.

Before them, dancing around the creature, were two enormous, mechanical-type creatures, both resembling swans, though one was a silvery-white, and the other an inky blank. Just as the creature pawed dangerously at Claudine, the black swan moved in front of her, its wide wings forming a shield. From behind the creature, Maya yelled “Odette, now!” and the silver swan released an enormous fireball from up its long neck and out its mouth. Although the swans weren’t quite as large as the Orphan, the fireball seemed to do some serious damage, and the Orphan went crashing into the steep edge of the hill, parts of it charred.

However, after another moment, it stood, and Maya tightened her grip on her rapier, moving back closer to Claudine. The Orphan pawed the ground, obviously on a second wind, despite missing a chunk of its hide after the fireball. Charging at Maya and Claudine, the Childs once again moved in front, this time standing together to form a barrier. They seemed to fit together as if they were halves of the same Child, and the resounding crash when the Orphan collided with them could probably be heard down at the school. Immediately, the swans each closed the wing that was not interlocked with each other around the Orphan, attempting to hold it in place.

This time, Claudine shouted. “Odile, get ready!”

Maya ran out from behind the barrier then, noticing the struggling Orphan might have a chance to free itself. With her rapier, she slashed at the ‘tendons’ in its legs, trying to keep it immobile. The word tendons was a stretch, of course, as the thing was not of biological origin by any stretch of the imagination. It thrashed, and just as Claudine yelled “Fire!”, the Orphan caught Maya with a good kick, sending her crashing to the wall of earth behind them.

From Odile’s mouth came a spear of ice that stabbed fiercely through the creature’s neck, but Odette disappeared as Maya seemed to be fairly winded from the creature’s attack.

“That’s it,” said Futaba, as the creature, though very much slowed from the massive icicle through its neck, still managed to break free of Odile’s wings, hobbling towards Claudine. Futaba jumped off the ridge they were standing on, yelling “Kaiyō Maru!”. A halberd appeared in her hands, and her Child, a sort of massive Samurai appeared on the ground, allowing her to jump onto it, saving her from a broken bone or two had she jumped straight to the ground.

Kaiyō Maru lept into action, launching massive throwing stars at the creature and slicing into its underbelly and finally rendering it unable to walk. Futaba moved forward carefully, with Claudine and the two Childs monitoring her, and used her halberd to slice off the creature’s head. The Orphan disappeared into thin air, as if it was never there. Odile disappeared as well, and Claudine ran to Maya, falling to her knees. “Maya!” she called, shaking Maya gently.

Maya stirred, looking up at Claudine with a dazed smile. “You got him,” she said, settling her head on Claudine’s knees.

Futaba got him,” said Kaoruko, who finished walking down the ridge to join the others in the small valley.

Claudine ignored Kaoruko, giving a grateful smile to Futaba. “What hurts?” asked Claudine, leaning forward to look at Maya.

“Just my thigh where it kicked me, now. Slamming into that wall really knocked the wind out of me, but I can breathe again.” She paused, looking up at Claudine. “Are you bleeding?”

Claudine put her hand to her head and pulled it away again, showing fresh blood. “Oh, oui. Must have been in the beginning, when he snuck up on us,” she said, as if this wasn’t much of a concern.

Futaba hung her head. “I’m sorry, I should have jumped in sooner. I could have prevented Tendo-san from getting injured, at least.”

Claudine looked at her, annoyed. “I already told you, you don’t have to do this. Just… this isn’t a good thing. So you should just stay away from the Orphans altogether.”

“That’s what I keep telling her,” said Kaoruko. “I wanted to just have a nice tea ceremony this afternoon, but no… I had to come watch you two get beat up, again.”

“We didn’t get beat up the last two times,” said Maya, getting to her feet rather awkwardly. “Now, Saijou-san, I will accompany you to the infirmary to get that head wound looked at.”

You’ll accompany me? Tendo Maya, have you looked at yourself? Come along, I’ll accompany you. Let’s go.”

Kaoruko watched Maya limp for a few feet as Claudine pulled off her uniform jacket to try to stop the trickle of blood from her head, realizing after a few seconds that it was just too pathetic. She couldn’t have the student council president and vice president hobbling back to school and then walking down the hallways to the infirmary looking like that.

“Wait!” she called, authoritatively. “I’ll call a car. We’re far from the school anyways, one of you is likely to collapse before you make it there. I’ll have it take you to Fuuka Hospital, please request Dr. Hanayagi. He’s my uncle, and he won’t ask too many questions.”

“I’ll bring you some new clothes,” said Futaba, “And we can ride the bus back together once you’re patched up!”

Kaoruko rolled her eyes at Futaba’s excessive kindness, but didn’t protest. There were worse people to have owe you favors than the student council president and her girlfriend *cough* vice president.

Once she saw those two on their way, she and Futaba walked back to the dorms, Futaba so she could gather clean clothes to bring to Maya and Claudine in the hospital, and Kaoruko to change out of her god-forsaken kimono and loafers combination. If anyone saw her like this, she’d be forced to transfer schools.

Luckily, it was dinnertime, and the paths were abandoned, so she was able to enter the dorm she shared with Futaba without much disturbance. Once in casual clothes, she set out again, this time to the dining hall on the residential side of campus. Not many people came here since the dorms were equipped with kitchens, and it was more expensive than cooking, but for Kaoruko, money was no object, especially not on this campus.

She greeted the cooks, all of which she’d known since she could talk, and ordered a tempura shrimp set. She didn’t even have to special request that they leave the green onions out - they just knew. Ah, it was good to be home.

Much of her life was spent on this campus, from the time she followed her parents around back when they still worked on the campus, to the time when she entered the elementary school, to now, when she was in the secondary school. She was seventeen now, and the only major difference was that she had that damn tiny tattoo on her right thigh, that allowed her to see the red star that no one else could see, and allowed her to summon a Child and an element. Not that she ever planned on doing that again, she had made that much clear to Maya and Claudine right away.

There were a few others she knew of that were the same as her, marked with that cursed mark. Obviously Maya, Claudine, and Futaba, but also Daiba Nana, the girl who worked in the library, and Hoshimi Junna, the student council secretary. She had caught sight of Hoshimi’s mark on her shoulder while they were changing for gym, and once she started paying attention to her, caught her talking about it with Daiba, who happened to be her roommate, in the library one day.

Speaking of which, Kaoruko spotted Daiba and Hoshimi out through the cafeteria windows as she was throwing away her dishes. They looked to be fairly serious, discussing something. The sun was starting to set, and they were heading away from the dorms, and Kaoruko’s eternal nosiness was begging for her to follow.

Once outside, she had to stay back fairly far, since she was on an open path heading to the forest. She couldn’t hear what they were saying. They walked into the forest, and she dared to close the distance a bit. “We need to head back,” Hoshimi was saying.

“No, we have to find them,” said Daiba, “They’re doing roll call at the dorm soon, plus there’s all sorts of creepy stuff out here.”

“We can’t miss roll call ourselves… and by creepy stuff, do you mean…”

Junna didn’t say Orphans, but Kaoruko was certain it was implied. Nana’s response, however, was cut off by a distant scream, and though Junna looked like she wanted nothing more than to run back to the dorm, she and Nana ran further into the forest towards it. Kaoruko ran to catch up, wondering why she was running into danger twice that day.

When they slowed down, there was a small clearing with two girls huddled in it. Kaoruko recognized them as Tsuyuzaki Mahiru, the head of the gardening club, and Aijou Karen, a member of the broadcasting club. They were the missing roommates from Junna and Nana’s dorm, presumably.

Looming over them, however, was a strange Orphan, unlike any Kaoruko had seen. While Orphans were manifestations of bad emotions, and could take any form, this one seemed to be something of an anomaly, looking like a set of roots that were climbing ever closer to the two girls, ready to wrap them up or strangle them.

“No. No, no. No.” said Junna, seemingly rejecting what was currently happening. “I can’t do it, I’m not…”

“Hanuman!” called Nana, instantly equipping two swords, and calling forth a Child that resembled a golden monkey, made of lots of gears. The monkey moved forward, and the roots seemed to shrink back without the monkey using any sort of weapon. Nana began to slice them, but the Orphan was still so large that if she sliced one section, another would grow.

Karen and Mahiru tried running away, but were tripped up by the roots and caught by the ankles. Junna was frozen in place, no help at all.

Karen and Mahiru tried running away, and just barely made it, escaping the roots that grabbed at their ankles. They stood behind Junna who was frozen in place, no help at all.

The roots seemed to round on the three of them then, and Nana continued her work, but it was too little to stop the Orphan. Kaoruko sighed. She wasn’t calling her Child, but perhaps just her element....

She felt for the familiar feel of the naginata, and it manifested itself in her hands. Walking into the clearing, she approached from the opposite side of Nana, slicing at the base of the roots, where she presumed this thing’s “heart” or “brain” was. It didn’t seem to like this attack, and aimed its roots back at her, but Nana leapt forward, and used her swords and the monkey to block Kaoruko as she worked.

Suddenly there was a third person there, and Karen was holding a sword beside her. “What is this?” she yelled.

“No time to explain, just stab!” yelled Kaoruko, gesturing to the large opening she had gashed in the root’s base.

Karen did as she was told and plummeted the tip of the sword into the hole, and the Orphan disappeared almost instantly. “Neat,” she said. “And terrifying.”

Mahiru was on her knees, her face white as a sheet, and Junna didn’t look far behind, though certainly she had witnessed this before.

“Just how many of us are there?” asked Nana. She called the monkey back into the ether.

“No clue. At least 7, by my count,” said Kaoruko. “Though some are maintaining secret identities,” she added.

“We… we need to get back to the dorm,” said Junna, somehow still maintaining her knowledge of the school rules after such a traumatic event.

“I’ll walk you back,” said Kaoruko, wondering once again why she was being so nice to these girls. She supposed it was part of being the daughter of the school’s directors. “If the dorm mother says anything to you, I’ll let her know that you were with me on official school business.”

After dropping the girls off and excusing their roll call absence with the dorm mother, Kaoruko walked back to her own dorm, two buildings over, hoping Futaba had drawn a bath. It would seem, however, that this evening was filled with annoyances, as Futaba was not in the room when she got back. Kaoruko at first thought she had not yet gotten back from the hospital, but she decided to check Claudine’s room, just in case.

As expected, Claudine, Maya, and Futaba were all in Claudine’s room. Maya was on Claudine’s bed, her injured leg outstretched with an ice pack on it. Claudine was sitting on the end of the bed, a small bandage on her head. Futaba was sitting backwards on Claudine’s desk chair, and seemed to be in the middle of telling a story about something that happened in kendo club that day, based on her hand gestures. Kaoruko cleared her throat, and Claudine and Futaba turned to look at her. Maya didn’t bother turning around, which only incensed Kaoruko more, and she stepped forward to make the student council president acknowledge her.

“Having fun, are we?” she asked, with a bit of a huff.

“Is that banned?” asked Claudine, tucking a bit of her hair behind her ear as she sat up straighter.

“Futaba come on, let’s go home,” said Kaoruko, ignoring her.

“Woah, Kaoruko, why are you so dirty?” asked Futaba, scooting forward on the chair to look closer. “Did you… you didn’t…”

“Of course I didn’t,” scoffed Kaoruko. “But… there were some girls in trouble, and I did have to summon my element,” she said. “It’s taken care of. Daiba Nana helped. I told you she was one.”

“A HiME,” said Claudine.

“Whatever you call it. Hoshimi Junna was there too. I know she is too, but she couldn’t manifest anything. Aijou Karen could, though, I wasn’t expecting that.”

Claudine and Maya both leaned forward then, speaking over each other.

“There’s another one?” Claudine said, looking pale, as Maya said “Aijou Karen?”

“From the broadcasting club,” reported Futaba. “You know, she does the morning announcements?”

A look of comprehension dawned on Maya’s face. It was rare that she forgot a member of the student body. “Yes, yes. How could I forget, with all the fanfare she brings into the endeavor.” She smiled amusedly.

“Well, whatever her broadcasting predilections are, she can manifest a big old sword, so she’s probably got that mark and a Child somewhere too.”

Claudine flopped back across the bed, flinging her arm over her eyes. Kaoruko didn’t understand why she was so dramatic, but she was always like this when they discovered a new HiME, or whatever she insisted they were called. “Well if that’s the case, it doesn’t change much, as long as Saijou-san and I can take care of the Orphans on campus,” said Maya calmly.

Kaoruko wanted to agree, truly, because she herself was very, very opposed to summoning her Child, but she sort of doubted Maya’s words. Futaba seemed to share the same sentiment. “We had two in one day,” said Futaba. “You two were still out of commission when the second attack happened.”

“I was fine,” argued Claudine. “I just didn’t know it was happening because unlike you, this yamato nadeshiko doesn’t think to send a text message.”

“Daiba-han and I had it managed. In any case, Futaba has a point. You can’t be there every single time.”

“Watch me.” Claudine stood up from the bed, now looking to be in a very foul mood. Maya’s eyes watched her curiously. Claudine grabbed her jacket and keys, as if she was going out.

“Woah, woah, woah, Kuroko, where are you going?” asked Futaba.

“Maya, stay here, I’ve gotta take a walk and clear my head,” she said. “I’ll be back in a bit.” And she left.

“Ok, she’s going somewhere,” said Kaoruko, looking pointedly at Maya. “Where?”

Maya shrugged. “No clue. She’s likely just taking a walk. She does get quite heated.”

Kaoruko considered Maya to be a friend, but she could be insufferable at times. “Futaba… oh shoot, why are you in pajamas?” Futaba looked at her with an ’are you serious?’ gaze, and Kaoruko realized it was rather rational for her to be in pajamas. “I have to do everything myself. “Fine. I’m following her. When I get back, I expect the bath to be drawn.”

Annoyed that she had to wear her dirty clothes out again, and that this trip was likely cutting into her beauty sleep, Kaoruko ran down the stairs, trying to catch Claudine. Fortunately for her, the girl’s silvery blonde hair seemed to glow in the moonlight, and she caught a glimpse of her slipping into the door leading to the library clock tower.

Following, she reached the tower about two minutes later, and was disappointed to find that she could hear voices distantly near the top. She began to climb, realizing as she wound ever upward that this afternoon and evening was just a long, long nightmare named “Kaoruko’s No Good Very Bad Day.”

Once she finally got to the top, she stepped carefully as she could tell the floor was creaky. She crouched behind a bookshelf, removing two books two see through the gap, and nearly gasped at the site.

Silhouetted by the light that came in through the massive clock-face of the tower stood Claudine, dwarfed by her conversation partner, a massive giraffe. “How many are there?” she asked, her voice with a desperate edge.

Kaoruko almost laughed, watching Claudine yell a question at a giraffe, but the whole situation was so absurd that it became rather terrifying. “I cannot say,” said the giraffe, his voice deep and calm. Kaoruko coached herself into taking deep breaths so she wouldn’t panic. “If I told you that,” he continued. “I might tell the others your identity as well.”

She pursed her lips, sighing.

“Though it won’t matter, soon enough,” he continued.

“What does that mean?” Claudine asked. Kaoruko thought she could see her fingers trembling as she grasped the railing that separated them from the massive gears and workings of the clock. “What’s going to happen, Kirin?”

“There is a time for you to understand more,” he said, turning his head toward the backward clock face, the massive minute hand clicking into the next position just then. “But it is not upon us yet.”

Claudine scoffed, obviously losing her patience. “Don’t give me that, Kirin!” She manifested her element, a long sword, and aimed it up at the giraffe’s heart. “What’s going to happen?” she demanded.

“Perhaps you should worry less about that, and more about your current situation,” he said, and from the tangle of gears below them, he seemed to bring forth a small Orphan. It had long, tentacle-like appendages that grabbed first at Claudine’s sword and then at her ankles. All things considered, it was quite low-level, but she seemed to be more concerned with getting the last word in with the giraffe.

“I will find out what you’re up to!” she shouted at him, wrestling against the small creature, who began pulling her back towards the rail.

“Wakarimasu,” the giraffe said, seeming to vanish into thin air. Claudine then began to wrestle against the Orphan in earnest, but the squid-like creature had pulled her back towards the rail and was trying to drag her over, into the gears. To kick and try to loosen its grip would just bring her center of gravity up, furthering its goals.

For what she hoped was the final time that day, Kaoruko groaned and summoned her element. In her annoyance, her naginata chopped closer to Claudine than she actually needed to as she freed her, but Claudine didn’t comment on this. “What are you doing here?” asked Claudine, pulling her arm free and slashing down towards her ankles with her sword.

“Helping your dumb ass not get crushed by those gears. That’s all the help you’re getting.”

Kaoruko leaned back against a bookshelf, watching Claudine make quick work of the Orphan, without bothering to summon her massive Child in this enclosed space. Kaoruko appreciated her looking out for the structural integrity of the school.

“Let’s head back,” Claudine said with a huff once the Orphan finally vanished.

“What was that thing?” asked Kaoruko, following her down the stairs. Claudine, she gathered, had been a HiME for quite some time, so she seemed to be a wealth of knowledge in a lot of areas, even if she didn’t deign to share it very often.

“I just call him Kirin. He hangs around the library or the edge of the forest at night. At first I thought he just had some insight on what was happening, but after tonight, I think it’s him that’s been calling the Orphans. I have no idea why.”

“Well, to make me use my element twice in one-” She was cut off by Claudine’s arm sharply stopping her on the stairs, and glaring at her in a way that told her to be quiet.

Kaoruko immediately heard the floor creak, and Claudine began leaping down the stairs in the direction of the noise, trying to catch whoever was in the tower with them. By the time she got to the bottom of the stairs, she found Claudine at the entrance, panting, and scanning in every direction, obviously unable to find anyone. “It’s fine, isn’t it?” asked Kaoruko. “If it’s another HiME, you didn’t say anything they couldn’t overhear. If it’s not, I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.”

Claudine sighed, but fell into step with Kaoruko, walking back towards the dorms. “I feel like someone’s been following me,” she said. “Since the new school year started.”

She wanted to tell Claudine she was imagining things, or that this was a ridiculous thought, but she thought of the mark on her thigh and the giraffe in the clock tower. She thought of how powerful her parents and Maya’s parents were. Was it really so absurd that someone was sneaking around the school grounds? “Hmph, just go to bed,” she said. “Your girlfriend’s waiting,” she reminded her, knowing this would get a good reaction.

As expected, Claudine blushed, walking ahead of Kaoruko. “Tendo-san is not my girlfriend! Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Relax. Either she is and you’re a terrible liar, or she’s not and you two are really too slow at this.”

They arrived back at the dorm and turned to go their separate ways. “Goodnight, Kaoruko,” Claudine said, none too friendly after the teasing Kaoruko just gave her.

Kaoruko tried to peek in to see if Maya was still in her room or not, but couldn’t tell. “Goodnight, Kuro-han. If there’s a fourth stupid Orphan tonight… don’t bother waking me. Just let it kill everyone.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 – Junna

Junna hated feeling two things at once. As she worked quietly on her assignments in the student council room, she hated how she idolized Tendo Maya, the school’s perfect student council president, at the same time that she was disgusted at her for flirting so openly with Claudine. Claudine, for her part, was doing her best to ignore Maya, looking intently at something on the laptop screen, but her willpower was broken as Maya leaned over her chair from behind, her hair coming to rest on Claudine’s shoulders, a blush beginning to dust Claudine’s cheeks.

Junna cleared her throat, and Claudine’s face reddened more. Maya went back to her own desk, asking Claudine about her work in a more professional manner. Junna returned to her own assignment, organizing the clubs’ budgets, but it seemed that today, she just couldn’t focus. She had too many discordant feelings welling up inside of her. For instance, she hated the way her new roommate called her Junna, like they had been friends for ages, even though they had just met, and yet she loved the comforting feeling that Nana brought her. She felt homesick and isolated on Fuuka Island, and yet she inexplicably felt free, eager to prove herself by living independently from her parents. Most importantly, she knew, was the fact that she hated the mark… the HiME mark, and all that came with it.

But do you? asked a little voice in her head, that she imagined as a tiny, floating giraffe with a devil’s tail and pitchfork. Did you really hate the feeling of power as you held that bow in your hand? Would you not like to see your Child manifest as well, like you’ve seen Nana’s? All you need to do is accept him, like she says.

“Like I could accept a creature like that,” she mumbled, thinking of the terrifying gold monkey.

“What?” asked Claudine, looking up from the laptop.

It was early morning, before school, and it was just the three of them: president, vice president, and secretary in the student council room. Of course her mumble would be heard by all. “Nothing,” she said, reddening. “I think I may have dozed off.”

Junna left soon after with the excuse that she needed to meet someone before class. She hadn’t been very productive anyway, so she decided to just pick up her work after school. As she was walking down the hallway towards her classroom, Junna was almost knocked over by another girl dashing past her. “No running in the halls!” she chided. She was, after all, also chair of the disciplinary committee.

“Sorry,” the girl said, bowing deeply. “You’re not hurt are you? I just overslept and need to get to the broadcasting room.”

“I’m fine,” assured Junna. She recognized the girl now as Aijou Karen, one of her neighbors in her dorm and another HiME. She had been there, that night with the root-like Orphan, and she had stabbed the thing with a long sword.

“Ah, Hoshimi-san, come with me!” Karen said, suddenly reaching for Junna’s hand. Before she could comprehend what was happening, Karen grabbed Junna’s hand and Junna was pulled down the hall at high speed into the broadcasting room.

“What are we doing?” asked Junna, thoroughly ruffled at this point.

“Well…” Karen stuck her hands in her pockets, as if she was caught doing something bad. “I’m going to read the morning announcements, but I also need to talk to you… so I thought I’d just bring you here and we could do both.”

Junna looked at Karen quizzically. “You… you couldn’t have told me we needed to talk later?”

Another girl came out of the recording booth then, with long black hair and icy blue eyes. “Karen, you’re on.”

“Alright, Hoshimi-san. I’ve gotta run, but as soon as I’m done I need to talk to you!” She dashed away, the door closing behind her and a red light turning on over the door to signal that a recording was in session.

“Good morning,” said the girl who had just walked out of the booth, her voice devoid of much emotion. She organized some papers on a nearby desk.

“Good morning,” Junna replied. “I’m sorry, it’s just… I make it a point to know all of the student body, and I don’t think we’ve met?”

“Ah. Kagura Hikari,” she said, bowing slightly. “I transferred here from the Royal Academy of the Arts in London recently.”

“Nice to meet you. I am Hoshimi Junna, student council secretary and disciplinary committee chair. If you need any help getting acclimated, please ask.” Junna had heard about an international transfer student, but somehow thought she was in the middle school, not in the same grade as Karen and herself.

“Thank you. Karen and I are the only members of the broadcasting club, so we have a lot of down time for her to help me get used to things.”

Just then, Karen’s voice emerged from the intercom. “Goooooooood morning, Seisho Academy! It’s a lovely day on Fuuka Island, isn’t it? Mild temperatures, partly sunny, and no chance of rain! What a good forecast that Hikari has presented me with. I’m sure Mahiru-chan and the rest of the gardening club are happy to hear this.”

Junna sat down in a nearby chair to listen to the rest of Karen’s trademark announcements, certain that somewhere in the school, Mahiru was a deep red color. Hikari went back to her work, organizing files.

“I’m sure you’re ready to hear what’s new around campus, so let’s get to it. First off, there’s a kendo match after school today. Let’s all cheer on our Isurugi-san and the rest of the members at 4:30PM! Second, President Tendo has asked that students avoid the lawns to the south of campus beyond the flower gardens until further notice. There’s a new construction project starting and it would be dangerous to have students near the machinery. Last, we are having our spring festival soon, so please enter any submissions for clubs and class projects to the student council by the end of the week if you would like to participate. All of the… wait really? Wow… All of the island will be invited to come to our campus to see our cultural projects.”

Junna rolled her eyes. It was more than obvious that Hikari compiled the announcements and Karen set up the equipment and read them without practicing first. But somehow, it was a little endearing.

“That’s all from me this morning. This has been Aijou Karen with the morning announcements, with contributions from Kagura Hikari. Together we are the Broadcasting Club. Thank you for your attention!” She signed off and the recording light turned off, and Junna checked the time. She still had about fifteen minutes until class began, but she was beginning to wish it started sooner. Being around Karen was exhausting.

“How was it?” asked Karen, flinging the door to the booth open with a flourish.

Hikari nodded approvingly. “You sounded… informed,” said Junna.

“Excellent. Now, Junna, the reason I need to talk to you is… well… I heard that you have it too…. That mark…”

Junna’s eyes widened. Karen was talking about HiMEs with her, and in front of Hikari, no less. “Karen, shouldn’t we talk somewhere a little more private,” she suggested. “I mean, not that I-“

“Oh, no, it’s fine, I trust Hikari with my life!” said Karen.

That doesn’t mean I do… said the devil-giraffe on Junna’s shoulder.

“Now listen. Your roommate… She has the mark too, and she’s good. I was thinking we could get together, like a study session… you, me, Daiba-san, and-“

“Wait, you want to meet together with Nana?” asked Junna. Karen was moving so quickly it was impossible to keep up.

Karen nodded, grabbing onto Junna’s arms in excitement. “Yes! I made that sword appear, but I really don’t know what I’m doing. I need to learn from others who are like us!

Junna shook Karen off of her, fear and anger coursing through her. She needed to leave. “I don’t know what you think you know, but I am not a freak like you. I don’t have some kind of weird mark, I can’t make anything appear, and I sure as heck don’t want to join a study session to develop superpowers. Please leave me alone!” Turning quickly so they wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes, she left the broadcasting room, dashing down the hall into a bathroom.

Hiding in a stall, she wiped at her eyes, willing the tears to stop. She took several slow breaths, trying to regain her composure. Class hadn’t even started yet, she couldn’t be breaking down. And yet, despite her best intentions, her fingers slipped under her shirt to her back where they grazed the spot where she knew the mark lay on her right shoulder. She shouldn’t have yelled at Karen. She shouldn’t have told lies. She shouldn’t have shook her off forcefully. And yet, and yet, it was like… she had lost all control for a moment.

Honestly, Junna, get a grip, she thought. Would Maya let something like this make her lose her cool? Maya is always composed. Maya is never shaken.

Junna would have to go back later and apologize, it was only right.

Fixing her appearance in the mirror, she went to class, aware of Nana’s concerned gaze on her all morning. Her roommate was too perceptive, it was scary.

At lunch, unable to take Nana’s stares or her own guilt, or the thought of Hikari coming after her any longer, Junna returned to the broadcasting room where she found Karen and Hikari spreading out their lunches on a small table in the center. Hikari gave her a look as if to say “What are you doing here?”, but Karen smiled at her. Why was she always smiling? “Hoshimi-san! You came back!” she said.

Junna set down her lunch on the table and then turned around, awkwardly pulling back her collar just enough to reveal the mark, a red dot with another red circle around it, the outer circle just barely incomplete. “I’m sorry I lied, Karen,” she said. “You were right, I do have the mark, but I am not interested in learning more about it.”

Karen nodded, more solemn now. “You… you can at least have lunch with us if you’d like,” she offered.

Hikari still eyed Junna suspiciously, but allowed her to sit between them at the small table. “I apologize for yelling earlier. I acted unbefitting of my role in this school.”

Karen laughed a little then, and Junna was a little perturbed. Here she was, trying to make a sincere apology, and Karen was mocking her.

Hikari eyed Karen, as if to tell her it wasn’t the time to laugh, and she settled down. “Sorry, it’s just… Junna… don’t you ever lighten up?” asked Karen. “I’m really sorry too, I mean, I guess I just thought that everyone would think getting that mark and those weapons was as cool as I do. I want one of those… creature things like Nana has that monkey. I just thought you would feel similar. But even if you don’t want this, you should relax a little, Junna.”

How could she relax? She was chair of the disciplinary committee, half-learning from and half-babysitting Maya and Claudine on the student council, trying to maintain her grades in the top few rankings, she now had a strange new superpower, and there were mysterious monsters attacking the school?

“She’s right, you know.”

Junna didn’t have to turn around to know that voice. It was the sweet voice that welcomed her home after a long night working in the student council room. It was the voice that asked her if she was alright after rescuing her from that tree-root orphan. It was her wonderful roommate, Daiba Nana.

“Daiba-san! What are you doing here?”

“How many times have I told you to just call me Nana?” she asked. “I’m here because you were missing at lunch, and because Karen said to stop by the broadcasting room sometime. With this, both my goals are complete!”

“Who’s watching the library?” asked Junna.

Nana shook her head. “It’s ok. It was empty when I left so it will be ok for a few minutes.”

Junna sighed. The library representative was not to just leave the library unattended because Junna didn’t show up like she usually did during lunch hour. But Nana did not let Junna’s grimace stop her. “Aijou-san, if you would like to learn more about the HiME powers, I can help you. I’m not the best, but I can show you what I know.”

Karen beamed. “Thanks, Daiba-san. Can we meet up after school? Once I do the afternoon announcements, I’m free.”

“Sure. I need to set the clock in the library tower, but that only takes me a few minutes after school. I can meet you around 4:30, let’s say… in that clearing north of the track? We’ll need to walk into the forest a bit, but seeing as the area to the south is off limits…”

“Sounds good. You can join us, Junna!”

“Thanks, Karen, but I do have student council duties today. I’ll consider it in the future,” she said, trying to remain friendly with Karen, who had so much energy it was draining all of hers.

“Well, I better get back to the library before Junna writes me a detention. I’ll see you after school. Bye Aijou-san, Kagura-san. Glad you found some new friends, Junna.”

Junna wanted to clarify that she wasn’t going to make a habit out of eating with Karen and Hikari, but Nana disappeared in an instant, and she also didn’t want to offend Karen again. She took a bite of her lunch, glad to see the period was almost over and she needed to head back to class soon.

Junna spent much of the rest of lunch speculating about who the other HiME could be, though her only plausible guess was Isurugi Futaba, the captain of the kendo club. She was an adept fighter and calm under pressure, and doubtless would be good with HiME powers. Not like Junna, who didn’t want this, who just wanted to be a normal student…. Though, by that logic, the other HiME, however many there were, could be anyone.

The rest of class, Junna was rather distracted, trying to imagine all of her classmates as HiME, with secret lives fighting magical creatures, and imagining what her Child would be like, if she ever had the courage to summon it. At one point, she was called on and didn’t know her place in the reading, a problem that had happened to many of her classmates, but never to her. She apologized and vowed to pay closer attention for the rest of the day.

After school she returned to the student council room. Maya brewed some tea, which she served to the three of them, and they passed around a tin of macarons that Claudine had bought in town. The three of them settled down to work again, as they did most days when there was not an official student council meeting with all of the members.

“Did you hear?” asked Maya to Claudine, “Kaoruko thinks that the Spring Festival might get sponsorship from Kirei Corp.”

“No, she’s back to ignoring me,” she said, sipping her tea. “That would be a big boost for funding, though,” she acknowledged.

“Kaoruko is kind of… difficult, but she pulls through on her end,” Maya said.

“Um, Saijou-san, your head… are you… bleeding?” asked Junna. She had been listening to their conversation, but distracted by the red liquid snaking its way through Claudine’s blonde hair. Claudine tentatively touched her hand to her temple and pulled it away, looking annoyed at the blood on her fingertips.

Junna only caught a glimpse of Maya’s expression before it was masked by her usual calm, but she looked… disturbed. It was something Junna picked up on because Maya’s expression rarely varied from the calm demeanor she wore when conducting her duties.

“Saijou-san, perhaps we should go get that looked at in the nurse’s office?” Maya suggested.

Claudine huffed, taking another large sip of her tea before lifting a napkin to her head. “It’s only because I knocked it against your dumb shelf, Tendo Maya. The bandage I got yesterday must have come undone. Sure, let’s go.”

Maya looked apologetically at Junna. “I’m sorry we’re leaving early. You can go early as well. We’ll meet back here tomorrow morning like usual,” she said.

“Sure. I can clean up,” she offered. Claudine and Maya left, and she took care of the teacups and put the lid on the macarons. She was certain the two of them would be back here this evening, working on their unfinished paperwork and other student council business, but for once, she didn’t feel inspired to go above and beyond and help out. Leaving the school building, she walked in the direction of the running track, then walked beyond it into the woods, wondering why she was listening to Aijou Karen of all people and going to a lesson on how to use her stupid HiME powers that she didn’t even want.

“Junna!” called Nana, when she found them a moment later. “I’m so glad you came!”

Karen was absolutely beaming at the sight of her, and she found herself waving back despite herself.

She sat on a large rock beside Karen, the two of them facing Nana. “I will recap quickly for you, Junna,” said Nana. “You’re at the top of our class, so I’m sure you’ll catch on quick.” ’Always behind those two’, Junna thought, but shook the student council duo from her thoughts as she caught Nana’s gentle green eyes with her own.

Nana smiled and took a deep breath, as if organizing her thoughts. “Now, HiME stands for Highly-advanced Materializing Equipment. It’s basically the name for the powers that let you summon your Element and Child. We’ll discuss those in a bit. All HiMEs have an identical tattoo or birthmark-like marking on their body somewhere that marks them as a HiME. They also have the ability to see the HiME star, a red star above Fuuka Island that only HiME can see. This is the source of our powers.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed that,” Karen stated. “I pointed it out to my friend the other night, and she thought I was seeing things.”

“Exactly. Now all HiME can manifest an Element. That usually takes the form of a weapon. For example, I can wield these two katanas.” She turned her hands up, and from nothingness, blades came into being, first in bits like the static on a TV, and then as solid as true swords. Soon after, Nana willed them to disappear.

“All HiME also can call forth a Child. You can summon your Child by calling his or her name, and they will come forth if you truly accept them into your heart. My Hanuman is my Child.” The Golden Monkey appeared, looking rather stiff on its clockwork frame, but imposing nonetheless, and with a smile, Nana dismissed him back into the ether.

“Lastly, you’ve already seen at least one Orphan. Those are the monsters we fight with these powers. They are similar to our Childs, but they do not have the ability to resonate with our HiME powers. Instead, they struggle against us, feeding off negative emotions. They must be defeated before they can harm innocent students and townspeople.”

They nodded, expressing understanding. What Nana said made sense, it was just… surreal. “How come you know all this?” asked Junna. Her tone wasn’t accusatory, merely curious.

“I’ve been a HiME a little longer than the two of you, and I’m pretty observant,” she said.

Karen stood up, looking determined, and summoned her sword.

“Can you picture your Child?” asked Nana.

Karen looked at her, a little unsure. “Um… well… sooo.”

“It’s ok, you can say it,” said Nana, gently.

“I had this dream last night, and I was falling… forever.”

“Was that the thud I heard in the middle of the night?” asked Junna. She was only two rooms over from Mahiru and Karen in the dorm.

“Yeah! I fell from my bunk! In the dream, I was falling from the top of the Tokyo Tower, and I’ve only been to the Tokyo Tower once, when I was like 5, and I didn’t even get to go to the top since it was closed that day - only the giftshop. And really, that’s crazy, because I’m head of the broadcasting club and everything, but anyways, my point is, after the dream, I felt like that was my Child, calling for me.”

“The Tokyo Tower. Is your Child.” Junna couldn’t keep her mouth shut anymore. She had only been on speaking terms with Karen one day but already was at her limit.

“I know it sounds crazy, but-”

“Try it,” suggested Nana. Junna could not believe Nana was entertaining this girl’s predilections. “Call for your Child and accept him into your heart.”

“Well… Tokyo Tower is a little formal. I know I’ve never even stepped foot on you, Tokyo Tower, but I hope Toto will be alright,” she said. Junna stared, wide-eyed at Karen’s pacing form. She just… nicknamed… the Tokyo Tower.

Driving her sword up, seemingly unconcerned with how ridiculous this entire scenario was, Karen shouted, “Come, Toto!!”

There was a low rumble, and the ground began to tremble. A furrow opened up at Karen’s feet, and the red tip of the tower burst forth from the ground. Leaping onto it, Karen held on as it moved forward, more of it appearing over the surface, a bit of white showing as well. It stilled, and Karen beamed even wider. “Excellent, Toto! Now, um, test fire!”

A terrifyingly strong laser shot into the foliage of a nearby tree, burning a hole straight through all the leaves and narrow branches. Karen was almost in tears. “I got a laser radio tower? This is the coolest! Great job, Toto!” She dismissed Toto and hopped the few feet down onto the ground, giving Nana a high-five.

“Karen, that was incredible!” congratulated Nana.

And though she knew it was petty, for no other reason than the fact that she wanted Nana’s praise, Junna stood up. “I’ll try next,” she said.

“Certainly,” said Nana, her smile as gentle as always, though, Junna thought it was perhaps just a little softer towards Junna.

Hands shaking, she summoned her element, a bow and arrows, the bow with a large jade crystal at the top. Chiron a little voice in her mind said.

She hadn’t had a dream, as Karen had, but she also knew the name of her Child. She could feel her heart, half-open, half-closed to this Child’s existence. She had spent some time looking up the name in the library - it was from Greek mythology, Chiron represented a centaur that was unusually just and wise, unlike other centaurs who were rather hedonistic. She thought, perhaps she could accept one such as that into her heart. Perhaps, if it would bring her closer to Nana. And perhaps, if it would protect herself and others from those terrifying Orphans.

“Chiron!” she called, “Come! I accept you!” Hoping her words would translate into her intentions. She closed her eyes this time, picturing her own heart, and what she envisioned to be her Child coming from within her. “Chiron!”

With a strange combination of running and hooves, he came forward, a Child that wasn’t unlike a human. While rather machine-like, with robotic joints, Chiron was a centaur with human-like front legs. He was larger than life, holding a bow to match Junna’s own, and glistening a liquid-silver. Silent, he stood at attention as a sentinel beside her. Cautiously, she ran her hand along his smooth back. “Thank you,” she said quietly. She silently dismissed him for now, and Nana enveloped her in a hug.

“Nana!” she protested.

Nana leaned back, releasing her with a smile. “You did it!” she cheered. “And you called me by my first name!”

“I… I apologize I didn’t mean to,” Junna stuttered.

“No, please continue, I like it, Junna.”

Before they could say anything more, a giraffe appeared in their presence. And before Junna could process such a thing, the creature spoke.

“So many of you together, what good timing. Please come to the clock tower tonight at 10, I have some important news to discuss with all of you.”

Before they could respond, he had disappeared again. “What was that?” asked Karen, perhaps assuming Nana had all the answers.

“I have seen him before. I don’t know if he has a name, I just call him giraffe. He sort of oversees things with the HiME,” she said. “He does not seem to interfere to help or to hinder,” she added. Junna was surprised - she had not expected Nana to have this answer, and wondered what other knowledge Nana held that she could not yet fathom.

Junna shivered a bit as the sun had gone down some, and the giraffe’s announcement had been somewhat foreboding.

They walked back to the dorms, and Nana prepared a delicious dinner while Junna drew them a bath and started some homework. She washed the dishes while Nana took her bath, and then they dried each other’s hair. Junna loved their evening routine, and would love to sit and watch a movie with Nana, or brew some tea and read quietly, but around 9:45, they put sweaters over their pajamas and walked back towards the campus, quietly walking into the library building.

Junna could hear voices from above. They were not the first ones to arrive. Nervously, she realized this was likely the time when she was going to discover the identities of the other HiME. This was, after all, the first time they had all been convened together. She wondered what the giraffe could want to tell them. Could he have news about how to fight the Orphans, or about the mystery of why they suddenly developed these powers? Though, she supposed it wasn’t all that sudden. Kaoruko, for instance, seemed to have her powers for a bit longer than Junna had, and Nana was very experienced with hers, though Junna and Nana had never discussed it, mostly because of Junna’s discomfort with the topic.

They arrived at the top floor, which opened onto a wide floor with a view of the back of the clock face, allowing Junna to see the night sky through the glass. To her surprise, huddled around a study table were Kaoruko, Isurugi Futaba, Claudine, and Maya. She knew those four were close, but for them all to be HiME was… startling. Nana seemed unruffled, and Junna wondered if she already knew, though nothing ever seemed to surprise Nana.

“Told you,” Kaoruko said to the others at the table, gesturing towards Nana and Junna.

“It’s not that we didn’t believe you,” said Futaba. She walked up to Nana and Junna. “It’s nice to meet you, I don’t think we’ve had the chance to formally introduce ourselves. I’m Isurugi Futaba.”

Junna and Nana introduced themselves as well, shaking her hand. In person, she was shorter than Junna had expected, but she seemed very reliable all the same.

Maya joined Futaba then, her demeanor mostly unchanged from when she was in the student council room: a calm, unreadable expression on her face, a proud bearing in her shoulders, and an altogether unflappable aura exuding from her. “Junna. What a surprise,” she said, in a tone that suggested otherwise. “Claudine and I were wondering when you’d show off a little more of your personality than just the disciplinary council chair and student council secretary.”

Junna felt her throat seize. All she wanted to do was be a good member of the student council, to live a normal school life and go home at the end of the day and have a peaceful evening with Nana. “This… isn’t important,” she said. “I like cooking... with Nana,” she said, her voice seizing up a bit as she tried to express herself to Maya. “I like reading classic literature. I like collecting rare teas.”

Maya smiled. “You should share some tea with us some time, in student council,” she suggested, the tension dissipating a bit.

Or rather, it did for a moment, until the giraffe appeared, and Claudine shouted “YOU!” at it, accusingly. She summoned her sword immediately, and Junna instinctively stepped back towards Nana.

“I see we are still waiting on one,” the giraffe mused, ignoring Claudine. “Ah, I hear her now.” There was a clamor of footsteps on the old wooden stairs, and a few moments later, Karen appeared, out of breath among the others.

“Sorry I’m late!” said Karen, hands on her knees as she caught her breath. “It was a pain to sneak out of the dorm from Mahiru.”

Junna wondered if Karen had successfully snuck out of the dorm. Mahiru was fairly observant from what she could tell, and Karen was rather… loud. She wondered if it even mattered if Karen kept this a secret or not… Mahiru had already seen them using HiME powers, hadn’t she?

“Kirin! What is the meaning of this? Why are we all here?” demanded Claudine. She thrust her sword in his direction as she talked, forcing him to back up towards the railing. Kaoruko smirked as if amused with the proceedings. Junna was acutely overwhelmed.

“We have much to go over tonight, it would help if you all would take a seat,” suggested the giraffe.

With a huff, Claudine marched back to the table Kaoruko, Futaba, and Maya were at, sitting on the table itself. “Are you going to tell everyone how you’ve been setting the Orphans on the school?” she asked, her voice low, testing him. They all turned to the giraffe then, suddenly curious. He nodded for them to sit, so Junna sat at the other large table along with Nana and Karen.

“There won’t be much need to fight Orphans anymore,” he said. “I doubt you’ll find many around campus.”

“What are you talking about?” Kaoruko asked.

“Contrary to what Saijou-san says, I do not send out the Orphans. I can, from time to time, summon one to make things more interesting, but the majority of the Orphans you’ve encountered are drawn to Fuuka and the power of the HiME on their own. However, a new stage is beginning, one that does not call upon the Orphans as much- The HiME Carnival.”

“A Carnival?” asked Karen, testing out the word.

“It’s an ancient tradition,” explained the giraffe. “Occurring every 300 years, this Carnival will bring order to the chaos in our world, and it will grant the winner one wish of her choosing.”

“That’s… vague,” said Junna. She was pleased that the giraffe said the Orphans would no longer be a problem, but unsettled by the Carnival concept and all the unanswered questions.

“The world is in peril,” the giraffe said, without a hint of irony. “Natural disasters, violent incidents, and upheavals are becoming more and more frequent, and if the HiME Carnival does not take place, the chaos will become so extreme the earth will destroy itself. By accepting your role as HiME, you can summon your Child and your element. By participating in this Carnival, you have the chance to have your wish granted.”

“What are the rules?” asked Futaba

The giraffe looked amused, if it were possible for a giraffe to have such an expression. “There are no rules. The way to claim the prize is to defeat the other HiME. Of course, choosing to fight means risking that which you hold most precious.”

“Our lives…” Junna said quietly, at the same time Kaoruko said “Beauty sleep.” Junna glanced at Kaoruko, noting her calm expression. Maya also looked to be her normal self. Claudine looked charged, but not afraid. Was Junna the only one freaking out about this concept?

“Oi, giraffe,” said Futaba, sitting backwards on her chair. “You’re saying we’re to fight each other with our HiME powers?”

“That is correct. The only way a HiME can be defeated, and a winner declared, is when her Child is summoned.”

Junna stored this information away for later. Perhaps she would just never summon Chiron again. She hoped the giraffe wouldn’t send out more Orphans just to make things interesting.

Kaoruko stood up, apparently unable to contain herself to sitting per the giraffe’s instruction’s any longer. “So you’re saying we’ve all been randomly given these HiME powers to participate in this ancient ritual and fight our classmates against our will?”

The giraffe walked closer to Kaoruko’s table, but it moved toward the student council pair rather than toward Kaoruko. He moved his long neck down so that it was inches from Claudine’s face. Junna saw Maya looking on carefully. “I wouldn’t say they were all given randomly, would you, Saijou Claudine?”

“Kuroko, what’s he talking about?” asked Futaba, coming to stand beside Claudine.

“Nothing,” she said, her voice almost a hiss. Turning on her heel, she left the tower without another word.

The giraffe straightened up again. “The HiME star is the element that controls this Carnival. It will draw nearer and nearer as the Carnival’s time draws to a limit. It is also the element that brings chaos to this world. Complete the Carnival so that you peace can return and your family and friends can live happily.”

“I have a question,” said Nana, standing up from behind Junna. “Who are you? What is your role in this?” Junna thought this was an interesting question for Nana to ask after she had tried to explain the giraffe’s role earlier that very day. Perhaps she wasn’t as confident in her knowledge as she had sounded, or the revelation of the Carnival had really thrown her off.

“I am just a servant who Oversees the festivities. I ensure that things are proceeding as they should. I was found useful at the last Carnival, and so I was kept around to serve my purpose once more.” His piece said, the giraffe disappeared into nothingness.

 

The giraffe appeared again at the back of the library, seconds before Kagura Hikari emerged, sneaking out the emergency exit to escape undetected.

“You’re lucky I enjoy keeping things interesting,” the giraffe mused. “I wanted all the HiME to meet each other tonight. It’s not exactly fair if some HiME sneak in the shadows, is it?”

Hikari huffed, glaring at the giraffe. “What do you know about doing things fairly?” she scoffed.

“Indeed. And like I said, this does add an element of… interest.” As if bored, the giraffe chewed on a leaf of a nearby tree with his long neck.

“Saijou, she’s the one… the child HiME from Première Division, isn’t she?”

The giraffe was silent, masticating on the leaf for a few moments. “I don’t believe it’s my place to share anyone else’s secrets with all you’re keeping from everyone,” he said.

“Whatever. Can I go now?”

The giraffe made no motion to stop her- it seemed his intention was only to alert her that her presence was not undetected earlier. Hikari ran off towards the dorms.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 - Maya


Maya fell in love with Claudine when she was eight years old. She didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it now, she realizes it could only be her heart fluttering with her first feelings of love. Her father is an investor, and had been back when she was eight as well. He was thinking of investing in some pharmaceutical companies, and some other types of R+D facilities, so he brought Maya along as they toured one such facility with the promise that they could pick up baumkuchen after.

After getting an ID badge and fingerprints taken, Maya and her father were led in an elevator underground, to modern, white hallways like Maya had only seen in sci-fi movies. She watched through glass walls as scientists in white jackets moved chemicals here and there in pipettes, and in other rooms as mice rested quietly in their cages.

Finally, they entered one of the labs, and Maya’s eyes were drawn to a girl around her age, sitting up on one of the lab counters, legs dangling, but her features were not entirely Japanese. She had blonde hair and eyes like garnets, and she was wearing a pink dress. She had been singing a song in a beautiful voice to the woman who was working on an experiment across the lab, but she stopped as Maya and her father entered with their tour guide.

“Saijou-sensei, this is Tendo Hideo-san and his daughter. They are touring today and thinking of investing in our company.” The woman scientist, Saijou, turned and greeted them. She looked to be foreign as well, but she greeted them in perfect Japanese.

“What a charming daughter you have, Tendo-san. Let’s get some tea and we can talk a bit more, I’m sure my daughter can occupy yours.”

Maya was left alone with the girl on the counter, and wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t want to touch anything in the lab for fear of breaking it. The girl on the counter also seemed rather small and delicate, Maya didn’t want to do anything abrupt for fear of breaking her.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Tendo Maya.”

“Tendo Maya.” Maya thought her voice had never sounded better than coming from this girl’s mouth. “I’m Saijou Claudine.” Claudine, Claudine. She committed it to memory immediately.

“It’s nice to meet you.” She looked around, spying several school textbooks, stuffed animals, and various other personal belongings in the corner of the lab. “Do you live here?” she asked, knowing such a question would not be allowed if her father were present.

Claudine shrugged, hopping off the counter. As expected, she was an inch or two shorter than Maya, her hair swaying in silver blonde waves that Maya could not stop watching. “I live here more or less,” she said.

Maya wasn’t sure what kind of answer that was, but she didn’t want to pry. She asked instead about the song Claudine had been singing. “It was French. I’m really not sure what it’s called. Maman just sings it sometimes.”

“Can you sing it again?”

“You want to listen to me sing?” Claudine looked taken aback, like Maya must have better ways to spend her time. But Maya nodded, determined to hear the song again.

A little embarrassed, Claudine blushed, but began. Her voice was clear, her mastery of tone and pitch impressive for someone her age, and although Maya couldn’t understand the lyrics, the song made her heart ache. The song was not long, and when she finished, she looked away, not meeting Maya’s eyes.

“We don’t have people down here much, let alone someone my age,” Claudine said, with a little cough, perhaps trying to hide some embarassment.

“I really enjoy your singing, and your company. If possible, I’d like to come back again.”

Claudine looked at her with a hopeful expression, despite their short encounter. Maya willed herself to believe Claudine felt the same for her as she did for Claudine, but truly, how could she? At 8 years old, she was not an ethereal beauty with a perfect singing voice. She did not live in an underground lab guarded by badges and armed men. She was just ordinary, ordinary Tendo Maya. This was why she was certain that Saijou Claudine had since forgotten their first encounter, an encounter that would not be repeated until their first day of high school at Seisho Academy. Maya had begged and begged her father to return to that facility, but he would not budge. “That woman is no good,” he had said. “I can’t stomach the idea of putting money into her work.”

Maya heard the knocking at her door moments before she planned to open it. She let Claudine in for a moment as she gathered her backpack and ensured she had everything she would need for the day, pleased with their familiar routine. Together they would walk to the cafeteria for breakfast, together they would get ahead on work in the student council room, and together they would attend classes. After school there were more student council duties, and if one of those cursed Orphans showed up again, at least Maya would have Claudine by her side as they fought it.

This morning, Claudine was in her uniform as usual - gray skirt and jacket, with her preferred black thigh-high stockings, but Maya couldn’t help but admire her. “What? Do I have something on my face?” asked Claudine, feeling for the wound near her temple once again.

“No, you look perfect. I just… got distracted.”

“That’s not like you, are you feeling alright, seito kaichou?” Maya smiled as Claudine teased her with her title. “We have a lot of work to catch up on,” Claudine reminded her.

“I assure you, I’m feeling just fine.”

It had been about a week since that bizarre evening with the giraffe in the library tower. While Maya was beginning to understand she had gotten her HiME powers earlier than some and had a bit of an edge in understanding the ‘weirdness’ factor surrounding the powers, the giraffe, and the Orphans, even she was left to ponder many things after that night. Not the least of which was Claudine’s abrupt exit.

“Drink your tea, Maya, it’s getting cold.” Claudine’s voice broke Maya from her thoughts, and she paid more attention to the breakfast in front of her.

After breakfast, Maya followed Claudine to the student council room. She was always a half-step behind Claudine, not because she was following, not at all – they both knew that in their social hierarchy, Maya was the leader – but Claudine had this determined way of stepping, moving purposefully wherever she was going, whereas Maya was more contented to just float along, so long as she was accompanying Claudine and everything in the school was in order. Junna would be along shortly, Maya knew, so she put on enough water for three cups of tea in the kettle in the corner of the room. They had, of course, just had tea with breakfast, but the tea they sipped while they did their morning work was a tradition, not to be abandoned just because it seemed redundant.

Junna rushed in not a minute later, her cheeks a bit flushed as if she had been running and just slowed down when she was approaching the classroom they worked out of. Maya thought she could tease the disciplinary committee chair about running in the halls, but kept the comment to herself for today. “Good morning, Hoshimi-san,” she said.

“Good morning, kaichou. I brought some tea, if you haven’t already opened any,” she said, offering Maya a tin.

Maya accepted the tin from Junna, careful not to let their fingers touch, lest Junna feel how eternally cold Maya’s fingers were. Maya inspected the tea carefully. It was an imported Irish breakfast tea, much different from the Japanese teas they usually sipped. “It’s rather caffeinated,” Junna said. “But the flavor is impeccable. I read that this brand is preferred by several renowned poets in the UK, which is why I ordered it through the mail.”

“To share such a treasure with us, we will be sure to thoroughly enjoy it,” Maya said.

“Nana sent along some scones as well,” Junna said, pulling them from her bag. “Though I’m not sure if you’re still hungry. She set the scones out on a cloth napkin on a table in the center of the room, besides piles of binders and papers sorted into completed and incomplete piles. Claudine looked up from her laptop with mild interest, but quickly looked down again when she was caught by Maya.

Maya carefully measured the tea into mesh bags and poured the boiling water over, certain that Kaoruko would chastise her for sloppy technique, but certain her work was more graceful and technically precise than most of her classmates’. After three minutes, she carefully removed and discarded the bags, placing the cups on saucers, and stirring in a bit of sugar, which was how Junna prompted her that the breakfast tea was best enjoyed. She knew Claudine enjoyed milk in her tea as well, so she added a bit to her cup, and brought it over, adding a scone on a cloth napkin.

“Maya, we just ate,” she scoffed, looking at the pastry with growing interest.

“It’s an accompaniment. And it’s a special treat prepared by Daiba-san. We must not waste it,” Maya said.

With a huff, Claudine acquiesced, sliding the napkin towards herself, and pushing the laptop away so as not to get crumbs on it. Junna and Maya took their tea as well, and they ate their scones quietly. Junna truly did have good taste in tea, and Nana had excellent baking skills. She never would have known these things if she didn’t have that small run-in with Junna in the library clock tower the week before. Maya wondered what else she didn’t know about the students at Seisho. What else didn’t she know about the other HiME?

As always, her eyes fell on Claudine. She felt that she knew Claudine best- both that she knew Claudine better than she knew anyone else in the school, and that she was closer to Claudine than anyone else was. Though, she thought with a slight twinge of jealousy, Claudine and Futaba were close, they were comfortable with each other in a way that she and Claudine never were.

Maya and Claudine had rooms next door to each other, they spent almost every waking hour together. Their Childs were two of a kind, gemini swans, as if connected by fate. And yet- for all that closeness – there were some things they didn’t discuss. They never talked about their lives before Seisho. They never spoke about their future lives after Seisho. They never spoke about their parents. They strictly kept things in the present, and in relation to themselves. But of course, Maya couldn’t help being curious about the girl she so ardently admired.

She longed to mention that encounter in the lab, so many years ago, but somehow, she always stopped herself. Was she afraid that Claudine would not remember? No, in fact, she was almost certain Claudine did not remember, so that shouldn’t stop her. There was something more, something sacred in that untouched memory, and she also began to understand that there was something very wrong with that memory as well. What kind of child is kept in an underground lab ‘more or less’ all the time? What was a half-French girl and her entirely French mother doing by themselves in Japan with that company? How did Claudine come to be at Seisho Academy all these years later? She sipped her tea, musing rather than working on the papers in front of her.

Still, Maya supposed it was only fair. She was curious about Claudine. She wanted to know all of Claudine, everything that made her her, but was Maya prepared to do the same? Was Maya ready to tell Claudine what her parents were like, what her upbringing was like? Could she share that even now, the Tendos held certain expectations for her? She wondered if she could reveal exactly how she changed from being completely ordinary Tendo Maya at eight years old, to honing her skills to at least give the impression of perfection in most areas by the time she entered high school. She sipped her tea, absentmindedly flipping the page of the report she was reviewing, acutely aware of Junna’s gaze on her. She thought of the Tendo Clan, once again, her face a mask of studiousness. Of course it wasn’t just fighting Orphans, she thought. This is what they were talking about, when they said I need to assert myself at the Top.

She clenched her fist, the one facing away from Junna, as she thought about it. How many of the Tendo clan elders had known about the Carnival? Had they known Maya would get HiME powers all her life? When she finally got them, just after her 15th birthday, were they pleased? They must have been. She could feel that mark, that scarlet sign designating her as a HiME, burn into her flesh. It sat on her chest, just above her right breast, and though it was covered by her uniform shirt, she felt as though it was burning a hole in the fabric, that everyone could tell exactly what she was.

Somehow, she pulled herself out of her thoughts and managed to get a fair bit of work done before classes started. That was how she was. Tendo Maya seemed calm and almost flippant, but she was scarily efficient, revealing herself to be top of her class in just about everything. Everything aside from a few choice subjects, one of which was art, which sadly, she was forced to take this semester.

In the dreaded class, she sat by the window, trying to paint the beautiful rose gardens of the campus as Claudine worked diligently beside her, but if her lack of skill in painting was not enough, Kaoruko and Futaba’s incessant arguing were making things absolutely impossible.

“I don’t know how many more times I can apologize,” Kaoruko said in a rather loud whisper, not sounding sorry at all.

“I told you, it’s fine. I’m used to it by now anyways,” said Futaba. “Besides,” she went on, “Kuroko said she’s coming, so you can go do whatever you want, I’m sure I’ll have a good time with her instead.”

Claudine stood to wash her brushes before she could catch the death glare Maya was sure Kaoruko was going to send her way.

“It’s not like I don’t want to be there,” Kaoruko said. “Well, kendo isn’t the most fun, but I still like seeing you kick those girl’s asses. I can’t go because it’s the only day I can get the limited wagashi that they have at that artisan place by the station. It’s a once a year event!”

“And I told you, it’s fine!” With a huff, Futaba turned away slightly, painting at an awkward angle to avoid looking at Kaoruko.

Maya supposed she could intervene in some way. She could offer to pick up the wagashi in Kaoruko’s place, so she could attend the kendo match. She would probably mess this task up, though, as Kaoruko had very specific taste. And for what it was worth, Maya hated leaving the campus, even if there was a lesser risk of Orphans lately. Maya could also offer to accompany Kaoruko, thus making it seem like Futaba and Claudine were having a day together while she was spending some time with Kaoruko. Though this definitely had a chance of backfiring and driving the wedge between them deeper. Maya supposed she could try to move the kendo match itself, but that seemed like it would be putting a lot of burden on the guest school, if she was moving the match just for Kaoruko’s sake, even if the other school didn’t know the reason why. And so, she stayed silent and continued to paint while the other two continued to pout.

That was, until a jar smashed behind her, splashing water and glass around her ankles. “Ah, Tendo Maya, look what you made me do!” said Claudine, cursing in French. She bent down to pick up the glass shards but Maya was faster, grabbing her wrist to stop her. Claudine reddened at Maya’s grip.

“Sweep it up,” said Maya. “You’ll cut yourself this way.”

Turning on her heel, Claudine walked away, returning with a broom and towels to soak up the water. Maya spied their half-deaf teacher on the other side of the wide studio, praising Mahiru who was looking out the South window and painting lush trees. The teacher looked completely oblivious to the commotion, or had written off Maya completely and now refused to look over at their corner of the room. Claudine began sweeping up the mess. “What did you do that for, Kuro-han?” asked Kaoruko, turning around on her stool.

“I didn’t mean to,” Claudine said lowly, dumping the shards in the trash and laying down the towel. “I was just too shocked after seeing Tendo-san’s canvas!”

At this, Futaba burst out laughing, and even Kaoruko giggled behind her hand, before they both glared at each other once again. They did, however, stand up to peek at Maya’s work in progress.

“I don’t think it’s so bad,” said Maya, quickly dabbing some more pink over a green stem to make another rose, but the colors melded at once, turning brown.

“Tendo-han, it’s…” Kaoruko couldn’t stop laughing to finish her review. “It’s divine.”

With a huff, Claudine picked up the towel to hang by an open window and got a fresh jar of water, and Maya looked at Claudine’s canvas. Beautiful roses lined a circular path. Vibrant green hedges framed the exterior, and water gushed from the fountain in the middle. She was just finishing up the stone wall along the back. Claudine’s work deserved top marks, truly. Maya wanted to hang it in her room and gaze at it every day.

The rest of art class passed uneventfully, and thankfully, so did the rest of the week. It wasn’t until Saturday, the day of the kendo tournament, that Maya could feel tensions rising. She’d taken to keeping tabs on the HiME, and felt reassured when she easily spotted Karen, walking with her roommate Mahiru on her way to the broadcasting booth of the sports complex. She wondered if Mahiru, normally leading the gardening club, was subbing in for that quiet transfer student from London who seemed to be taking the weekend off. Maya was certain it took plenty of energy to keep up with Karen during the week, after all.

She saw Futaba warming up with her teammates, a gaggle of fangirls in the front rows of the stands taking photos and wishing her good luck. Earlier, Maya had seen Kaoruko taking off for the train station, determined to get her wagashi as soon as their half day of classes let out. Claudine was there, as Futaba had said, sitting at the scorekeepers’ table, and wearing a Seisho T-shirt and gym shorts. Maya had to admire how she could look good in any attire. Maya, for her part, remained in her school uniform.

The only two missing were Junna and Nana, and though Maya wanted to check the library and confirm their whereabouts, she had caught Futaba’s eye, and felt obligated to stay and watch a match. She hadn’t been to any of the kendo matches this year, and as the student council president, that was rather unbecoming. She went to sit in the stands, but a younger member of the student council saw her and ran up to her. “Kaichou! Please, come sit up in the booth, there’s plenty of extra room and the view is the best!”

“Oh, I couldn’t bother Aijou-san and Tsuyuzaki-san while they’re working,” said Maya.

“No worries,” the younger student said. “I was up there a bit ago and Karen loves having visitors!”

Maya was curious about Aijou Karen, she had to admit. Of all the HiME, she arguably knew the least about the bubbly girl from the broadcasting club. She indulged the younger girl and followed her up to the broadcasting box.

In the broadcasting booth, Mahiru was shuffling papers as Karen spun in the desk chair. Maya couldn’t have imagined a more typical scene if she tried. “Karen-chan… here is the roster for each team, this is the bracket divisions, and here is the time schedule… if you need anyone’s backgrounds and biographies, I have the list alphabetized with little tabs here, Kagura-san did that ahead of time.”

Karen continued to spin and Mahiru looked on indulgently. “Oh, Hikari-chan is the best!

There. Maya saw it. An almost imperceptible crack in Mahiru’s pleasant expression. Hikari was a wedge between Mahiru and Karen, Maya could tell, in only one moment.

“Good afternoon,” Maya said, waving off the younger girl who brought her there.

Karen finally stopped moving. Mahiru blushed lightly, turning to face Maya with perfect posture.

“Tendo-kaichou!” she said, her voice almost a squeak.

“Tendo-san!” said Karen, herself more relaxed. “Come to watch the matches with us? Who are you supporting?”

Mahiru looked as if she wanted to pinch some good behavior into Karen, but she refrained.

“I’m supporting Isurugi-san, of course,” Maya said. She sat in a chair where she hoped she would be out of the way, though truly it was hard to tell with the way Karen was running back and forth, getting things ready. It looked like the matches were about to begin. Finally, Mahiru closed the doors to the booth and Karen flipped a few switches, and Karen sat down before the microphone.

“Good afternoon, Siesho Academy and visiting guests from Seiran Girls School! Welcome to Fuuka Island! We are beginning our kendo matches momentarily, on this beautiful Saturday afternoon.” The doors to the fieldhouse were indeed open, and the bright spring sun shone in, though Maya was cut off from it here, in the booth. “Today we will start with our team captains greeting each other: Isurugi Futaba for Seisho and Yanagi Koharu for Seiran.” The girls stepped forward and bowed, and Maya could see Futaba’s fanclub gushing as she greeted the Seiran challenger.

Claudine was adjusting the timeclock, and she sat beside another girl from the club who was sharpening pencils. Claudine was wearing a high ponytail today, and Maya tried not to stare. She had a feeling that while Karen was busy with her announcements, Mahiru might have a spare moment to keep an eye on her, so she best keep her eye on the matches.

The matches began, and two were running at once. Karen, somehow, had eyes everywhere at once, and managed to keep up with both matches with stunning detail.

Maya had only planned to stay for one match, but each match was short and the action had her engaged, and before long she had watched several rounds, keeping up easily with Karen’s narration. The bracket play had narrowed down the contenders, and while Seisho had a good lead points-wise, it was still possible for Seiran to win the tournament in the final two rounds.

During the break, Maya watched as Futaba leaned over Claudine’s shoulder to check some of the scoresheets. Maya felt a strange pang of jealousy in her chest, even though she knew those two were just friends. “Ah, Isurugi-san looks cool with Saijou-san,” Mahiru said to Karen, as if she was privy to Maya’s thoughts. “Since Hanayagi-san isn’t here today, I wonder if she’ll give Saijou-san her flowers,” she mused.

“You’re getting ahead of yourself, Mahiru,” Karen laughed, adjusting her papers.

“What are you talking about?” asked Maya, a little ashamed that she was as curious as she was.

“There’s a bouquet given to the MVP at each tournament. Usually Isurugi-san wins it, but she prefers the candies her fans bring her. So she always gives the bouquet to Hanayagi-san, or if she’s not there, to someone else. We were just trying to guess who would get the flowers if Isurugi-san wins them today,” explained Mahiru. Maya realized suddenly that Mahiru probably wasn’t here mainly because she was helping Karen or giving Hikari a break, it was just that she was a huge kendo fan.

Karen hushed them as the second half of the tournament began, and they watched as the final match-up was revealed: Futaba vs. Seiran’s second ranked, Honami Hisame. Both looked tired after so many rounds of play, but faced each other with determined expressions. With only one match to focus on, Maya admired the way their strikes were so accurate, so fast, and so precise. When she fought Orphans, she thought she fought fairly well, but she swung however she could manage, trying to get any opening. Futaba had honed her skills for years, her strikes all perfect and direct. It was entrancing. It was not surprising that Futaba was declared the winner, though Hisame’s skill was not lacking either. Maya applauded them before remembering she was interrupting Karen’s broadcast.

“Ahh- even the seito kaichou is applauding up here in the booth! What a wonderful showing from both schools!” Karen gushed, announcing all the winners.

Maya watched Futaba receive her bouquet of flowers, and watched Claudine blush in embarrassment as it was handed off to her. Mahiru was truly a kendo- and Isurugi Futaba- superfan. Futaba’s fans looked jealous to not receive the flowers, but showered her in penny-candy nonetheless, and she greeted them happily, taking pictures with them and thanking them for attending. Maya said goodbye to Mahiru and Karen and went to greet Claudine and Futaba.

Maya found Claudine handing in the scoresheets to the school representatives at the score table. Her duties finished, she picked up the flowers, holding them close as if she appreciated them more than she let on. Once the crowd had dissipated, Futaba reconvened with them, a ribbon in her hand indicating their team had won the tournament, and a second ribbon for highest individual score. “Congratulations,” Maya said. “I was most impressed. I couldn’t contain my applause, I fear I interrupted the broadcast.”

Futaba laughed, her tension from the matches now dissipated. “Thanks, Tendo-san! I was so worried about facing Seiran, now I can relax a bit. Come on, let’s get back to the dorms so I can shower.” They walked out of the back of the gym, nearly bumping into Kaoruko who seemed to be running to the back entrance of the gym. “Oi, Kaoruko, you just missed it! I won!”

Kaoruko took a moment to catch her breath before speaking. Her cheeks were flushed, and Maya wondered if she put the wagashi in her dorm and ran all the way here. Had she run further? All the way from the train station? “I see that,” Kaoruko said, unamused.

“Sorry, but it’s all good! I got MVP too. Let’s go back now, I have my candy and you have your sweets.”

Kaoruko huffed, seeming to accept this proposal with some reticence at last, but then she spied the bouquet in Claudine’s arms. “Really?” she asked.

“What now?” asked Futaba, who had not been following Kaoruko’s gaze. “I’m sweaty, can we just go back?”

“You gave her your flowers? What are people going to think?” asked Kaoruko, her voice more shrill now.

“What do you mean? You weren’t there, and Kuroko came to support me.”

Claudine looked very uncomfortable to be in the middle of this argument, but held onto the flowers nonetheless. Perhaps she thought offering them to Kaoruko at this stage would be insulting, or perhaps she did not want to give them up.

“I was coming as fast as I could. I ran!” said Kaoruko. “All I asked for is one day a year to pick up the wagashi, and I see you no longer need me,” she pouted.

“That’s not what this is about and you know it!” said Futaba. “You’re just tired and hungry from going into town. Let’s go shower and get dinner, and then we can talk some more-”

“No. I don’t feel like talking,” Kaoruko said, her eyes blazing as they moved from Futaba’s ribbons to Claudine’s bouquet. “I think for once, I actually feel like summoning my Child. Let’s start this damned Carnival.”

“Kaoruko, you can’t be serious,” Claudine said. “Over some flowers…”

“Stay out of this,” Kaoruko said, summoning her naginata and pointing it in Claudine’s direction to let her know she meant business. Immediately, Maya moved in front of her, and Futaba stepped in front of both of them, facing Kaoruko properly. “This is between Futaba-han and I,” she said. “This isn’t just about today,” she said, slowly circling. Futaba had yet to draw her weapon. The sun was setting, and they were behind the gym which was blocking them from any onlookers, but Maya still didn’t like being out in the open.

“Let’s move this to the woods,” she suggested calmly, knowing she would be unable to stop Kaoruko’s rage which was brimming over. Kaoruko sighed, allowing the naginata to disappear for the time being, and the four of them moved to the cover of trees. “You should go back,” Maya said to Claudine.

“You can’t be serious. We’re partners, Maya.”

Maya couldn’t resist the way Claudine called her by her first name when they spoke privately, and she was pleased with the thought that Claudine considered her a partner - yes their Childs matched, but more than that, they needed to work together - so she stopped trying to convince Claudine to go back for her safety. She would protect Claudine if needed, from whatever chaos they were getting into.

“-Me??” Futaba was saying, as they walked towards a clearing in the trees. “What about you? Everyday I make you food, I get you up on time, I give you a ride to class, I make sure you have the right books for the homework. I go to kendo practice every day, and when I get home, I still do all the chores!”

“If you don’t like it, defeat me here, then you’ll be free of me, if I’m such a nuisance!” Kaoruko shouted, turning around and again drawing her naginata. Futaba did the same, but her samurai child, Kaiyō Maru, emerged as well, standing at the ready. The Child was tall, and made of mechanical parts, much like the warship he was named after, steaming at the joints as he held a long blade, ready to do Futaba’s bidding.

After a moment, Kaoruko summoned her Child as well, a feat that Maya had never witnessed before. “Zennyo Ryūō!” she called, shouting the name of the female dragon rain-god of ancient mythos. An enormous dragon twisted into existence around her, smoke clouding their vision of both Kaoruko and the Child, and then the smoke dissipated into a black cloud that covered the whole clearing, rumbling ominously. Maya and Claudine stood at a distance near one of the large trees at the edge of the clearing, watching over the events unfolding.

Maya thought of her relatives as she was growing up, and that giraffe in the clock tower. “Only one can win…” “You will obtain a wish…” Was she truly going to watch a death match at this very moment? She wanted to clutch Claudine’s hand, but she refrained.

As expected, Kaoruko struck first, her naginata slicing at the samurai’s neck. Futaba, meanwhile, swung her halberd at the dragon’s tail, and the tempestuous cloud above them let out a streak of lightning both above and below, high into the twilight sky. Maya wondered if she would have to explain that away at school on Monday….

Kaoruko’s next strike with her naginata was at Futaba directly, but Futaba paried with her halberd as the Childs battled beside them. This went on for some time, as they were a surprisingly even match. Maya had expected Futaba to get the upper-hand quickly, but Kaoruko was quick, her words were biting, and her moves were rather underhanded, which was a good match against a straightforward opponent like Futaba. In addition, Futaba’s halberd was a very different weapon than the bamboo sword she trained with in kendo. They likely would have battled for some time, but their match was interrupted by Junna and Nana running into the clearing, their elements, but not their Childs, drawn.

“Please stop!!” Junna yelled, trying to get their attention, her bow half-raised.

“We need to talk to you!” said Nana, out of breath. It seemed they had run all the way there. Had the lightning strike alerted them? Maya hadn’t seen them at the kendo matches, where had they been hiding all day? Due to the rising tension, both Maya and Claudine equipped their elements as well, spreading out a bit along the periphery of the match.

“Move it, Hoshimi,” growled Kaoruko. “I’ll take your detention or whatever, just get out of my way!”

“Yeah, watch out, you two, you could get hurt,” added Futaba, swinging her halberd towards the dragon Child who tried to strike while she was talking.

Kaoruko saw this as an opportunity to sneak up on Futaba and swing her naginata, but Junna saw through her intentions. Aiming her bow, she launched an arrow, catching Kaoruko in the eye. She screamed in pain, doubling over, her Child disappearing at once.

Kaoruko saw this as an opportunity to sneak up on Futaba and swing her naginata, but Nana saw through her intentions. She parried the strike with her katanas, allowing Futaba time to defend herself properly. Junna loosed an arrow to help as well, but with Nana’s intervention, it whizzed past Kaoruko, notching itself deep within a tree a few inches to the side of Claudine’s head.

Maya didn’t realize she had called for Odette until she felt the shadow of the swan looming over her. She wasn’t even sure if the others were battling behind her anymore. She had crossed the clearing to stand before Junna in an instant, the moment she saw that arrow aimed for Claudine’s head. “What was that?” she demanded. “Why did you aim for Saijou-san?”

“I- I didn’t,” Junna stuttered. “I was trying to stop Hanayagi-san from harming Isurugi-san,” she said.

“Trying to take out the competition? Somewhat underhanded…” Maya mused, Odette at the ready behind her.

“No!” Junna insisted. “She didn’t even have her Child out… It wasn’t like that!” She looked on the verge of tears, and Maya was inclined to believe her. Nana came to stand before Junna then, her arms, holding two katanas, spread wide, blocking Maya and Odette at least figuratively.

“Please, Maya, understand it was an accident,” Nana said, her green eyes wide. “No one is harmed.” Behind her, she could still hear the clashing of Futaba and Kaoruko.

“Will you all stop?!” shouted Claudine, who had come to stand in the middle of the clearing, and somehow, miraculously, it worked. Everyone’s elements remained summoned, but the Childs disappeared from the clearing, and it was just six girls facing each other. Claudine looked rather silly in particular, holding her longsword in one hand, a bouquet of flowers in the other, and wearing a gym uniform smeared with dirt, but her expression was filled with frustration. “Hoshimi-san and Nana-san, please tell us what it is that is so important you interrupted the middle of this duel and almost got us all killed, and then we can decide what to do next.”

Her piece said, Claudine walked back to Maya’s side, giving Maya an accusatory gaze that she supposed had something to do with suddenly summoning Odette. Maya played innocent, returning the look with one that said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’. Kaoruko and Futaba both stayed at opposite sides of the clearing, their antagonism still strong.

“Listen, we’re sorry to jump in, but we absolutely had to!” Junna said, apparently recovered from Maya’s accusations moments earlier. “Nana and I discovered this secret chamber under the library, and well, it is super crazy!”

Kaoruko looked at them skeptically, as if not convinced this was enough to justify stopping their fight. Nana took over then. “The secret chamber has to do with HiME and HiME powers. We’ll have to take you there to show you, but it appears that when a HiME is defeated, she is not risking her own life, but the life of the one most precious to her.”

Maya’s heart quickened as she could see, touch, smell Claudine right beside her. Living, breathing, beautiful Claudine. There was no contest, no questioning. If there was a most precious person in her life, it was Claudine. If she was defeated, Claudine were to die...? It was one thing to risk her own life, quite another to risk Claudine’s.

Nana smiled kindly. “Futaba-chan, Kaoruko-chan, I know you both mean the world to each other. I know you don’t want to fight over a small argument to begin with, but with this information, if you are the most precious person to each other, one of you losing means you will both disappear. When a HiME is defeated, her precious person disappears. If that person is also a HiME, then her precious person will disappear. It could be mutual destruction.”

“As if Futaba is the most precious person to me,” Kaoruko muttered, in a way that was quite obvious this was the truth.

“So… it makes sense for us to fight as a pair then…” Futaba said, considering the new information.

Kaoruko sighed, and finally put away her element, prompting the others to do the same. The sky was properly dark now, causing a chill in the air.

“Let’s get back and eat, we can talk about this more in the dorms,” said Junna.

They walked out of the forest, Maya and Claudine following the others. Claudine walked close to Maya, both because she seemed cold, and if Maya had to guess, out of consideration for the fact that Maya had a definite fear of the dark and anything that could be remotely haunted.

After they showered and ate, Maya returned to Claudine’s room, as was tradition on their Saturday nights. Often, Futaba and Kaoruko would join them, but it seemed that they had a private night of their own after their argument earlier, so Claudine and Maya were left alone.

“Listen, Maya,” Claudine said, after a few minutes of silence. She looked distressed, despite it being Saturday night and the two of them being in their pajamas.

“Yes, what is it, Claudine?”

“The precious person thing… I… I knew about it before tonight. I’ve known about it for a while…”

“Oh. My family seemed to know some information about HiME powers, but they had not told me that.”

Claudine bit her lip before continuing. “I tried to keep away from people. Anyone I was close to was in danger, after all. I never made many friends before I came to Seisho. After my maman died, I wasn’t close to any relatives. And then you had to come along, you irritating woman…”

“What are you saying, Claudine?” Maya’s mind was running on overdrive, trying to piece together Claudine’s words, but the way her heart was beating rapidly with Claudine so near and confessing intimate information to her- it was difficult. She seemed to understand that Claudine had been a HiME for a very, very long time.

“You are so useless at some things, I have to help you. You sat alone in that student council room, no one would even take the seat of the vice-chair beside you, so I had to take that on as well. If I don’t stand beside you, what will become of you, Tendo Maya?”

She paused, averting her eyes, and her voice grew softer, “And what will become of me?” A faint blush grew on her cheeks. “So, what I’m saying is, by process of elimination, you’re doomed to be my most precious person. I will do everything I can to not be defeated.” She again met Maya’s eyes, her gaze solemn and serious.

“It is the same for myself,” Maya said. “Of course you have noticed I am always alone. I was raised by the Tendos to be a HiME since I got my powers at 15. I didn’t know what the Carnival entailed, but now, I plan to finish on top. Saijou Claudine, you have the unfortunate fate of being my most precious person, but I do not plan to lose.”

“I suppose we’ll be seeing each other in the final battle, then,” said Claudine, her voice, still with a hint of its normal challenging and determined tone, now tinged with sadness.

“I suppose so.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 - Mahiru

Mahiru checked her nails for bits of soil as she walked down the hall towards the broadcasting club office. It was a familiar trip for her, one that she took nearly every morning from the rooftop gardens where she worked with the plants she tended to for the gardening club before school. Today, like most mornings, she worked alone, but she didn’t mind- the cool air from last night’s rain storm’s and Karen’s cheerful voice on the morning announcements keeping her company.

Her nails, as usual, were clean, her gardening gloves shielding her from dirt, but the act of checking kept her from needing to make eye contact with anyone, which was convenient. She had planned to change, when she entered Seisho. She had planned to make plenty of friends, to learn how to break out of her shyness, and how to stop being so clumsy. She had even gotten so far as leading the gardening club. The club no one bothers attending a snarky voice in her head chided.

It was Karen’s fault, really. Karen was her savior and stagnated her progress. If Mahiru had Karen, why would she need anyone else? Since the first day at Seisho, they had been roommates, and Karen had relied on Mahiru. That reliance was what Mahiru thrived on - she cared for Karen with every ounce of her being, and yet it also meant that she worried little about developing her relationships with classmates beyond polite greetings and last-name only familiarity. She had Karen and her plants to care for, and she had taken care of the plants for this morning, at least.

As she approached the broadcasting club room, Mahiru could hear voices in the corridor. She crept quietly towards the corner, listening before she revealed herself.

“Honestly, Saijou-san, I have no idea what happened!” Karen was saying. It sounded as if she was addressing the student council vice president, who Mahiru rarely encountered, as she liked to keep a low profile. As far as she knew, Saijou Claudine and Tendou Maya lived in the same dorm building as Isurugi Futaba and Hanayagi Kaoruko, and she only knew that because of her love of kendo.

“Aijou Karen, I have it on good authority that you were out of bed last night! You probably conjured up that… thing… as well,” said Claudine. “You’re the reason my piece for art class is ruined, I know it!”

Karen laughed nervously. “Saijou-san, I’m sure you can finish the piece even with the ground torn up, you have a good imagination…”

“Not the point! Destruction of school property is strictly forbidden, you know this, Aijou-san!”

Mahiru clenched her hands into fists, steeling herself to intervene. She wasn’t one to insert herself into confrontations, but for Karen’s sake, she would manage. She did not appreciate Saijou’s attitude. Before she could, however, she heard footsteps, and then the cool, lilting voice of the student council president herself.

“Saijou-san, what are you discussing with Karen? Classes haven’t even started for the day..”

“The rose garden, have you seen it? The back half is all torn up, since last evening…”

“And you suspect Aijou-san? Ah, I see. She did tell Hanayagi-san she was going after that rogue Orphan last night…”

“I did kill that Orphan,” insisted Karen, “But it was near the school gate, nowhere close to the rose garden, we weren’t close to the rose garden!”

“Honestly! Both of you, keep it down!” said Claudine. “Talking about such things here!”

Mahiru sighed, in her hiding place, gathering herself. It seemed that she was not the only one who knew Karen’s secret. Was the student council manipulating Karen into killing those monsters? It seemed not, but perhaps Hanayagi and the other girls with powers had some secret meetings or something going on. She hated not knowing everything about Karen’s life.

“Well, in any case, the problem with the ‘intruder’ is solved,” said Maya, “And we can ask Tsuyuzaki-san if her club can help with repairs to the rose gardens. Of course we can fund it if we do some hard work in student council. No harm, Saijou-san.”

“Mahiru-chan can probably help you finish your painting, too, Saijou-san!” offered Karen. “She’s incredible at art, and she’s my best friend, I can ask.”

Claudine made a non-committal response and turned away with Maya, and Mahiru emerged from around the corner, pleased at last to see Karen’s face for the first time since waking up hours earlier.

“Ah- Mahiru-chan, did you hear that? Sorry, I guess I did just offer your help without checking first.”

Mahiru shook her head. “It’s fine. If helping them is helping you, then I don’t mind.”

Karen smiled, brighter than the sun. They began to walk towards the classroom. “I really didn’t do it, though! I have no idea what tore up the lawn, but it wasn’t that Orphan or Toto.”

“That’s a bit dangerous, isn’t it?” said Mahiru, quietly.

Karen nodded. “It could be.” She turned to Mahiru, pausing before they entered the classroom. “Mahiru-chan, promise me you won’t go walking around campus alone! There could be something out there, like that root-monster, or worse! And if you don’t have HiME powers, you can’t stop it. I can’t imagine anything happening to you, Mahiru!”

Mahiru nodded in agreement. She preferred walking around campus with Karen, anyways, and it sounded like the gardening club would soon have more work, thanks to the rose garden getting torn up, so she could wait until Karen finished in broadcasting club.

It turned out that she was correct, and after school, Mahiru was asked by Hoshimi Junna to come with her to the rose gardens. Though Mahiru and Karen lived on the same dorm floor as Junna and her roommate Daiba Nana, the only real encounter Mahiru had had with the pair was during the night they encountered that monster in the woods and Nana had fought it with that massive monkey creature. Mahiru had felt a certain kinship with Junna at that time, as they both were rather useless at helping with fighting off that creature, without secret weapons or powers.

The damage to the rose gardens was far more extensive than what Mahiru was picturing, with the entire back-half of the school’s beautiful gardens cleaved up, as if by heavy machinery. “I’m sorry to leave this to you, Tsuyuzaki-san,” Junna said. “Tendo-san and Saijou-san worked all morning and through lunch and managed to secure plenty of funding for replacing the plants, but I can’t imagine leaving all the labor to you…”

Mahiru shook her head. “It’s just me today, but many times other members join me in the club. Besides, I’m a hard worker, so please do not fret. For today, I think most of the work will just be getting some of this soil back where it belongs, and throwing out the waste,” she said, spying the dirt spilled onto the paths that snaked through the gardens, and the torn and shredded rose plants. She wondered if she could salvage any of them.

“We will put our faith in you then, Tsuyuzaki-san,” said Junna. “Please report to the student council if there’s anything at all that you need.”

With that, Junna turned back towards the school, and Mahiru went to the storage shed beside the gymnasium to retrieve some gardening supplies. She paused for a moment, watching the kendo club warm up. How nice it was to watch Futaba work on her practice swings so carefully. How nice it had been to sit up in that box with Karen and enjoy the tournament the previous weekend, just the two of them…. She shook her head to clear it. Futaba was working hard for the next tournament, so Mahiru ought to work hard too. She gathered up her supplies and wheeled them back to the gardens in a large wheelbarrow.

Feeling grateful that she had changed to her tracksuit before beginning this venture, she tied her hair back. She began sweeping up the paths, listening as Karen’s voice filled the quiet afternoon with school happenings.

“Good afternoon, Seisho! Here’s Aijou Karen with the afternoon announcements! The big thing on the agenda is the Spring Festival, which is coming up in two weeks! Remember that normal club activities are on a limited schedule to allow for class projects to be completed…”

Mahiru let Karen’s voice drift away as she continued to work. Sometimes she wondered why she didn’t join the broadcasting club when she found out Karen was taking over the abandoned club in their first year, but truly she knew it wasn’t a good fit. She was too shy to ever get on a microphone, and really the subject didn’t interest her at all. Plants, flowers, being outdoors and working with her hands - that was what she had grown up doing. It reminded her of being with her family, even though they were hours away currently. It made her a little less homesick to be part of the gardening club. But not less lonely. She did have other members, of course, but they tended to prefer spending time with their friends or going out to eat after school to tending to the plants day by day, so she often only got a good turn out during ‘exciting’ days, like when it was time to plant new flowers or harvest something. She didn’t mind days like this, though, when she was alone with her thoughts, and Karen’s voice over the speakers.

Karen herself joined her soon after, as Mahiru was sorting viable roses from the completely destroyed ones. Karen jumped in to help, but as she was wearing her uniform, and didn’t even have gloves on, Mahiru insisted she stay away.

So Karen took a seat on a nearby bench, watching Mahiru finish her day’s work with vested interest. “Did everything go well with the announcements?” asked Mahiru.

“Mhmm!” said Karen. “Hikari does so well with the preparations! I can even be a little but lazy with studying my notes, since she even includes things like ‘emphasize this’ or ‘more details here’.”

“It must be better than running that club by yourself,” said Mahiru, feeling her chest tightening. She didn’t regret choosing gardening over broadcasting, she just liked being the one Karen relied on, is all.

“So much better! Since Hikari’s come, every day in club is so much fun!”

“I’m glad,” said Mahiru, turning away to throw out some trash. She suddenly felt exhausted. “I think I’m finished here for today. What do you want for dinner?”

“Hikari was talking about udon all day, I think I want udon!”

Mahiru took off her gloves, careful to inspect them for any thorns and avoid looking at Karen. Hikari, Hikari, Hikari, . Every day since the term started, that name had assaulted her ears. Though Hikari never visited their dorm room, all evening, Karen told Mahiru all about what she and Hikari had done at club that day. For such a seemingly quiet girl, Hikari sure gave Karen quite a bit to talk about.

“Udon, hmm. I think we have the ingredients for that,” said Mahiru with a smile. Karen smiled back, her smile so bright that Mahiru couldn’t help but shake her unpleasant thoughts from her mind as she and Karen returned the supplies to the shed and walked back to the dorm.

After a bath, Mahiru prepared dinner, and she and Karen ate and then worked on homework. Karen took a bath after, and Mahiru packed bentos for the next day and cleaned up the kitchen. They enjoyed some cookies and watched a couple television programs before bed, but on a weeknight, bedtime came quickly, and Mahiru found herself falling asleep on the familiar bed, directly across from Karen, in the same room they’d been sharing the entire time they’d been at Seisho- years now.

The moonlight came in through the window, illuminating Karen, who was alright asleep on her bed. Pleased with the sight of Karen sleeping soundly right beside her, and not sneaking out to do goodness knows what with those crazy powers, Mahiru allowed herself to fall asleep too.

She moves on a cloud, gliding over the campus effortlessly. She has a target, and she is determined to find her. The night is clear, and the bright moonlight causes every movement to be immediately spotted. Perhaps that is an effect of her powers, she supposed. The HiME star was large and bright as well, a red omen further illuminating the campus as she moved away from the residence halls and out toward the gardens.

She spots a few birds, dismissing them immediately as they are not her objective. She sees a professor, leaving the campus late, and hopes she will be going in a direction far from where her target awaits. Finally, around the other side of the gymnasium, she sees a shadow, zipping into the trees that line the edge of the athletics fields.

She follows, undeterred by the change in terrain. She is accustomed to the darkness, and the cloud that surrounds her provides ample disguise for herself, she need not worry about being spotted before she spots her target. She follows at a distance for the time being, until she realizes the girl is making her way at an angle back towards the main path towards the school gate. Is she trying to circumvent someone? She supposes it would be odd for the girl to be out with no objective at all, all things considered.

But, she has no use for anyone else, only for the unneeded girl. She needs to confront her before she gets through the cover of trees, before she gets to the main path. Without a word, so as not to alert the girl sneaking through the trees, she summons her child, though truly he’s been there the whole time, providing the cloud cover. He appears, among the cloud, ready to do her bidding. He launches himself toward the girl, but her senses are good. She summons her element at once, or perhaps it was already summoned - a short dagger, and she swipes at the Child swiftly as she rolls away.

 

The break in the trees is approaching, they are near the main path, but the target is there, in her hands, and she is greedy. She so wants to finish this task, to have the girl summon her Child so she could eliminate her swiftly. The girl tumbles out onto the main path, the lights that line it illuminating her black hair and her blue track suit. She springs up into a ready position, anticipating the next strike from the mist-covered Child.

“You!” comes another voice. A blonde enters the scene. Dressed in jeans and a black jacket, she looks as if she were getting ready to leave campus. She is pointing accusingly at the black-haired girl. “You’re the one who’s been following me, I recognize th-” she paused. “....You’re another HiME… A secret HiME?”

The black haired girl glanced again into the woods, but the cloud provided ample disguise. There was no opening to attack now. The blonde was not the target. She would only be collateral damage.

Looking away from the inky blackness of the foliage, the black haired girl turned to the blonde, her dagger still out and her stance still ready for battle. Steeling herself, the blonde also brought forth a sword, prepared to fight.

Mahiru woke up in her bed, gasping for air and drenched in sweat.

She glanced at Karen first, but Karen was still sleeping soundly, clutching onto her favorite crab plushie. Mahiru got out of bed on shaky legs, walking into their small private dorm room kitchen to drink a glass of water. She found herself unable to stand, and sat on the ground in front of the coffee table, her barely-touched water sitting before her on the small table. The room was dark, and only the moonlight that came in through the window provided any illumination.

What she had just dreamt… that… couldn’t possibly have been real… and yet, it felt as if she had been that person floating on the cloud. She recognized the other people in the dream - she hadn’t at the time, but now that she was awake, it was clear - as Kagura Hikari and Saijou Claudine. Neither were people she was close with, and yet, they had appeared in her dream. She traced her finger along the edge of the water glass, considering.

Suddenly, a sound rang out that shook her to her core. There was a distinctive clash of metal on metal, and she imagined the dagger clashing with the sword from her dream.

But that’s not real she assured herself. And even if it was real, it has nothing to do with me, she reasoned. What did she have to do with Hikari and Claudine’s lives? She laid back on the rug, willing herself not to hear the distant clinks of metal.

You know the truth, a little voice in her head said. You know that that dream wasn’t just a dream.

Mahiru felt tears well in her eyes as she looked through the doorway to where Karen continued sleeping peacefully on the bed. Her hands were shaking now, and she folded them in her lap. “No,” she whispered quietly. “No, no, no.” It wasn’t true. Her eyes were overflowing with tears now, it was almost impossible to see anything, but with a surge of bravery, she looked down at her arms and legs.

She was wearing a tank and shorts for pajamas, and her limbs were covered in scratches as if she had been whizzing through the forest at high speeds minutes before. She reached into her hair and pulled out a small twig. She knew already, if she was being honest, she could smell the forest from the moment she awoke.

“No, no, no, no, no.”

She physically clutched at her heart as she suddenly remembered herself, the previous night, commanding her dragon Child to attack Hikari among the school rose gardens. She felt the tears falling freely now. What irony, she thought. To be asked to repair the rose gardens, the gardens that Karen was falsely blamed for destroying, when she was the one who really did destroy them - over some jealousy of Hikari’s closeness to Karen. She wanted to scream. She couldn’t succumb to her unconscious emotions-based power again, she needed to fight as a friend of Karen.

If the dream was reality, Mahiru had incited a fight between Hikari and Claudine. It was likely that Hikari was trying to quietly follow Claudine, and Mahiru’s actions caused her to be discovered. Mahiru wasn’t exactly fond of Hikari, but she knew that Karen would be devastated if anything happened to her. Mahiru didn’t wish ill will against Claudine either, though she wasn’t a fan of how she falsely accused Karen that morning. Without another thought, Mahiru slipped on her shoes and ran back out of the dorm, rushing back towards the main path to the school gate, realizing too late she was only wearing her pajamas.

Now, in the late night in absolute, undeniable reality, Mahiru was cold. She could feel the wind on her exposed arms and legs, and she could feel the pebbles slipping into the shoes she hastily tied. She was no longer floating on a cloud, as she had no idea how to summon the creature from her dream - if she even could - and she was forced to run on foot back to where the events she had witnessed, no- incited- took place.

The clash of swords got louder, and as she approached, she could hear the growl of another creature, causing her to slow her movements. From the distance, she could see two great beasts, roughly resembling a swan and a polar bear, locked in combat beside the two girls. The polar bear charged at the swan, swiping one massive paw, but the swan shielded itself with its wing, their clash resulting in sparks that lit up the whole pathway.

Claudine was fighting with her longsword as Hikari fought with her dagger. At first, Claudine seemed to have the advantage with the longer weapon, but Hikari leapt backwards in an impressive display of acrobatics, eventually leaping atop her Child, the polar bear.

From that height, she launched the dagger again, this time Claudine swatting at it with her sword to deflect. But as Hikari reeled the weapon back in, it caught around the ankle joint of Claudine’s swan Child, and as the polar bear pulled back on Hikari’s command, the swan was tripped up and fell with a crash onto the path.

Hikari leapt down again to handle Claudine as the polar bear went to attack the now vulnerable swan. Mahiru watched with baited breath. She had come to interfere- to stop this fight, but she didn’t have a weapon, she didn’t have a Child, and she didn’t even know if she needed to stop this fight. What did it matter if that swan was defeated? Perhaps if Claudine lost her powers, she would stop bossing Karen around.

But it seemed that Claudine was not so ready to accept defeat. Both she and Hikari outwardly looked tired from fighting for so long, but her movements did not convey this as she leapt towards Hikari with determination. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I cannot lose.” She swung her sword dangerously close to Hikari’s neck, enough that Hikari had to roll back on the pavement to dodge. Behind them, the polar bear continued the assault on the swan. Claudine was unforgiving, however, and took this opportunity to strike again, coming to bring her sword down over Hikari as she lay on the ground, reaching up futilely to defend herself with the dagger.

“No!” cried Mahiru, finally rushing in. She ran in front of Hikari, unsure of how to block what was sure to be a deadly strike from Claudine, but to her surprise, a mace appeared in her hands, and her determination allowed her to hold it steady, albeit with shaking hands, against the blow of the sword. It wasn’t all that different from holding a garden trowel, she lied to herself.

“Tsuyuzaki-san, what are you doing?” asked Claudine, her chest heaving from the effort of what should have been a deadly blow.

“Preventing you from doing something you would regret,” said Mahiru, as calmly as she could manage. From the corner of her eye, she could see Hikari stand up behind her, dagger at the ready, her blue eyes watching Claudine for any sudden movements. Claudine was glancing desperately at the Childs fighting to the side of them. Both of them highly surpassed her in fighting abilities, so Mahiru needed to deescalate the situation. “I think it’s best you-”

“Call it off!” said Claudine, tears in her eyes. “Call it off or I really will kill you!”

Hikari glanced over at the Childs finally, as if it was an afterthought, and disengaged her Child from its attack on Claudine’s. Instantly, Claudine allowed the swan to disappear, and fell to her knees in the dirt beside the path, her sword disappearing as well.

Mahiru turned to Hikari, who looked her up and down. Mahiru at first half expected a ‘thanks’ for saving Hikari from Claudine’s sword strike earlier, but she realized then that Hikari was likely recognizing her face as the one following her through the woods and attacking her in the rose garden. She hoped that the cloud had given her enough cover that her identity was disguised, but she knew she needed to face up to her crimes, even if she committed them unconsciously.

Hikari didn’t say anything for the time being, just looking past Mahiru to where Claudine had stood up again. Mahiru followed her gaze and noticed Claudine was staring at Hikari accusingly, almost ready to fight again.

“Why were you following me?” Claudine asked. “And don’t deny it, I caught sight of you at least once.” She did not even acknowledge Mahiru’s presence.

“I’ve been sent here by the Royal Academy of the Arts and Sciences,” said Hikari. “I transferred at the start of this year, after I received my HiME powers.”

Claudine tensed again at this admission, her expression darkening. “You’re with them?” she asked, ready to strike with the wrong answer. The sword, but not the Child, manifested again.

“They think I am,” said Hikari, rather cryptically. “They’re interested in you, so they let me come in order to check in on you. I needed to get back here.”

Claudine’s eyes flashed, and a moment later she leaped forward, sword prepared for another strike. Without consciously thinking about it, Mahiru saw the word Susanoo flash through her mind, and a moment later, the cloud returned, this time while she was fully awake, and a great and terrible dragon was translucent, sitting among the rainstorm, dividing Mahiru and Hikari from Claudine.

Mahiru herself was floating, off the ground, holding onto the mace that seemed to be part of her powers. She was out of Claudine’s reach, but she hoped Claudine didn’t summon that crazy swan again.

It seemed she wanted to, but perhaps was worn out from her drawn-out fight with Hikari earlier, as no swan appeared. The sword remained drawn, however, and Mahiru kept Susanoo summoned, the dark cloud moving slowly toward Claudine to keep any potential attacks at bay.

“So that’s how it is?” Claudine practically spat, now looking fully at Mahiru for the first time. If she was shocked at Mahiru’s powers or Child, it wasn’t visible on her face, which showed nothing more than blatant betrayal. She comes in and takes away your best friend,” Claudine laughed at Mahiru’s surprised expression, “Yes, I can see it, everyone can… and she follows me around, spying on me for this damned group, probably feeding them information… and yet somehow I’m at fault!”

“No- Saijou-san, it’s not your fault,” offered Mahiru, descending slightly in an offer of peace, but she floated higher again as Claudine slashed her sword towards her in a move that made Hikari step forward beside Mahiru. Apparently Susanoo recognized Hikari as an ally now and allowed this. Mahiru could have sworn she saw tears glinting in Claudine’s eyes as she stepped forward, but if they were of frustration or another emotion, she couldn’t know.

“Not my fault,” laughed Claudine derisively. “Sure feels that way, with Kagura-san and you teamed up against me, and spying on me!”

Unexpectedly, she dismissed her sword and stood empty-handed before them, flipping her hair haughtily. “Don’t worry, though,” she said. “You can’t take me down that easily, even with help from London. I’ll be there at the end, not you.”

Hikari looked as if she wanted to contest this, but she held her tongue as Claudine turned away down the path and back toward the school buildings. Finally, Mahiru dismissed her element and Child and her feet touched the ground again. Now that it was just Hikari and herself, her nervousness returned. Mahiru might remember the earlier events only in a dreamlike blur, but Hikari surely remembered them in full detail.

“Kagura-san… I… I am so sorry!” said Mahiru, bowing as low as she could without prostrating herself into the muddy earth. “I… was asleep… my HiME powers… until tonight… I was unconscious….” She spoke as she looked into the dirt.

“Ok.” Hikari said only this, and Mahiru tentatively looked up. With only that, was she forgiven?

“Ok?”

“For your own sake, and for Karen’s, you need to learn how to control your powers. You being asleep when they activate is a vulnerability.”

Mahiru nodded, unsettled by Hikari’s almost robotic response. “Kagura-san, I… attacked you, didn’t I? Tonight and the other night as well?”

Hikari nodded. “You nearly destroyed the rose garden, but left when you heard Karen’s Child getting close.”

Mahiru could feel her tears beginning to fall again. “Help me…” she said quietly, a plea to someone with every reason to refuse her. “Can you please help me?”

With a curt nod, Hikari agreed. “You need to start by getting in touch with your emotions. Feelings, especially those towards those closest to you, drive all HiME, but this seems to be especially important in the case of your Child.”

They began to walk back towards the dormitories, Mahiru feeling chilly and physically and emotionally drained. “So if I can understand my emotions, I can stop my Child from going out of control?”

Hikari shrugged. “I’m no expert. But tonight, you knew what you wanted, you got it to do what you wanted.”

Mahiru nodded. She had a point. They parted ways outside of Mahiru’s dorm room and Mahiru fell into a fitful sleep, terrified the whole time of unconsciously conjuring Susanoo and wrecking another part of the school grounds or attacking another student.

The next morning, Mahiru went to the gardens on the school roof as usual, but it seemed to be a day where the other members of the club decided to grace her with their presence, so she ran down the list of morning tasks and then let them know she’d be working in the broken rose gardens. In reality, she had no plans to work on the rose gardens until school let out that afternoon, but she appreciated that students avoided the area now because of its unsightly appearance. She settled onto a bench, surrounded by upturned shrubberies and broken earth of her own doing, and closed her eyes, trying to settle into a meditation.

There were several HiME, she realized… herself, Karen, Hikari, Kaoruko, Claudine, and Nana, and possibly more. She wondered if anyone was like her, with a Child that appeared in their dreams and manifested to act on her negative feelings, but she thought it was unlikely. She refocused - this wasn’t about the others, this was about herself.

With a tightening of a dark pit in her gut, she knew the negative feelings she and Hikari had discussed, and she had a feeling Hikari did too. Hikari didn’t speak much, but she seemed to have an ability to see through people and read them better than they could read themselves.

Jealousy. Low self-esteem. Envy. Inferiority. Desire. Mahiru bit her lip in shame as she considered all the components that ball of negativity in her core was formed with. No wonder it was so heavy, she thought. She needed to eliminate these feelings, but the only way she could think of to crush the ball of terrible emotions was with might, with repression, or with another negative method.

Suddenly, Karen’s voice broke through her thoughts, disrupting her meditations. “Gooood morning, Seisho Academy!” she called, with her usual sunny disposition. Suddenly, without even trying, Mahiru could feel the horrible feelings shrinking back and herself regaining control. She listened to Karen’s voice further as she dwelled on this. Karen was love, affection, calm, and joy. Karen filled Mahiru with warmth, but perhaps… that warmth could also be used to power Susanoo, rather than the dark, empty feelings used previously. Mahiru was protected by others against those terrible Orphans. Perhaps she could also be of use protecting Karen, if needed.

Over the next few days, Mahiru worked on her own and with Hikari after dark to control Susanoo. She could feel the Child reaching into her depths for emotions she didn’t even know she was holding onto, and each time, she learned from the experience, trying to hone her skills. The Child was powerful despite not being a fully-formed entity.

Mahiru was surprised, however, when Karen showed up in the middle of one of her training sessions, still groggy in her nightgown. The moon was behind clouds on this night, waning now, but the HiME star was glowing red overhead. “Mahiru? Hikari-chan?” Karen asked, squinting as she came into view.

The black cloud Susanoo exuded shrank at once, and changed from black to white. “Mahiru! You’re a… HiME!” Karen said, running closer. “And Hikari-chan… are you…?”

Hikari didn’t have her Child summoned, but she held her element, she dagger with the chain in her hand. She nodded, a little shyly, Mahiru noticed.

“Wh- I mean, I’m just surprised is all!” Karen said, her smile faltering for a moment, but never fully disappearing. “I was nervous because you weren’t in the room when I woke up,” Karen said. “But now I’m just feeling left out because you and Hikari-chan are out here without me!”

Mahiru smiled, dismissing Susanoo. Her feet touched down on the damp grass again. She walked over to Karen, hoping her friend would not think any different of her now that she had seen her monstrous Child. “Karen. I did not mean to hide this from you, I just wanted to control my powers better, and Kagura-san has been helping me.”

Karen smiled. “I told you! Hikari is great!”

Mahiru waited for the sting, the sharp pain of jealousy, but surprisingly, all she felt was a minor stab.

“Just like you,” Karen continued. “I have the best friends!”

Warmth filled Mahiru from her head to her toes and she couldn’t meet Karen’s eyes or Hikari’s. She looked at the ground. “I… I want to continue being friends with you, Karen!” she said. And then, turning to Hikari, but not meeting her eyes, she continued. “And I would like to be friends with you, too, Kagura-san!”

Hikari let out a small nod of affirmation, and Karen cheered. “Then it’s settled!” she beamed.

The next days passed quickly, with Mahiru spending more time with Hikari and Karen. Surprisingly, they didn’t meet at night, with their HiME powers, but just during the days, meeting before class, during lunch, in the evenings. Mahiru was surprised at the end of the week when the negative feelings didn’t stir at all as Karen proposed the idea of Hikari moving in with them. Hikari, it seemed, was in the next building, in a room all by herself, and was useless at cooking and cleaning.

Hikari’s quiet presence was not as offensive as Mahiru had originally thought, and she had quickly grown used to her duo becoming a trio. She agreed, and that weekend, Karen and she helped Hikari move in with them, the dorm mother helping them add a bunk to Karen’s bed. As celebration when they were finished, they headed out to the school’s festival the next day.

Several hours in, Mahiru was exhausted. Keeping up with Hikari and Karen was like keeping up with two small children. Her two roommates wanted to play every game, try every treat, see every exhibit, and run all around the school grounds. Mahiru indulged them as much as she could, rationalizing to herself that it was a Sunday, and it was worth it to see Karen smiling so brightly. But as the sun set, she found herself growing tired, while the other two showed no sign of slowing down.

“Karen, I think I need to get a drink and sit for a bit,” said Mahiru.

“Sure, thing!” said Karen, but then she looked worriedly towards the school buildings.

“Are you going to be late to something?” asked Mahiru.

“It’s not a big deal! Hanayagi-san’s club was doing a tea ceremony demonstration in a few minutes before the fireworks, but it’ll be stuffy in there, so I don’t want you to have to sit through that.”

“Why don’t you two go, and I’ll meet you by the tea ceremony clubhouse to walk to the fireworks in a half-hour?” she suggested.

Nodding in agreement, the other two took off, and Mahiru got her beverage, searching for a place to sit down. She walked along a shady, tree lined path on the school grounds, getting away from the crowded path of festival stalls for the time being. Long shadows and the chirping of crickets provided a calming ambiance, and she felt some of her energy coming back as she sipped.

She heard a twig snap, and stopped suddenly. Sliding to the side, she could see two figures ahead, one against the far side of a tall tree and the other leaning in close. As she shifted, she could see a long, blonde lock of hair from the girl against the tree. She knew that hair - no one in the school had hair like that but Saijou Claudine.

All Mahiru wanted to do was run away, but she thought of Claudine during their previous confrontation. She thought Mahiru had been taking Hikari’s side, when all she was trying to do was keep the peace. If someone was here in the forest, threatening Claudine, wasn’t it right for her to make sure her classmate was alright, HiME or not? She crept closer, trying to remain soundless, but a small gasp escaped her as she saw from her still distant vantage point what appeared to be Tendo Maya with her lips pressed against Claudine’s.

Claudine didn’t seem to hear Mahiru’s tiny gasp, but the student council president did. Without moving away from Claudine, she moved her eyes up to Mahiru, her gaze exact and deadly. Mahiru was rooted to the spot for a moment, eyes locked with Maya’s, and then she turned on her heel, running back the way she came, her unfinished juice sloshing on her dress as she didn’t dare drop her can and alert Claudine as well to her unwelcome presence on an intimate moment.

Tears again pricked her eyes as she ran - she should have known better. Claudine couldn’t have been in danger - her element or her Child were not out, and her opponent was not even armed. Mahiru was making progress, trying to clear things up and start again, and just like that she had unwittingly made a new enemy. Such was her distraction that she accidentally ran right into another classmate on the path.

“I’m sorry!” she said, getting up and reaching down to help the other girl up. It was Daiba Nana, who took her hand with a smile that quickly faded as she saw Mahiru’s stained dress and teary face.

“Tsuyuzaki-san, I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” she said. “But are you alright?”

Mahiru nodded, somehow feeling much better in the company of Nana than when she was alone. “Yes, I just… had a shock but I’m feeling better already.”

Nana nodded, as if she understood more than just what Mahiru told her. “Let’s take a seat over there, if you have the time, and we can talk for a moment?”

Mahiru agreed, since sitting down was her plan in the first place. Nana handed her a cloth to try dabbing some of the stains in her dress, and casually began. “I heard that you’ve developed HiME powers as well.”

“Yes, that is true,” Mahiru said quietly.

“Since you didn’t have them when we all were given direction about what this means, I thought it was only fair to fill you in, so you were on the same page as everyone else.”

Mahiru folded the cloth neatly in her lap. “I appreciate that, Daiba-san.”

“Please, call me Nana!”

“Ah, then you can call me Mahiru as well.”

“Alright, Mahiru-chan! Well, the first thing to know is that there are eight HiME known right now. Myself, Junna, Kaoruko, Futaba, Claudine, Maya, Karen, and you.”

A lump formed in Mahiru’s throat at the mention of Maya. Futaba had been a surprise to her as well, but the glare from Maya, coupled with the very real possibility of an attack from a Child, made her feel queasy. Mahiru didn’t mention Hikari. If the others didn’t know about Hikari yet, she would keep it to herself.

“You’ve seen an Orphan,” Nana continued. “But those are no longer our main concern. There is a HiME Carnival, a battle royale of sorts, where HiME are pitted against each other to determine a winner. The winner gets a wish, and this apparently also ‘saves the world’.”

“Against… each other…?” Mahiru felt herself growing pale. Maya and Claudine were HiME, and both had a grudge against her now. It wasn’t just about fighting monsters… but their own classmates?

Nana nodded. “That’s not the worst part, though. When a HiME is defeated, her most precious person is said to disappear. So everyone is taking this very seriously.”

Mahiru swallowed, her mouth suddenly very dry. She couldn’t even think of an appropriate response for Nana. Suddenly a firework went off, somewhere on the other side of campus. She was late to meet up with Karen and Hikari. Karen… Karen… her most precious person…

Ignoring Nana’s cries for her to stay seated and her gentle hands, Mahiru stood, making two strides towards the tea-house before her lightheadedness caught up with her and she collapsed on the grass.

The fireworks were beautiful this year, but interrupted before they were even a quarter of the way over by a massive gray cloud that rolled through the entire campus, pouring rain over the academy. Threatening rumbles of thunder echoed from within the cloud, and an invisible dragon floated through the entire event, thriving on the chaos, the disruption, a release from the terror, the tension inside his master. She was there too, of course, floating high in the sky, and hidden within thick tufts of fog, though she knew not the smile she wore as she watched the revelers run away, seeking shelter from the sudden monsoon.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 - Futaba

 

Futaba was swinging her kendo sword when the earthquake occurred, and the tremors were bad enough that she stumbled onto the floor of the gymnasium, supporting herself on her hands and knees until the earth was still. Around her, she could hear girls in the club yelling in surprise and calling for their friends, and she tried to listen through the din for any hint that would indicate that this trembling was caused by an Orphan rather than just an actual natural disaster.

“Captain! Are you alright?” asked an underclassman, rushing over even as the ground seemed to still be rocking.

Futaba nodded, thinking of Kaoruko in that rickety teahouse with all that porcelain, boiling water, and flames. “I’m fine. I need to check on a few friends, though,” she said. “Please make sure everyone gets home safely,” she instructed her two assistant captains, taking off on unsteady legs. The earth was again still, and Futaba was relatively certain that this was in fact a bonafide natural disaster and not an Orphan attack, but truth be told, she’d never been good with earthquakes. And everyone knew an earthquake could be the first step to a tsunami, whether hours or days later, making a tiny island off the coast a less than ideal place to be at the moment.

Without realizing it, Futaba made it to the teahouse, her hand trembling as she opened the door, careful not to rip any of the delicate paper panels. “Kaoruko, you here?” she called, her voice artificially calm. There was no response, and her heart began beating faster. She imagined a fire spreading in the back room, or one of the large shelves coming down. She rushed into the back room to find it empty of people, with no fires, but shattered porcelain here and there and the smell of tealeaves, as if the place had been utilized for its intended purpose only moments before.

Futaba felt her vision tunneling. She hated earthquakes. She fell to her knees on the tatami, breathing in the scent of Kaoruko’s tea, trying to calm down.

“-taba?”

She perked up, her heart racing again as she heard that all too familiar voice calling her.

“Futaba, are you there?” Kaoruko’s voice was louder this time as she stepped carefully back into the room, avoiding causing any more damage. “Come on now, there’s no reason to panic,” Kaoruko said, but she made no effort to make Futaba get up. Instead, she simply found a clear spot beside her and got down into her perfect seiza, sitting quietly as she waited for Futaba to speak. Most people thought Kaoruko never shut up, but sometimes, she could be silent with endless patience.

“You weren’t here, when I came by,” Futaba choked out at last.

Kaoruko rubbed small circles gently on her back, a calm expression on her face, despite whatever she was feeling internally. “I know you hate earthquakes. I went to the gym to see if you were alright, but I found out you had come here. Even during the thing you hate most, you still come to my side, Futaba?”

Futaba shrugged, not trusting herself to answer aloud. Of course, she wanted to answer. Always.

Kaoruko sighed, sitting back from the proper seiza position and leaning against Futaba. The sun was starting to set and orange beams were being cast in through the window of the teahouse. The power, for the time being, was knocked out. Futaba knew Kaoruko was thinking of the same thing she was: Of the last summer they could call themselves merely acquaintances… the day that took them from curiously staring at each other from over a Kyoto wall from being the inseparable pair they were today.

“That was a big earthquake,” Kaoruko said, and Futaba knew she was not talking about the one today, but the one all those summers ago, in Kyoto. The earthquake where she had nearly died.

“It was. I meant to drop my bike and run for shelter, but my hands were stuck to the handlebars.” Futaba remembered standing in the abandoned street, her hands gripping the handlebars, trying to force her grip to loosen, to no avail, as the earth trembled furiously.

“You’re lucky I had chosen to run away that day,” Kaoruko said. And though it’s true, it wasn’t the luckiest of coincidences, as Kaoruko had a habit of running away every other day or so in those days. She had pried Futaba’s hands off the handlebars and practically carried her under the shelter of a store’s alcove, moments before a different store’s balcony spilled onto the street, crushing Futaba’s bike. With deathly seriousness and a small bit of reverence, Kaoruko had said ‘I saved your life, no doubt. Now you need to stay by my side until that favor is paid back.’

Futaba had nodded solemnly that day, and respected the deal. How could she not? She was saved from certain death by an ojou-sama who certainly did not have to lift a finger to help her. And she found that staying by Kaoruko’s side was much more fun than anticipated. Sure, Kaoruko was whiney, needy, selfish, but all that was expected. Kaoruko was also clever, amusing, surprisingly considerate when she wanted to be, and her instincts were nearly always spot on.

Yes, they had fought often, but that never lasted more than a few days. Futaba stood up, feeling much better than she had moments before, dusted herself off, and helped Kaoruko up, only then noticing the blood on her kimono. “Are you hurt?” she asked, inspecting her carefully.

“Ah this? No, the teapot shattered and a first year fell on top of it when the earthquake started. Her blood got on my kimono. Shame, I don’t think it will come out. But she got to the nurse’s office alright.”

Futaba almost laughed at Kaoruko’s appraisal at the state of her kimono before the state of the injured student, but she wasn’t quite back in her top form. The two of them left the tea house, deciding to clean the mess the next day, and ran into Claudine and Maya almost immediately after stepping on the main path back to the residential buildings. Both in slightly disheveled school uniforms, Futaba figured they must have been in the student council office when the earthquake hit.

“Are you both uninjured?” asked Maya. “We messaged you but you didn’t answer.”

“We don’t live to serve you, kaichou,” said Kaoruko. “But we’re alright. Desperately need a bath, though.”

“Are you both alright as well?” asked Futaba.

“We’re fine,” assured Claudine. “Though this is certainly bizarre. And likely going to create quite a bit of work for the student council…”

Maya met her gaze then, as if reminding her of their intended purpose.

Claudine shook her head, as if clearing it. “I’m glad you’re both alright. We need to continue checking in with everyone and making sure everyone is accounted for, and seeing if anyone has injuries that need treatment.”

“Better make sure there’s no secret Orphan lurking beyond the treeline while you’re at it,” Kaoruko jabbed, a hint of a smirk on her lips, despite the fact that Futaba could see that she was still trembling a bit from the recent earthquake.

“Of course we will check for any threats to the campus,” said Maya, either deflecting the tease, or else not daring to believe Kaoruko would be teasing so close to something so serious.

“Hey, Kuroko!” called Futaba, stopping Claudine in her tracks as she was walking away with Maya. “I know we were supposed to meet up later… should we reschedule for tomorrow?”

Claudine nodded. “I’ll message you.”

Alone again, it was difficult to restart a conversation with Kaoruko. Silently, they trudged back to the dormitory, passing a couple other pairs or small groups of students walking across campus in similar states of shock after the earthquake.

“Someone should tell Aijou to get her butt on the intercoms and pep everybody up,” Kaoruko said grumpily as they passed another pair of zombie-like students. She said it loud enough that Futaba was sure the other girls heard her, but she was too tired to apologize for Kaoruko or chastise her or to say much of anything.

When they got back to the dorm, Futaba was surprised as Kaoruko told her she could take a bath first. But as she undressed, she could see herself shivering all over, and supposed Kaoruko had to have taken pity on her, so she accepted gratefully and slipped into the warm bath. Kaoruko came in some minutes later and perched on the windowsill, pretending to text on her phone.

“I’m warming up now, thanks,” Futaba said.

Kaoruko let out a little noncommittal noise to let Futaba know she was listening.

“You can come in too, if you want,” offered Futaba. It was true, there was plenty of room, and it wasn’t like they had never bathed together before. Their dorm rooms offered them private baths with rather generous sized tubs, and though Kaoruko initially seemed to scoff at the offer, after a moment she stripped down, and rinsed off, and Futaba drew her knees up to accommodate an extra person in the tub.

Kaoruko relaxed into the tub, but some of the stiffness didn’t leave her shoulders, and her expression still looked grim. Futaba had a feeling she knew what was worried about. “You can always have Maya call him,” she offered.

“Of course,” Kaoruko replied. “You think I plan to speak to him directly after that stunt at the Spring Festival?” she scoffed, resting her head back on the edge of the tub.

Futaba had been separated from Kaoruko at the festival, since Kaoruko had tea ceremony club activities, and Futaba had kendo club activities, but she had certainly seen Kaoruko’s father, the school's Director, and his mistress, parading around the festival. When the festival went dark with storm clouds and rain, Futaba had thought it was Kaoruko, since it resembled her Child, and she’d only revealed her Child in desperate, emotional moments, but Kaoruko had vehemently denied it.

“I’m getting warm,” Futaba announced. “Make sure you text Maya to call him. When you get out, let's go get dinner and get in bed. I’m exhausted.”

Apparently, Kaoruko wasn’t in a mood to argue that night, because a few minutes later, she got out of the bath, dried her hair, and got dressed into clothes that were rather casual by Kaoruko standards, but still acceptable to walk around campus to the dining hall wearing.

They both ate dinner with surprisingly vigorous appetites, despite the recent shocking events, but Futaba attributed it to relief that no one was harmed and the fact that it had been many hours since lunch.

“What did Kuro-han want to see you about?” Kaoruko asked, dropping some unwanted vegetables onto Futaba’s plate.

Futaba shrugged. “Not sure. She asked if I had some free time today and I had said I could meet after practice. She wanted to talk about something, and it sounded serious, so I thought it was about the HiMEs, but I thought she would just talk about that with Tendo.”

“Hmmm,” mused Kaoruko, slurping a noodle. “Trouble in paradise?”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at, but I don’t think I want to,” said Futaba.

Kaoruko rolled her eyes, as if annoyed with Futaba’s slowness. “Relationship drama, duh!”

Futaba blushed, despite herself. “I don’t think Kuroko is coming to be with anything like that!” she sputtered.

“Hmph,” said Kaoruko, pushing her finished meal away. “Well if she is, you better spill!”

Later that night, Futaba lay awake, despite every inch of her body feeling the exhaustion of the stress and terror that the earthquake had brought her. She looked across the room to where Kaoruko at least looked to be sleeping peacefully. Perhaps she was faking it for Futaba’s sake.

Futaba’s mind drifted unwillingly back to Kaoruko’s father and his mistress, with her strange icy blue eyes. Previously, he had always consorted with his mistress (mistresses?) overseas, so Futaba had never seen her, but to bring her to the spring festival was a bold move. The true Lady Hanayagi was home in Kyoto, bedridden with illness, the main reason why Kaoruko’s parents had stepped down from actively running the school on campus. Futaba wondered if she knew about this other woman, but instinct told her she must. She was even keener than Kaoruko, if that was possible.

Again, Futaba tried to make out Kaoruko’s face in the darkness of the room. Her bed was directly across from Futaba’s, but very little light hit it. Futaba wasn’t sure what she was looking for, though. Kaoruko was hardly the kind of girl to cry herself to sleep. Finally, Futaba let her thoughts go and drifted off.

“What are you thinking about, Futaba?”

Claudine looked at her strangely, as they walked down the main path toward the school gate. Futaba glanced at a couple spots where large gashes were carved out of the stone path and wondered which HiME, Child or Orphan was responsible.

“Nothing, sorry. You said you wanted to talk?”

Claudine cocked her head curiously, trying to read Futaba. A few students that they passed eyed the two of them with poorly concealed curiosity, doubtlessly due to Futaba’s celebrity status on campus. “I do, of course, but I’m also your friend, and you look worried about something.”

Futaba wanted to confess a lot of things to Claudine: how she was worried about Kaoruko having used her powers at the festival the other night, how she didn’t want to fight her classmates in the first place, how she didn’t like something in the eyes of Hanayagi-san’s mistress, and many other things, but all of those would require her to reveal more about Kaoruko’s family situation than she felt was appropriate without Kaoruko’s consent. Instead, she decided to stay vague. “The star… it’s getting closer,” she said.

It was true. The bright red HiME star, once the size of every other star in the night sky, was now slightly larger than the moon, indicating that it was coming closer and closer to earth. The time limit was approaching. It was afternoon now, so the sun blocked out most of the view of the star, aside from a faint red glow, but soon the sun would set and it would haunt them all night.

“It is,” Claudine confirmed. “Maya says-” she stopped, almost choking on the phrase.

“Kuroko?” They exited the school gate, both glancing at Futaba’s parked bike, and then not trusting themselves on a motorized vehicle at the moment, they kept walking towards a nearby cafe.

“Sorry, I… it’s her,” Claudine said quietly.

Futaba bit her lip. She was going to be impressed if Kaoruko was right and this was really about relationship issues, but right now, she was to focus on the problem, not on Kaoruko’s predictions.

“Tendo?” Futaba said quietly. They sat on the patio of the cafe as Claudine nodded. “What’s going on? Has she done something?”

“No. Yes.” Claudine sighed, opening her mouth and then closing it again. The waiter came by then, and they ordered beverages, giving Claudine a moment to compose her thoughts. When he disappeared again, she seemed ready to speak. “I’m probably just being crazy,” Claudine began, “But the other day, I caught Maya with a file of mine, and something that she had on one of her computer tabs was a connection to my mother, who died when I was a child. I know she’s the student council president, but-”

“-But she’s still being more nosy than you’d like.”

Claudine nodded, and the waiter returned with their drinks. “And more than that, I’ve been in contact with some… somewhat unsavory people while trying to figure out how to stop this whole HiME thing. If Maya were to try to talk with them alone, well… she’s an idiot at the real world.”

Futaba laughed lightly, not disagreeing with Claudine’s observation. She hadn’t realized that Claudine had been working behind the scenes trying to stop the HiME Carnival. “Kuroko… just how long have you been a HiME for?”

Claudine sipped at her drink, considering. “About… twelve years now, more or less?” Upon seeing Futaba’s gaping expression she continued. “Yes, it was rather unpleasant. It’s not possible to naturally make a HiME when the Star isn’t at least preparing to come out. I don’t have fond memories of that time.”

“What does anyone even want with a child HiME?” Futaba mused.

“What indeed. To steal my wish at the end, I suppose. But I left, or rather, I escaped. I think that Kagura Hikari is here hunting me down, but if I earn that wish, it’s not for some messed up scientist who experiments on children to use.”

“Kagura-san…” said Futaba, unsure of why her mind had settled on that girl, as if trying to connect some pieces that she just couldn’t put together.

She was distracted, however, as the phone rang. “Hello?”

“Futaba! Are you with Kuro-han?”

“Yeah, do you need to talk to her?”

“Yes, her g.f. is being weird.”

“It’s Kaoruko,” said Futaba, handing over the phone. She pulled out money to pay as Claudine talked, certain their short time together was ending with whatever news Kaoruko was about to deliver. Claudine stopped her with a hand and took out her own wallet as she listened to Kaoruko’s report.

“Where did she say she was going? ...Of course she didn’t…. No, not the shipping yard, the seaport…. ….She did? ….I’m going to kill Tendo Maya. ...Ok, thanks Kaoruko, bye.” She hung up and gave the phone back.

“I’m really sorry, Futaba,” she began.

“Go, stop Maya from doing something dumb.”

“Why is she like this?” Claudine mused.

“Would it help if I said I’m sure it comes from a place of caring? She really, really likes you, that’s why she does things like this.”

“She’s shaving years off my life. Speaking of which, you better go catch up with Kaoruko. She sounded like she was getting a bit jealous that I was hogging you this afternoon.”

When Futaba found Kaoruko again, she was heading to the cafeteria for lunch. They got a meal together, Futaba feeling better in the cool indoors once she had something to eat. The sky was becoming a bit overcast again - not an uncommon occurrence in June in the early evening, but it reminded Futaba of the spring festival, and her dinner began to sit heavier in her stomach as they left the dining hall.

As they walked back to the residence halls, it began to rain lightly, but neither of them were wearing a jacket or had an umbrella. It was fine, Futaba supposed, since they were going to take a bath in a few minutes, but it was still unpleasant. Futaba had gotten a few paces ahead before she realized Kaoruko had fallen behind, standing still on the path in the rain.

“Oi, Kaoruko, come on!” Futaba called, but still Kaoruko didn’t move. Futaba tried to see what she was looking at, but had to walk back to see beyond the edge of the next building. There, on the path beside the library stood the transfer student Kagura Hikari, her eyes the same ice blue as Hanayagi’s mistress. There was no mistaking it, this had to be that woman’s child.

Aijou Karen came to stand beside Hikari, so there were two of them staring down the pair of Futaba and Kaoruko. The rain was coming down harder now, pushing Kaoruko’s bangs into her eyes, and Futaba was sure her own hair and face didn’t look any better.

Kaoruko opened her mouth to shout across the distance at Hikari, but her opening words surprised Futaba. “Stop following Kuro-han around, you’re making life really difficult for her and for the student council! I won’t tolerate it at my school!”

Karen stepped forward to stand between Hikari and Kaoruko, though there was still about fifteen meters between them, but it was Hikari who replied. “How many times do I have to tell you all? I don’t care about Saijou-san!”

“Funny way to show you don’t care,” sneered Kaoruko, stepping forward a bit. Futaba felt her gut tighten. Was this it, was this the time she was due to repay her debt? But how could she? It would have to be a perfect victory - her loss meant Kaoruko’s loss as well because without a shred of doubt, Kaoruko was her most precious person. She wondered if she was Kaoruko’s most precious person as well, but thought that honor likely went to Kaoruko’s dear mother.

“I’m not here to talk about that, not really though,” continued Kaoruko. “Kuro-han is a precious friend, but my grievances are much more… personal.”

Hikari stepped forward this time, and though a small part of Futaba may have expected the transfer student to step down from the confrontation, she knew truly what was going to happen since she saw the blue in Hikari’s eyes. “I do not see what grievance you could have with me,” she said, her voice cold and detached.

“You know who I am! You must have known for years! And you could have just lived your life in England, and I could have lived mine here. But you had to come and rub it in, parade around Seisho, showing off how… how my father has replaced his whole family with yours!” Kaoruko spat. Hikari didn’t display any emotion still, but Karen looked shocked at this revelation.

Futaba realized she had been right. Kaoruko was not one to cry herself to sleep. If Kaoruko was going to cry, the offender was going to be forced to bear witness.

“I’m not here for any reason as trivial as that, I assure you,” said Hikari. “I am only here to ensure Karen’s safety.”

“Trivial?!”

Futaba blushed despite the chill from the rain as all three of the others stared at her. She had yelled out without thinking. She took a deep breath before continuing. “You call that trivial, stepping on other people’s feelings? Yes, we’re all trying to grasp our own happiness, but you still have to be considerate!” She wasn’t sure if it was tears or rain running down her face anymore.

For the first time, Hikari’s emotionless visage broke, and something like frustration marred her expression. “Well… it’s not like he loved me either!” she shouted, her element seeming to manifest into her hand unconsciously with her rage.

Despite the clouds from the rain storm, the HiME star remained bright and visible in the now darkened night sky. Hands shaking, Kaoruko met Hikari’s challenge by summoning her naginata. This was not going to be a bonding session for the forgotten daughters of the head of the Hanayagi family, Futaba realized quickly.

They moved behind the library where there was cover from any passing students, before Kaoruko and Hikari crossed blades. Almost at once, Karen summoned her element, forcing Futaba to do the same. She had no grudge against the cheerful girl who read the morning announcements, but she was not going to let anything happen to Kaoruko.

Futaba wasn’t sure who summoned their Child first, except that it was not her. It could have been Kaoruko, but it was hard to tell as it was already raining. She saw the Tokyo Tower emerging from the earth, its bright and piercing lasers lighting up the clearing even more than the lightning did. She saw Hikari’s polar bear-type Child, bounding around on all fours, and scratching at Kaoruko’s dragon Child with its claws and teeth.

Futaba summoned her Child, the samurai coming to her aid at once and parrying with the polar bear. Together, she and Kaoruko could balance Hikari and Karen reasonably well, but the pair was stronger than the two of them had predicted. It was a high-stakes battle, and all four were battling knowing that they had their precious person’s lives on the line.

Finally, Kaoruko managed to throw Hikari back for a moment of reprieve, and Futaba knocked Karen off balance, the two of them collecting themselves for another attack where they could begin with the upper hand. It was dark, it was wet, and there were eight pieces in play. This HiME Carnival was ugly- the furthest thing from disciplined kendo.

Just as Futaba turned to continue the attack, switching partners with Kaoruko this time, the rain began to pour harder. The clouds darkened as well, and she began to lose sight of Kaoruko, even though she was right beside her a moment ago. “Oi, Kaoruko, tell your Child to calm down!”

“...Futaba… this isn’t me…”

Kaoruko sounded scared, and this caused a new dread in Futaba as well. The storm at the spring festival… if it wasn’t Kaoruko, then was it possible that…?

There was a grunt, and her samurai fell to his knees, a laser through his thigh. Kaoruko was standing in front of Futaba’s Child, defending it from further damage, though the others were converging, like sharks to blood.

“Kaoruko!!” Futaba shouted, desperate to get to Kaoruko who was now facing Hikari and Karen alone.

“Not so fast,” said a voice, vaguely familiar, from above her. There was no one there, just storm clouds. “I don’t want to hurt you, but you can’t go over there yet.” True to her word, there seemed to be some kind of barrier keeping Futaba from moving closer to Kaoruko.

Futaba wasn’t sure who this was, but she sure didn’t like their ‘hide in the shadows’ tactics. “Is this your way of keeping blood off your hands?” she asked. “Keep this invisible wall up, make your friends finish off the HiME or the Childs? Well guess what? At the end of the day, you’re just as guilty!”

The wall glitched, and Futaba pushed forward a bit more, but the secret HiME erected it again. Kaoruko’s dragon Child was defending both Kaoruko and Futaba’s Child well, but it was only a matter of time before it was defeated. Futaba knew Kaoruko (and likely Hikari) would never back down from the fight - she needed to get over there and help them talk it out.

“Who are you? Why are you helping them?” she shouted at the invisible HiME keeping her from Kaoruko.

“I have to help Karen. Though it pains me to impede you, Isurugi-san,” she said.

“Tsuyuzaki-san?” Futaba guessed. She could only think of one person who followed Karen around everywhere who was also a fan of kendo.

The HiME let out a little ‘eep’ to indicate that Futaba had guessed correctly, and a bolt of lightning shot from her cloud barrier. Futaba parried it with her halberd and deflected it into the barrier itself. It didn’t seem to break it completely, but it was enough for Futaba to squeeze through, though she felt a little singed afterwards. She tripped in the mud, but got up, running as fast as she could towards Kaoruko.

Between mud and tears in her eyes, she wasn’t sure if it was the bear’s claws or the lasers that took down the dragon in the end, but she was sure that the dragon was done for as she got about halfway to where Kaoruko was. “I’m sorry!” she shouted, knowing she was too late. She wasn’t quite sure what she was apologizing for - the loss of Kaoruko’s wish, perhaps the death of her mother who would disappear as Kaoruko’s most precious person, but most of all, her own inadequacy when she was most needed.

Suddenly Futaba saw Daiba and Hoshimi approaching the clearing, out of breath from running. For some reason, Daiba’s Child was out. Hoshimi was yelling, but Futaba couldn't hear what she was saying. She couldn’t...

Green sparkles.

Futaba’s fingertips were green sparkles. Traveling away into the ether. Futaba wondered if she was… becoming stardust... She wondered if this was because she charged through that evil barrier with lightning...

Suddenly, Kaoruko was there, safe, thank God. But she was crying.

She looked distraught, angry even, as she pulled Futaba’s head into her lap. “You absolute idiot, Futaba. You probably doubted if you were even my most precious person.”

Futaba nodded dumbly, because of course, Kaoruko knows her too well.

“Of course you are. And now,” she sniffed. “And now you’re… drifting away from me. From all of us.”

Futaba realized all at once what was happening. They had lost, and now they were going to disappear. Her first, and then Kaoruko. That is what happens in the Carnival, after all.

“But don’t worry,” Kaoruko continued. “You’ve been faithful. You’ve followed me your whole life. I’ll follow right behind you now.”

Futaba nodded, realizing once again that she was crying. Was it possible to love one person this much? It was time to go now. The sparkles continued, growing more and more, but Futaba tried not to look at them, because they were too terrifying. She didn’t look at anyone around her, either. She had no idea if anyone else was still in the field, even. She just stared at Kaoruko until she knew nothing.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 - Nana

Back! Nana squeezed her eyes shut, willing time to turn back. She summoned Hanuman, and no one seemed to care, not Mahiru, Karen, Hikari, Junna, or Kaoruko, who currently had Futaba resting on her lap.

Turn back! Go back! She focused harder. They just needed a little more time to reset. She and Junna had just arrived on the scene, being drawn by the sudden lightning and thunder in the midst of an otherwise quiet rainstorm. But they had arrived after the damage was done, too late for Nana to make any difference at all.

She knew it was null. Futaba was ceasing to exist before her eyes and she was almost certain Kaoruko was doomed. Junna’s research had been impeccable, and Nana knew, perhaps more than anyone else on this campus, about the bonds between the HiME. In fact, she might be responsible for most of them.

Nana’s mind whirled at a tremendous speed, and in only about five seconds, Hanuman was summoned and sent away, once she realized he would be of no use. Tears sprang to her eyes. Like everyone else, she was trapped, watching the scene of her friends disappearing like a voyeur at a car wreck, wanting to turn away, but feeling it would be irreverent.

Mahiru was crying while clinging onto Karen, but Nana bit back her tears. She needed to focus and besides, she was never the type of person to allow herself to cry openly.

There were green sparkles. This was no good. Nana turned to run, Junna taking off soon after. She could hear Hikari shouting after them, perhaps wondering why they bothered to show up at all if just to take off again, or perhaps wondering where they were going, if they were somehow trying to capitalize on this turn of events. This was the Carnival, after all.

Nana ran through the rain back to the library, and instead of entering the main entrance, used her keys to open the small door to the clock tower. She walked up the narrow staircase daily to set the campus clock, but today she clambered down it, three stairs at a time, Junna out of breath as she rushed to keep up. The stairs seemed to wind down forever, the first deterrent to anyone uninvolved in HiME matters. Next came a sealed door that Nana had to press her element - a pair of katanas - against, in order to get it to open.

Once through the doors, now far below ground level, she and Junna dashed through a cave system before emerging into a wide cavern, the ceiling of which beckoned them with a latin inscription translating to “Theater of Truth”, or at least that’s what Junna informed her. The floor rumbled, and Nana rushed over to a round raised area, about fifteen feet in diameter, which she hoped against hope was not the source of the rumbling.

From the dais, a pillar emerged from the stone earth, itself made of stone, cracks forming throughout the surface, and crusted in purple gemstones. It stood about eight feet high once it had finished emerging. Almost immediately after, a second pillar emerged across from it, nearly identical but with pink gemstones. Although it was fruitless, Nana continued her mantra. Back, back, back!

From the dais, a pillar emerged from the stone earth, itself made of stone, cracks forming throughout the surface, and crusted in purple gemstones. Almost immediately after, a second pillar emerged across from it, nearly identical but with pink gemstones. Her desperation growing, Nana continued her mantra. Back! back! back!

A second pillar emerged across from the dais, nearly identical to the first but with pink gemstones. She realized she had to stop. It was impossible to go back further than the emergence of the pillars. A gasp from Junna brought her attention back to the rest of the cavern, where most inexplicably, the giraffe now stood.

“You!” she shouted, knowing she didn’t sound like herself, like the kind and loving Nana who baked for everyone and had endless patience. It was difficult to be that girl now, after watching Futaba disappear and knowing the same fate had befallen Kaoruko.

“Good evening Daiba-san, Hoshimi-san,” he greeted, in perfect Japanese, despite holding the appearance of a giraffe.

“Why won’t it work?” she asked. She knew he would understand her question without her saying it more explicitly. Junna, for her part, looked lost.

“I believed you would figure it out on your own,” the giraffe said, not quite taunting, but there was something in his tone that was almost jesting at Nana.

“Well I don’t, so explain, giraffe,” she demanded. “Why can’t I go back further?”

“Your powers have everything to do with the desperation to turn time back. The more dire the situation is, the shorter the amount of time you can go back is.”

“And who gets to decide how desperate a situation is and how much time is enough?” she asked.

“This is your Child, and your power. They are all linked within your heart.”

Curse her heart for giving away the desperation of her need to turn back time as Futaba and Kaoruko disappeared from this world.

The giraffe continued. “I have never seen a HiME with time powers in my existence, but you are focused so much on the limits of yours rather than the potential.”

Nana couldn’t even turn back to face the giraffe - her eyes had wandered again to the pillars. From the formation, it appeared that eight could emerge from the dais to form an octagon-type shape. Eight? But there were only eight HiME… no… tonight proved differently...

“Shut up!” she called to the giraffe, both to get him to stop taunting her and so she could think. “I just need you to leave us alone right now.”

The giraffe made a curious expression. “You had not realized there were nine? I would have thought you of all people would have figured that out ages ago. Well then, I’ll be off, per your command.” He disappeared into the shadows of the cavern, and Nana realized she and Junna were alone once again.

Nana began pacing. Her time powers wouldn’t work because her heart detected that this was a desperate situation. Perhaps if she was able to calm her heart, to tell herself that this was just like in the beginning of the school year, when stakes were low, she could pull it off. But how to trick herself?

Suddenly she heard a sob. Turning around, she saw Junna, sitting on a small boulder in the corner of the cavern, her cell phone in her lap and her face in her hands. No! Back! Back!

The giraffe disappeared and Nana and Junna were alone once again. “Junna,” Nana called gently, despite her own impending panic. “I’m sorry if I frightened you. Are you alright?” She walked closer to her roommate, but not so close as to frighten her, in case Junna was now terrified of Nana’s cryptic conversations with the giraffe. Junna had been so kind as to follow Nana unquestioningly, but it wa clear something was on her mind.

“I- someone- probably me- should call the student council president and vice president,” she said quietly. “They need to be informed of matters concerning the student body, they’re HiME, and well, they’re closest with Isurugi-san and Hanayagi-san,” she said.

“Of course,” said Nana, realizing as Junna said these words that this was reality, and that barring some miracle in her powers, there was no bringing her classmates back from wherever they had disappeared to. “Why don’t you make that call, and then we can take a bath, change into dry clothes, and I’ll make some tea and heat up some dessert before we get in bed?”

“Oh Nana, I can’t eat anything tonight, not after…”

“Just have some tea, and decide then if you want it,” Nana offered.

Junna shook her head, but didn’t protest. She adjusted her glasses, and they climbed the stairs out of the cavern back to ground level so she could get some service for her cell phone. Nana noticed her clothes were starting to dry. She supposed they had better get in the bath soon or they would risk getting sick.

Junna dialed Maya on her cell phone. “Oh, hello, kaichou-san? Yes, I apologize for calling so late. Are you still off campus? ...Ah, well if you’ll be back soon, that’s… good. Is Saijou-san with you? ...Ok, then please convey this to her as well…” Nana watched as tears began to roll down Junna’s face and her voice became more choked as she tried to tell the news to Maya. “Well, you see… The HiME Carnival… it has begun.”

Junna reached for Nana’s hand, squeezing it as they stood outside the darkened library. “...Yes,” Junna continued. “Isurugi-san and Hanayagi-san fought against Aijou-san, Tsuyuzaki-san, and Kagura-san tonight and lost… Correct. Correct. Alright, feel free to call again if needed. Goodbye.”

Nana was surprised at the short duration of the call, but she supposed Tendo Maya was extremely straightforward. She would likely grasp the situation in an instant. “Let’s go home,” Nana suggested. Junna agreed, walking back through the rain which had slowed to a drizzle beside Nana until they reached their dormitory.

They shared a floor with Mahiru and Karen, and lately it seemed Hikari had moved into that room as well, but the room in question was quiet with the door shut when they returned. Luckily, the Seisho dormitory bathrooms were en suite, so Nana and Junna didn’t have to worry about any awkward encounters in the baths with the perpetrators of the first disappearances of the Carnival.

Nana slipped into the bath with Junna, grateful for the warmth after an unknown time being wet and cold. It was now approaching 9PM, and the fight had started after dinner, so it seemed it had been several hours, but time was confusing ever since getting her HiME powers.

They sat in silence for a few moments, allowing the heat to wash away some of the stress and fear from the evening. But nothing could relieve the palpable terror of watching their classmate disappear in front of their eyes and knowing a second classmate had suffered the same fate moments later - that any of the HiME, themselves included, could be destined for that path. Or conversely, that they could cause someone to disappear in that manner.

“This is so messed up,” Junna said, sinking further into the bath. Nana wanted to say something to comfort her, to let her know she could protect her at least, but she had nothing. If Nana was defeated, she was almost certain Junna was doomed as well. She wondered if it was the same for Junna. She found it rather comforting, rather than disconcerting, that she had a feeling the answer was ‘yes’.

Nana made them a simple meal, more like a snack really, and then they brushed their teeth and went to bed. Nana was sure that Junna’s head was busy repeating memories of the evening, worrying over the student council, and thinking about the future, and she was tempted to rewind time every time Junna voiced a worry in order to circumvent her train of thought, but Nana was certain that the thoughts were endless, and Nana was beginning to come up empty on ways to redirect herself.

Finally, she lay in bed, certain that neither she nor Junna would be asleep for some time, but both putting in a good effort to convince the other that they were sleeping. Despite the running around from that evening, Nana didn’t find herself the least bit sleepy yet. Instead, she found herself thinking of the first days she received her powers.

When Nana first received her HiME powers, it was the evening after she first formally met Junna. Sure, she knew the disciplinary committee chair from afar as she knew all the members of the student council, but their rooming assignment in their last year of Seisho was the first time they had been properly introduced. Until then, they had always been in separate classes. “Did your roommate transfer out as well?” Nana asked, mostly to lighten the mood. Her roommate from the previous year had received a scholarship to study abroad, so they couldn’t fault her for taking it.

“No, I lived off-campus with my parents until this year,” said Junna, every movement stiff. “But I wanted to try being a little more independent this year.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here. Let’s have some tea and then finish unpacking.”

They did as Nana suggested, and Junna loosened up just the tiniest bit. Nana did most of the talking, about food, about her summer break, about classes, but she did get Junna to open up about some things that interested her: the student council, literature and plays, and history.

“You’ve been on the student council since your first year, haven’t you?” asked Nana. “I think I remember you on the stage at assemblies since back then.”

Junna nodded solemnly. “I was a representative our first year. Then I was promoted to disciplinary chair. Now, our third year, I am secretary, in addition to those other two jobs.”

“That’s so much!” Nana gasped. “All I do is library duty, and occasionally help at cooking club!”

“Please, Daiba-san. Your job in the library is just as important. You help the entire school with their studies. And you set the clock in the tower that is our school’s beacon. Besides,” she sighed. “I do not work nearly as hard as those two.”

Nana didn’t understand it then, the way Junna looked up to Maya and Claudine; the way she saw them as unreachable pillars. She had thought it was mere ambition, or a competitive steak, not something deeper, something darker. To Junna, Nana now realized, Maya was everything she hoped to be- poised, calm, seemingly perfect, and running the school with everyone’s admiration. Only Nana’s power allowed her to shatter the illusion, something she hadn’t yet discovered yet on that night.

That night, Junna was called on her cell phone just as their movie was ending. They were already in nightgowns, having planned on getting into bed once the movie ended. “Yes? Ah, kaichou-san, good evening…. No, I hadn’t heard that.” Her face turned serious. “Of course I will go check. I will take a look and message you after. If I don’t get any results we can call security.”

Junna turned to Nana. “There’s a problem. It’s only the first night back, but already some girls haven’t returned to the dorm for rollcall. I told Tendo-san I would take a walk around campus to check if they’re lost before we call security. I won’t be long,” she said, already pulling on a pair of pants.

“I’ll go with you,” Nana offered, glancing out the window. “It’s way past dark, you can’t go alone.”

“Oh, I can’t ask that of you, Daiba-san. This is part of my duties to the student council.”

“I could use some fresh air, and I need to stretch my legs after all that unpacking. Let’s go,” Nana said decidedly, tying her shoes. She slipped on a jacket, leaving her legs exposed under the nightgown. They walked out into the chilly spring night. “I think we should check the south forest path first,” Nana suggested with the wisdom of someone who had lived on campus for two years already. “If they’re trying a test of courage, that’s where they’d go.”

Junna shrugged. “It’s also on the way to the main gate, so I suppose that’s fine.” She still didn’t seem entirely comfortable with Nana’s presence, but she seemed to allow it. Nana wondered if Junna was used to spending a lot of time alone. Nana seemed to recognize this in her mannerisms. It was the same as Nana’s own ways, but Nana’s were better disguised. It was very different from the way their neighbor, Aijou-san, held herself. It was as though that girl could not stand spending a moment by herself.

But that night, the first day Nana spent with Junna, and the first night of their third year at Seisho, was also the first night she saw an Orphan. There, about five minutes after they entered the forest on the south side of the campus, Junna asked Nana to take a branching path to continue their search. Nana complied, and a few minutes later, standing before her, there was a strange and terrifying badger-like beast. It had dug a hole, into which several of their classmates could be heard shouting in distress. Nana wanted to call for Junna, but she wondered what good that would do. She would probably just get her roommate killed. Her voice felt dead in her throat anyways.

Somehow, despite her fear and intense focus on the beast that miraculously hadn’t noticed her yet, Nana felt an annoying pain in her wrist. Lifting it to observe, she could suddenly see a strange marking that she was sure was not there before. It was red and looked like a dot with another circle around it, but instead of closing completely it was left open just a bit, with just a little swipe of red trailing off to the side. A most peculiar symbol. But Nana could not dwell on this, because the badger seemed to notice her then, if not by sight then by smell.

Nana took off running through the trees, but the creature followed close behind, and she could feel it’s strange breath on her back: hot, yet mechanical. She knew she couldn’t continue to run, but what other choice did she have – she couldn’t fight this thing. But suddenly, an idea formed in her mind. A picture of katanas. She grabbed them, slashing, and suddenly, they really existed in her hands. Her adrenaline was such that she didn’t have time to comprehend such a miracle, she just aimed to stop this creature.

The badger stood taller than she did, however, and though its sight was poor, it had a strong nose, sensitive ears, and sharp, dangerous talons. In comparison, two katanas made Nana stronger than she was unarmed, but she was still no match. She ran back to the place where she started, hoping the scents from the other girls would confuse the beast for a bit.

And then, just as before, it just came to her. Hanuman. Hanuman. The Golden Monkey Hanuman. Open your heart and he will come to your aid. In this position, it was no choice for Nana. There was life and death. There was nothing to lose. Was there a downside to accepting a savior? Of course there was, but the deal-maker, whoever they were, never states that up front. In that moment, Hanuman arrived, spinning time back and forth to suit himself and Nana, allowing her the best strikes of her katana, moving the seconds back for the ideal strikes. It was over in moments, and he disappeared when his duty was done. “Hanuman,” she whispered quietly.

“Ahhhh, Tendo-san, is that you?” cried one of the girls from the pit.

“Who was that man? Did he have a big dog with him?”

Nana almost felt like laughing. Of course they couldn’t see anything from their position. Of course they thought Tendo Maya saved them. Of course only Nana knew the truth to what happened that night. She took it as a sign not to share the truth with Junna, at least not right away, electing to say she ‘might’ have seen someone in the area, but really she just found the girls in the pit. She knew it bothered Junna, to have to report to Maya that there was possible criminal activity on campus that she didn’t know the solution for – that she didn’t know if her peers were safe.

Over the next weeks, Nana struggled with whether or not to tell Junna the truth – so she finally decided to do it. It turned out, however, that Junna did not believe her. “A mechanical badger? Magical katanas? A golden, time travelling monkey?” Junna looked at her as if she had lost her mind, and Nana thought she was ready to go apply for a new roommate. Quickly, she reversed time back fifteen minutes, the look of horror Junna gave her upon seeing Hanuman’s form enough to tell Nana that her powers were not the key to gaining her new roommate’s favor.

But she did want to gain Junna’s favor. Nana liked Junna. Despite spending much of her first two years alone, sitting in the library or working on her skills in the kitchen, Nana didn’t like being completely isolated. And despite the way Junna presented herself – as the lone guardian of the rules of this campus – Nana saw the way she looked with envy at Maya and Claudine’s closeness or at any group of friends on campus, laughing and spending time together. It was because of this that Nana decided to get closer to Junna in a more subtle way.

First it was just spending meals together. Then it was walking to class. Eventually, she invited Junna to lunch in the library, and that became their spot, where they dropped surnames and spoke intimately and discussed all sorts of things – Junna’s favorite books, their plans after Seisho, Nana’s expanding frog collection – everything but that, since Nana didn’t dare broach the subject again. The daily routine – waking up together, walking to class together, lunch together, meeting up after their afterschool activities, dinner together, and getting ready for bed together – it became comforting.

But Nana felt like she was leading a double life. There were more Orphans, of course. Nana got better at fighting them too. She learned to turn back time without making Hanuman visible, and she got more efficient with the katanas. She also learned she was not the only one with… abilities. The first one she discovered was Tendo Maya.

Nana was out one night after Junna had fallen asleep, knowing she would need to patrol as she had caught an Orphan in their dormitory corridor the other night. She heard the clanging of a sword on something dull, and ran closer to get a better view, making sure to hide herself in shadow. She spied the student council president, her sword up as she blocked the attack of a creature that resembled a sphinx. Behind her, fighting on her side, was a giant Swan, brilliant white as it was bathed in moonlight. The swan let out a giant fireball from its mouth which hit the sphinx squarely in the chest, knocking it back. From the shadow of the trees, Nana locked eyes with Hanayagi Kaoruko, the headmaster’s daughter, who was also watching Maya. She had an amused look on her face. Noticing Nana, she put a finger to her lips.

Later on, after Nana was certain Maya had defeated the Orphan, Nana turned back time, and this time she didn’t go on patrol. She didn’t want Hanayagi or Tendo suspecting she was a suspicious person, powers or not.

Sometimes, Nana turned back time for the fun of it. She enjoyed the time she spent with Junna, and if she only had one year, she might as well make the most of it. They never spoke their first two years at Seisho, she needed to make up for lost time. If they had a particularly fun lazy Saturday, Nana might relive it a dozen times before she was satisfied, and if she took one of those times to take a look at what Tendo Maya was doing, or what Hanayagi Kaoruko was doing, she would ‘make it up’ to Junna the next round by showering her with extra attention.

Through her repeats, Nana had found out about all the HiME ahead of the Carnival announcement. Only Mahiru had surprised her.

Nana did things she wasn’t exactly proud of with her powers. Once she found out about Claudine, and began to observe her more closely, she got the impression that she knew more than the others. So Nana spent about a week getting closer to her so she could ask her questions she had about HiME – things like what Hanuman was (a Child), what the red star was (The HiME star, the power source), and various other things. Claudine said something about the giraffe, but Nana hadn’t met him at that point. But then, because she couldn’t trust anyone at that point, Nana rewound time to before that week, to before she and Claudine ever spoke, deciding to spend time with Junna instead to help alleviate her guilt.

The biggest surprise was Junna. They were in the library, alone, and the sun was beginning to set. Without warning, this spider-like Orphan began descending from the clock tower, charging at Nana. Junna yelped in surprise, but seemed frozen in fear. Nana glanced behind her to check if there was a second Orphan, but was surprised to see Junna holding what looked to be a bow. She had to turn back to the spider, slashing at it and defeating it as quickly as possible. When she turned back around, Junna was on her knees, no weapon in her arms, but one hand clamped over her shoulder.

“Are you ok?” asked Nana.

Junna nodded. “What- what was that?”

“They’re called Orphans,” she said solemnly. “I have a powers to fight them.”

Junna shook her head in disbelief, and Nana remembered the days after she told Junna the first time. How Junna refused to believe the truth, how she stopped talking to Nana, how their relationship was destroyed by the HiME powers.

“Come on,” said Nana gently, pulling Junna to her feet. “Let’s go home.” Praying that her plan worked, Nana rewound time to when they just got to the library.

“Student council got out early!” Junna said, walking in. The sun was notably higher in the sky.

“Nice!” Nana cheered. “Why don’t you go back and take a bath first? I only have a bit more to do, and then I’ll catch up.”

“I can just stay here and wait, I don’t mind,” Junna said.

“Oh, I know, but I’m actually getting super hungry… I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind starting dinner early?”

“You should just say that!” Junna said, laughing. “Of course. I’ll see you at home.”

She made her way out, and Nana checked to make sure she was alone. Once she was sure, she climbed the rickety stairs to the top of the clock tower, confronting the spider before it had a chance to sneak up on her. Once she was finished, she came home to a dinner that Junna had prepared. Later, when they were getting ready for their baths, she saw it – the HiME mark on Junna’s shoulder – the mark she wasn’t even sure if Junna was aware of. She didn’t say a word.

Somewhere in her reminiscing, Nana must have drifted off, because she woke up to a knocking on her dorm room door.

Groggily, Nana slipped on a robe and slippers and opened the door.

“Oh my, are you ill? I can call and tell them, then.” It was the dorm mother. “Goodness knows Aijou-san and Tsuyuzaki-san looked unwell this morning.”

“Yes, I’m afraid Junna-chan and I got caught in the rain last night and we aren’t feeling great today,” Nana said. It wasn’t a lie, technically.

“My goodness, what a day. I shouldn’t gossip, but I suppose this is news you should pass on to Hoshimi-san,” the dorm mother continued. “Yamada-san from Dorm 1 called to say that Hanayagi-san and Isurugi-san are not on campus today, perhaps they have been called away for a family emergency of the headmaster’s? And the student council president and vice president and ill as well.”

“That is quite a bit of bad news,” Nana commented.

“Yes. Those four never miss school, it’s quite shocking. Well, I have basic medication downstairs and you must have some food in your kitchen, but if you need anything, I can call the school nurse or the cafeteria.”

“Thank you, we appreciate it.”

Once the door shut, Nana rushed back to the bedroom to wake Junna and get her up to speed. All of the dozens and dozens of rewinds had been fun, but she was pleased that in this timeline, Junna understood HiMEs and accepted her, despite their dire situation.

“Tendo-san and Saijou-san aren’t sick,” Junna said at once.

“I know,” Nana agreed.

“What do we do today? We can’t go to school now…”

They spent a morning watching their favorite movies, eating snacks, and staying in pajamas. It was nice to forget about school and impending HiME battles for a bit, though it was impossible to forget the recent loss of two of their classmates. It would be a lie to say that Nana was particularly close with Kaoruko and Futaba, however through all the rewinds and loops of the beginning of her third year, she had spent a significant amount of time with both of them, and even more time observing them. It hurt to know they were just *poof* gone into green sparkles.

At lunch, there was another knock. Again, Nana was the one to answer the door. This time, it was Aijou Karen who stood before her, looking quite small.

“Ah… Nana… -san...” she said quietly.

“Karen-chan,” Nana said, using the familiar name, but noticing her own voice lacked a little of it’s usual warmth. She had watched this girl help in the destruction of Kaoruko and Futaba after all, she supposed. Was it kill or be killed? Was there no other way?

“I… we all… we don’t know what to do,” she said quietly.

Well you should have thought of that before you destroyed the Child of the most precious person to the headmaster’s daughter, a snarky voice in her head quipped. But in reality, only tears welled up at the memory of Kaoruko laughing alongside Futaba as they walked along the school paths together. “What do you mean?” she asked. Nana could sense Junna had come to stand behind her.

Karen looked nervous. Nana wondered if Karen had told her roommates about this lunch time trip. “Everyone at school knows something’s wrong. Kaoruko’s out, the kendo captain’s suddenly missing, both student council president and vice president are missing, even the disciplinary chair is gone. Plus the school grounds keep getting torn up, there was that random earthquake, and all sorts of other stuff. People’s parents want to pull them out of school, people are bullying others and blaming it on the weird events, people are asking me for answers since I read the announcements and I don’t know what to say!” Now it was Karen’s turn to tear up. Despite her participation in the previous night’s events, Nana couldn’t help but sympathize with her now. She had only been defending her friend and herself, and today she had tried to go to school, while Junna and Nana were hiding out in their room.

“I understand what you’re saying Karen, but we can’t fix this,” Junna said, stepping forward. Karen nodded, as if accepting defeat. Junna grabbed her arm to stop her. “This is a problem for Tendo Maya.”

Karen looked up with hope for the first time since the conversation began.

“Let me see where she’s gotten to. If there’s anyone the girls in this school will listen to, it’s her. This school is her pride.”

“Junna-chan, Nana-chan, thank you! I will do my best until then to stop any bullies that I see and let everyone know things are going to be ok!”

“Give them a day off with the discipline on skirt length and shirts being tucked in,” Nana teased, if only to see Junna’s eye twitch.

Karen was off again in a dash.

“Well, looks like we have our afternoon planned out for us,” Junna said, sighing a little.

By the time they cleaned up their mess of a dorm room and changed, the sun was shining hot over the campus. They couldn’t walk around openly when they had already called into school sick, so they asked Karen to cancel extracurricular activities for the day, especially in light of the seemingly chaotic school day, and they set off around 4PM. They checked the student council room first, but they found it abandoned. They checked various other places in the school, such as the gymnasium, library, cafeteria, Maya and Claudine’s dorm, and even the Theater of Truth, but had no luck. They finally decided to go off campus, when something caught Junna’s attention.

“What is it?” asked Nana.

“The tea room,” said Junna. “I just… I don’t know. No one ever went there but Kaoruko unless they had an invitation from her.”

The tea room was its own (very small) building, built in the traditional style, and set apart some ways from the rest of the campus. In front was a Japanese rock garden, complete with some mature Japanese maples and a small fountain. It was likely given with a large donation from someone who enjoyed tea ceremony very, very much.

It seemed Junna’s prediction was correct, as they spotted Claudine right away, sitting on the wooden porch, leaning on one of the pillars. She was dressed in a flowing gray skirt and white blouse, indicating that she had no intention of going to school today, but not quite matching the traditional Japanese themes of the tea house.

“Saijou-san! Saijou-san!” Junna called, running up the path, Nana following behind. The look Claudine gave Junna made Nana shiver. Her eyes were unfocused and red-rimmed, as if she had been sitting on the porch all day, contemplating the disappearance of her friends.

Junna didn’t have a response ready for that reaction, and Nana briefly considered re-winding time, but she knew it was a childish move, something she was relying on to get herself out of awkward encounters rather than to make things better. She crouched down before the low porch, hoping her proximity and her gaze would focus Claudine from her shocked state. “Kuro-chan,” she said, using the nickname she used in the brief time they were close, “We’re looking for Tendo-san.”

“Looking for me? Whatever for, Daiba-san?” Maya stepped out from the teahouse then, and she was wearing a kimono, complete with geta on her feet. Her hair was tied back in her classic half ponytail, and she came to sit beside Claudine, facing the two interlopers.

“Kaichou,” said Junna, out of breath from jogging up the trail. “We need your help to fix the school.”

“The school?” Maya asked, in the same irritatingly calm voice as she always had. She laughed lightly, and it sounded a little unhinged to hear a laugh upon the serious backdrop of Claudine’s almost catatonic state and Junna’s urgency, and the calm peace of the Japanese garden around them. “Honestly, I go away for one day and the school needs my help?”

“Please, Tendo-san,” said Junna. “Aijou-san says that the students are in distress, there’s no discipline, some parents want to send their children home, they’re concerned about the disturbances lately, about the absences, and they need reassurance.”

“Aijou-san said this?” Maya asked. Nana watched Claudine bristle but Maya placed a hand lightly on her thigh. “Aijou-san should have thought about the consequences of her actions, in that case.” Nana felt herself pale a bit as she heard her own dark thoughts spoken aloud by the student council president. “Well, it’s too late now anyways, it had to begin at some point. Look how close the star has drawn.”

With the exception of Claudine, they all looked up at the sky, where the star was looming larger than the moon now, deep red and imposing, like a fiery emblem of doom. “What are you going to do?” asked Junna.

Maya pondered for a moment. “It might be best for the students to go home for a bit,” she conceded. “It’s only going to get worse anyways.”

Junna bit her lip, as if having an internal debate. Nana wasn’t surprised. This was far from the outcome Junna had been planning, she was sure. “No,” Junna said at last. “You need to pull yourself together. Don’t you have any pride in our school?”

Maya’s hand tensed where it rested on Claudine’s leg, and finally, Claudine moved her gaze to look at it. “Pride in our school?” Maya asked, meeting Junna’s challenge fully. “Sure,” she said, another light laugh coming from her lips again. Her perfect, beautiful face was relaxed, but it was irritating, thought Nana. “Why don’t you take over for a bit, if you’re concerned about the pride of the school?” asked Maya.

“What is this?” asked Junna, the fight gone from her words. “Are you quitting? I need your help.”

“Sure,” said Maya, standing up from the porch and onto the solid ground before Junna and Nana. “I quit.”

Junna’s hand shot out before any of them, perhaps even Junna, realized it, slapping Maya hard across the cheek. Finally, Claudine looked up with a normal reaction speed, focusing on them more intently, though she didn’t intervene. Nana wondered what had happened between them in the past 24 hours.

“WHAT IS GOING ON WITH YOU? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?” shouted Junna. “I looked up to you! You are the person I most admire! And now you just… don’t care anymore?! There’s a whole school of girls who are afraid and need guidance from their leader, and you quit?!”

“I quit the student council. The school is doomed at the moment anyways without Kaoruko and with the Carnival needing to take place. The students are better off going home for the time being, especially with that giraffe liable to send Orphans in just for fun. I was only on the student council to occupy my time until I became useful as a HiME, anyways.”

“Only… only until…” Junna took a few steps back, shocked. Nana knew how much the student council meant to her. To see it all shattered before her was too much. “That would mean you’ve been a HiME for…”

“Several years now, yes,” Maya confirmed. “Though that’s not nearly as long as Saijou-san.” There was something strange in Maya’s eyes, and Nana saw that Junna picked up on it as well. It seemed to bring her back to her sensible self.

“Tendo-san,” said Junna, stepping back further into the rock garden. “I don’t think you are thinking straight. Come back to the school and we can plan what to do with the students. If you really think evacuation is the best option, we need to figure out a safe and efficient plan.”

“I told you already, I quit,” she said, the hand print from the slap shining red on her face.

“Fine then,” said Junna, “I’ll be requesting Saijou-san’s help as vice president. Besides, you’ll probably want to come back to the school for dinner. There’s nothing to eat out here but old daifuku.”

Slowly, Claudine stood, but as she went to walk past Maya, Maya summoned her element, the sword holding Claudine behind her. She whispered something in Claudine’s ear.

“Stop it,” said Junna. “We don’t have time for this. We need to get something out to the school before everyone’s in bed.” Perhaps unconsciously, she summoned her element as well. Somehow, Nana knew this would be the end.

Nana tried rewinding several times, but the tension was high enough that she could only go back about a minute, and it seemed that this was one of those weird convergence points where the only answer ended in both parties holding a weapon. She decided to try one last time.

On the last attempt, Nana restarted when Junna asked for Claudine’s help. This time, Claudine shook her head. “I won’t be any help to you either, Hoshimi,” she said, remaining on the porch. Apparently she was not hungry enough to be lured by dinner either. This was different at least.

“Trying to take my partner, Junna?” asked Maya, drawing her sword.

“I’m trying to fix the chaos in the school, and run the student council.” Junna did not summon her weapon.

Maya moved in a wide arc, standing across from them in the rock garden. “I had to be the student council president,” she said, summoning her Child, the swan Odette, “Because I hate being ordered around!” She charged forward, without giving Junna a moment to respond. Knowing both her own and Junna’s lives were on the line, Nana dashed forward with her katanas, summoning Hanuman in the same instant.

Moving through time was much easier when he was summoned. He was more vulnerable to attacks, certainly, but when summoned, he could automatically make the correct adjustments in time for Nana, rather than her trying it manually when it was invisible and getting someone killed. During battle, her “time travel” was more like split second reversals, but it gave Nana a definite edge. That being said, a fireball-spitting mecha-swan also came in handy.

After a few seconds, Junna summoned Chiron as well, and they squared up.

“So this is how it’s going to be?” Nana asked, realizing just then that she had said very little through this entire encounter.

“Yes,” said Maya. “After all, only one person can obtain the wish at the end.”

“You seem like you’ve come to terms with slaughtering your classmates quite easily,” Nana taunted, knowing full well that Maya had not.

Maya would parry every swing from Nana’s blades, waiting for her Child to attack Hanuman. She was hoping for an indirect kill, Nana saw, and even so, she looked distressed, as though she didn’t want to be doing this.

“Tendo-san,” said Nana, half-engaged in a sword battle with Maya as Junna and Chiron battled Odette, “We don’t have to do this. We can stop fighting and figure this out,” she said, as calmly and rationally as she could manage. Maya was strong.

“No.I have to,” Maya replied. “I’m sorry, but I think… there’s no other way.”

But still, as she pushed Nana backwards, something caught Maya’s eye and she stilled. A few paces back, on the edge of the rock garden was Claudine, on her knees, her head bowed and her hands resting on the pebbles. Maya rushed over.

“Odile… Odile… she’s gone, I can’t sense her, I can’t summon her,” she cried. Claudine looked up at Maya with confusion, and then anger. “It’s because of you! You did this! You meddled in things you shouldn’t meddle with, and now Odile is gone!” She pushed Maya back into the stones and ran off, leaving the three of them and their Childs at a momentary standstill.

But it was not to last. Maya stood with a new fire in her eyes. “Odette, prepare volcanic attack!” she called, her sword slashing at Nana’s with a new fury. Chiron and Junna unleashed arrows as fast as they could, but they could only slow the beast, not kill her. “You will not stop me. I will protect my precious person and win my wish at all costs! Odette, fire!”

There was a red, then orange, then blinding white light, and then Hanuman was no more. Nana felt her entire year and every branch of it repeat in what felt like ten seconds, a dizzying array of memories that made her want to laugh and cry, and when she opened her eyes, Junna was running to her and falling into her arms. She tried to blink away the tears to see Junna properly, but they wouldn’t stop falling. So many precious days, so many memories, each tumbling from her eyes onto Junna right now. And Junna, her precious, precious Junna, was fading away into green sparkles. The same color as the gem on that bow she carried.

“They look like… your eyes…” Junna said, and Nana tried even harder to control the unstoppable tears because now she knew that Junna was watching her.

“Yours too,” she said. And they did, brilliant green crystals, gathering to reform into those cursed pillars. Was that all she would amount to? What stupid gem would encrust her stupid pillar? She had lost the game, it was all futile, she was done for before she even finished high school. Nana wanted to scream and cry out, but she was too choked up with the tears. Instead, she leaned forward, noticing her own green sparkles now, and huddled close to Junna.

Until we meet again, she thought, hoping against hope for the chance to embrace Junna once more.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 - Hikari

Hikari needed to leave the apartment. She and Mahiru got along fine now, or at least they had been, but the previous night caused everything to become a little strained. Karen was still at school as the sun set, leaving herself and Mahiru at the apartment, Mahiru fixing dinner while Hikari lazed around on the couch. They had gone to school that day, but with the cancellation of extracurricular activities, it had been several hours of them silently enduring each other’s presence. Hikari knew Mahiru blamed her. She herself didn’t know if it was her Child or Karen’s that had landed the killing blow on Kaoruko’s Child, but in Mahiru’s mind, it was Hikari’s. And in Mahiru’s mind, it was Hikari who had dragged them all into that battle. It was Hikari who had forced Mahiru to hold Futaba back. Like she doesn’t get high off of the power of that insane Child, Hikari thought darkly.

And so, to reign in her dark thoughts about her sweet roommate who cooked for her and welcomed her into a dorm room really only made to accommodate two people, Hikari left, walking aimlessly around the eerily quiet campus. Distantly, she could hear commotion, and thought she should go find Karen, to bring her away from whatever conflict was brewing. What she didn’t expect was for a very distraught Saijou Claudine to run into her on the path toward the library.

Despite having the advantage in height, it was Claudine who stumbled, not Hikari. Hikari observed quickly that this was not the same girl that was so quick to draw her weapon and fight that she had encountered a few weeks ago. Perhaps Futaba’s disappearance had affected her deeply. As such, Hikari didn’t immediately get defensive, she just observed Claudine as she gathered herself, dusting off her long skirt that was now streaked with dirt. “What do you want?” Claudine asked coldly.

“You ran into me,” Hikari replied. “I was just going to look for Karen.”

“Well I’m going this way too, don’t get in my way.” Claudine continued down the path. “And don’t think about attacking me, it’s not worth it. I’m no longer a HiME.”

This gave Hikari pause. “What are you talking about?”

“You heard me. I’m going to find that damn giraffe.”

Feeling awkward walking several paces behind Claudine when they were both going to the same place, they walked silently together to the library. The sun was setting over campus and the students had long since returned home or to the dormitories. Hikari couldn’t even hear the sounds that she previously attributed to the HiME battle anymore. She wanted to ask Claudine the details, as she assumed that’s where she came from, but she didn’t. She respected their silent pact.

Once they got to the library, they kept the lights off to not alert the staff of their breaking-in.

“Karen!” Hikari called, wondering if Karen had fallen asleep between the shelves. “Bakaren!”

Hikari could have sworn she heard Claudine giggle a little at her nickname for Karen, but perhaps she was imagining it. Claudine was scouring the library for the elusive giraffe, but Hikari knew the creature only showed himself when he wanted to be seen.

She moved to the desk usually occupied by the library attendant, typically Daiba Nana. Honestly, Hikari wouldn’t be surprised that in the absence of supervision, Karen took the fancy-looking leather chair, or perhaps curl up under the desk, asleep. Hikari couldn’t tell from a distance, due to the low light, but when she got closer, she kneeled down to check underneath the desk.

“Whoa, Saijou-san!” she called out, wanting to share her discovery with someone before she realized she was calling for a girl who was a recent enemy, and just recently was on ‘neutral’ terms.

Claudine rushed over, apparently also forgetting they weren’t close. “What is it?” she asked, crouching down as well.

Hikari pulled down the note that was taped to the underside of the library attendant’s desk. “Whoa,” Hikari repeated, carefully unfolding the paper. “This has to be from Daiba-san,” she said. Nana was the only one who spent enough time in the library to hide something under the desk, and the paper had the distractive HiME mark drawn onto the corner.

Claudine let out a strangled noise, and sat back onto the floor, catching her breath.

“Do you know what this is?” asked Hikari, showing her the paper more closely, looking for recognition in her eyes.

Claudine moved back from the paper, as if it would burn her. She shook her head. “No, I’ve never seen that before,” she said quietly, without meeting Hikari’s eyes. Hikari wondered if she was lying, but decided to trust her for the time being.

Still, Claudine didn’t move away. Slowly, in the darkness of the library, Hikari opened the folded paper, careful not to rip it. She felt Claudine’s eyes on her, and held what seemed to be a hand-drawn map in her hands. She looked up to meet Claudine’s eyes as they both pondered the new discovery.

“I want to follow it,” Hikari said. “This leads to a Chamber of sorts. I can’t find Karen, and I’m afraid she’s down there. What if she got taken down there? I’m not asking you to come with me…”

“I’m going. If that dumb creature is anywhere, he’s probably in this secret HiME chamber,” she replied.

“You don’t want to call Tendo-san?” asked Hikari, trying to keep her voice level. She didn’t really want to see the student council president, she just wanted some clues as to why Claudine was acting so strangely.

The dark look Claudine shot her in reply was all the answer she needed. “Let’s just go,” said Claudine, standing up and fumbling around in the desk drawers for a flashlight. It was then, as Hikari was standing up, that she saw it. Claudine’s blouse had rode up slightly as she leaned forward, and Hikari spied the HiME tattoo on her lower back. Instantly Hikari could feel her heart racing. Was Claudine lying? Was she lying both about losing her HiME powers and about seeing the map to lure Hikari down into some secret chamber to defeat her? Perhaps Tendo Maya was already down there, waiting to ambush her. She thought about leaving then, trying to escape while she was still above ground (it seemed the map was leading them below the school), but then she thought that Karen might really be stuck below the school.

Perhaps Maya had taken her, and was holding her as a hostage. The entire reason she had come back from London was for Karen – she had no choice but to go, even if this was a trap. Claudine found her flashlight, and they proceeded, Claudine leading with the flashlight, and Hikari reading instructions with the map. They walked out of the library and to the base of the clock tower, where there was a door they had never paid any attention to before. Claudine wrenched it open, and a terrible gust of freezing wind blew up at them, contrasting with the warm late spring air. The map slipped from Hikari’s hands and she made to run after it, but it drifted further and further away in a matter of seconds.

“Well, there’s only one way now,” said Hikari. “Down.” She sighed, turning to the staircase. She had pretty much memorized the map at this point anyways, and figured it would just confuse anyone who happened to pick it up as trash.

“Listen,” said Claudine, taking a deep breath as she looked down the dark staircase ahead of them. “I seriously am not a HiME so don’t try anything. I’ll just break my neck on these stairs. Though London will probably like that all the same,” she chuckled darkly.

Still unable to determine if she was being tricked, Hikari just nodded her assent, and followed Claudine. The descended the steps, and continued down, and down, and down for what seemed like ages. The air became more chilly and damp, until finally, they arrived before another set of thick doors. Claudine tugged on these, but they didn’t budge. “Break it open with your Element,” she said.

Hikari wondered if this was part of the trap. Would she burst in with her dagger out, only to come clashing with Tendo Maya’s sword? Or… was Claudine really telling the truth, could she really not summon her element? Haltingly, Hikari summoned her dagger, slowly bringing it to the door. As if sensing her HiME powers, the door glowed for a moment, and opened to allow them entry. Once they were inside them, the doors shut again, effectively trapping them inside the eerily dark and chilly cave.

The first thing Hikari noticed was that they were alone. There was no Tendo Maya ready to attack her, but neither was there a captive Karen. With uncertainty, Hikari moved forward into the chamber, her dagger thrust out before her. The chamber was lit enough that she could see, but it was still shadowy along the edges.

Claudine followed behind her, the fact that her element was not drawn giving Hikari more and more assurance with every passing second that Claudine was telling the truth. This might still be a trap, but not one that Claudine had set for her.

The centerpiece of the large chamber was a raised platform a little to the left side with four raised columns coming up from the base. One was encrusted with pink gems, one with purple gems, one with yellow, and one with light blue. They gave Hikari a foreboding feeling, and she glanced at Claudine, whose gaze was also transfixed by the pillars. Futaba, Kaoruko, and two others, she thought, knowing without proof that she was right.

"Are-"

"Nana and Junna should be defeated by now, yes," Claudine confirmed her question before she had a chance to finish asking it.

Without another word, they moved closer to the dais. It must have been Maya, thought Hikari. There was no way Mahiru and Karen defeated those two, so it must have been Maya. Claudine sounded as if she had nothing to do with it, and if she didn't have her element for whatever reason, perhaps it was true.

As they approached the columns, Hikari could see that there were eight "bases" for the columns in an octagon shape, and only four had emerged. She assumed once all eight had risen, the last one remaining would be the winner and get her wish.

"Kiran!" Claudine shouted, and nothing happened except for a rumbling somewhere in the depths of the caverns. "Where is that damn giraffe," she cursed more quietly this time, sitting on a low rock further away from the columns.

"Why do you need him?" Hikari asked, figuring she was better off making nice with Claudine than getting on her bad side, especially now that she knew her partner was capable of taking down two HiME on her own. Not knowing what to do with herself, Hikari awkwardly leaned against a wall of the cavern.

"I need to figure out what happened with my powers. Where did they go? Can they come back? Am I still in danger? Is Maya?"

"You'll always be in danger," Hikari said. "I tried to do what I could to throw them off, but they're angry."

"What are you talking about?" said Claudine, turning to face her.

Hikari sighed. She didn't much want to poke the sleeping bear between them, but she did want to clear the air. "The Royal Trading Company. I told you I came here to protect Karen. I heard she got HiME powers and I knew she would need my help-even if we hadn't been in contact in some time. But the only way I could leave London for Japan from their cult of a school was under certain circumstances."

"Getting me back."

"They were still very upset that they had lost their first HiME," Hikari confirmed. "But like I said, I was there for Karen. I didn't want to throw another HiME under the bus. So whenever you were out trying to undermine RTC, I tried to make sure they weren't on to you. And I tried to send them 'proof' of you being a HiME in the most innocent sense, literally just defeating Orphans. The bare minimum of what they want."

"They want my wish." She let out a hollow laugh. "Well joke's on you, London! I don't get a wish anymore!"

"I wouldn't be so sure."

Both girls looked for the source of the new voice, deep and masculine, but coming from the silhouette of a giraffe that appeared in the shadowy corner from beyond the columns.

"What are you talking about?" asked Claudine, standing at once as the game 'moderator' she was most looking to see finally appeared. "Did you take away my powers?"

"I did no such thing, I assure you," said the giraffe. "Your powers depend entirely on you."

"What are you talking about? Explain it properly, giraffe!"

Hikari kept her jaw clenched, listening to the two talk while her hand remained on her dagger. The giraffe always made her uneasy.

"Your powers come from your feelings for your most precious person. It is the reason that Daiba Nana and Aijou Karen are so strong, despite being HiME for relatively short amounts of time. And Tendo Maya was able to defeat two HiME singlehandedly… I wonder who her precious person is," he mused. "But this has happened to you before, hasn't it?"

Claudine swallowed, silent for a moment. "A- after my mother died. After I escaped the lab…"

"And yet you managed to regain them didn't you? Once you had someone precious to you again. Hmm…"

"I can't just make bonds with people! I'm a sitting duck like this! Someone is going to steal my wish!"

The giraffe mused over this conundrum. "Well, you can't summon your Child, so the perpetrator would have to have the stomach to attack you directly, which is unlikely." There was a louder rumbling below them now. "However there is another issue in that you can't fight Orphans right now, and I'm afraid your intrusion seems to have woken a dormant one."

Without another word, the giraffe disappeared, and another moment later, a massive serpant-like Orphan burst up from some deep cavern. The shockwaves collapsed part of the cavern, and Hikari dropped her dagger for a moment. Scrambling to pick it up, the terrible creature slithered closer, nostrils flaring for their scent as it's massive body filled up about half the height of the chamber. A dagger would do nothing against this creature… There were no legs to stop, it didn't didn't rely on its eyes to see, and there seemed to be both venomous fangs and a risk of being crushed by the coils of the snake's body.

Calling on her Child, Nanuk, Hikari allowed the polar bear-like familiar to face the Orphan as she and Claudine raced towards the cavern door.

"You shouted too loud, you woke it up!" Hikari hissed, pulling Claudine along as she stumbled.

"You're the one who wanted to come down here in the first place!" Claudine bit back.

Hikari agreed they were both at fault for waking the Orphan, and the giraffe likely had a hand in it as well, but the fact of the matter was they had to deal with it now.

Reaching the door took mere seconds, but it felt like ages. Behind here, Hikari could hear Nanuk growling against the massive beast he was forced to face off against. Somehow, though, she knew he would be alright for a bit, at least, with the new information from the giraffe. Her love for Karen was incredibly large… it was enough to power that Child for a long time. She wondered what happened to Claudine's love, presumably for Maya, but she didn't have time to dwell on it.

Hikari thrust her dagger against the magic door to the cavern, and it glowed to open and grant them egress, but it seemed that the rocks that had collapsed in the cavern when the Orphan had entered kept the doors from opening despite the touch of the Element. Hikari cursed under her breath.

"I'm going to help Nanuk. Start moving these rocks," she instructed Claudine.

Leaving Claudine at the entrance, and hopefully out of the notice of the Orphan, Hikari moved back into the center of the cavern. For the first time, she noticed the inscription overhead. The Theater of Truth. It seemed to Hikari that this is where she faced off- not against other HiME, as previously thought, but only with one powerless witness, against some absurd Orphan. This is where she proved her love for Karen. If she lost here, she quickly realized, Karen would also disappear. The Orphan would also easily defeat (kill?) Claudine, potentially taking out Maya as well.

After this battle, if Hikari lost, Maya and Mahiru, or perhaps Mahiru alone would be the only ones remaining. That was not an option in Hikari's mind. She had to stay fighting long enough for Claudine to get that door open for them to trap that creature down here. She would end this Carnival properly later on.

Nanuk had taken a beating, but it appeared that the serpant hardly seemed worse for wear. Hikari quickly threw her dagger over the girth of the serpant, ensuring a good grip on the handle of the chain, and was pleased when she heard the dagger anchor around the stalactite on the other side.

Nanuk, connected to her heart, understood her strategy, and moved in to attack the flank that was tied down. They didn't need to stop the creature, just buy time for Claudine. Nanuk activated his powers, freezing the floor of the cavern. The effect was instantaneous. The serpant slipped, one of his fangs snapping as his jaw hit the solid ice.

Now thrashing in anger, he freed himself of Hikari's binds, and her dagger came flying back at high speed. So did the snake's tail, but Hikari managed to roll out of the way, pulling in the chain to retrieve her dagger.

Claudine had let out a cry of fear as the snake came barreling at Hikari, but Hikari noticed the snake picked up on the extra noise right away. She did everything she could to distract the snake's attention again, but the snake seemed intent on attacking this new target.

"Get away from the door!" Hikari yelled, not wanting the Orphan's enormous body to slam into their only way out.

"Just one moment, I'm nearly there!" Claudine called, scrambling to move another rock.

Growling, Hikari thrust her dagger desperately, right into the nostril of the beast, enough to get its attention back on her, at least for now. Nanuk froze more of the cavern floor, and the serpant slid, unable to find purchase, as Claudine let out a victorious cry, running back towards Hikari.

"We gotta go now!" she called, tugging on Hikari's hand, but the serpant had recovered. They raced back across the cavern, Nanuk trying with no avail to distract the Orphan, but the serpant managed to cut off their exit path. Skidding on ice again, it's massive body barreled into them, sending them crashing into the cave wall.

The breath was knocked from Hikari's lungs, and she knew she hit her head as well from the dull ache and sharp ringing in her ears. She saw the Orphan in double for a few seconds, and luckily it seemed to be recovering as well from the slam into the wall. She turned around beside her to see Claudine barely stirring, her head also slammed into the wall of the cave. She could see blood already seeping through her blonde hair.

Hikari wasn't sure if she could even stand to continue fighting, but somehow she had to. Gritting her teeth, trying to fight against the most painful inhale of her life, she went to grab her dagger once again, before she realized that the dagger and Nanuk had disappeared with the shock of the hit. She tried to focus to manifest them again, but everything was foggy.

There was a faint glowing from the other side of the cavern, and suddenly the door opened. Had she managed to send her dagger over there before the attack? She couldn't remember… she needed to get herself and Claudine to the door, now.

But… wait… Karen and Mahiru suddenly entered the cavern, Karen's Toto springing from the earth and Mahiru's Susanoo creating an invisible storm within the enclosed space.

"We found your map... In the tree..." Karen huffed out, already fighting hard.

Hikari had a hard time focusing on anything. Despite the intensity of the situation she wanted to go to sleep, but it seemed that Mahiru was forming a barrier between Hikari and Claudine and the Orphan, and Karen was using her lasers to try to cut off the creature's head.

Feeling assured that she had trained the newer HiME well enough, she rested her head back against the rocky wall and allowed herself to close her eyes.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: Claudine

”Odile, the black swan, I see,” said the man, standing tall over her in his lab coat. “In that case, I suppose you’ll know your opponent when the HiME with Odette comes along.”

At the time, as a child, Claudine hadn’t understood exactly what was meant. She nodded along to the man, the one who worked with her mother but wasn’t as kind. In those years, every day was spent underground in that lab, weeks and weeks passed without seeing sunlight, and days were spent receiving ‘treatments’, pills, running tests, and the like, until one day she was able to produce her Element and Child.

Odette... Odette... how strange that the one, fleeting moment of friendship she had for one day in that underground lab- one Tendo Maya- would turn out to be her partner, her most precious person, and her ‘enemy’ in the HiME carnival.

Claudine opened her eyes, orienting herself slowly to the Fuuka Island Municipal Hospital. She was laying on her back, in a semi-comfortable bed, but the bed did little to make up for the soreness in her body. Mostly concentrated in her midsection and her head, the pain seemed to throb more intensely with each beep of a couple monitors from beyond Claudine’s line of sight. With a clumsy hand, she swiped away supplemental oxygen from her nose, confident, at least, in her ability to breathe on her own.

Finally, when she could turn her head a tad, resisting the soreness that threatened to hold her completely still, Claudine saw there was someone sitting by her shoulder, a hem of a Seisho skirt in her line of sight. A leg that was not Maya’s. Claudine could not see more of her visitor than that.

Despite her nostalgic dreams, and even her present thoughts of Maya, the first, croaked word from Claudine’s lips was not ‘Maya’, but rather, “Hikari?”.

“Ah, Saijou-san, you’re awake!” came the voice of Aijou Karen. She sounded cheerful as always, but at this moment, it sounded somewhat forced. “Here, drink some water!” Karen gently offered her a cup of water she poured from a pitcher at the bedside, and Claudine drank greedily.

“How is Hikari?” she repeated. Her memories in that cavern were hazy, mostly feelings of desperation as she moved endless rocks away from the doors, and that terrible serpent that Hikari had faced alone, so bravely.

“Hikari is recovering as well,” Karen said. “Mahiru is with her now. You both worked hard against that Orphan. Toto and Susanoo helped to finish it off.”

“I didn’t do anything,” said Claudine, scoffing. She wanted to pick at her nails, to distract herself from Karen’s earnestness, but her hands were irritatingly bandaged, her fingers pushed together like mittens in the soft gauze. “I just moved a bunch of rocks.” I just moved rocks endlessly until my fingers bled and my nails cracked and perhaps a bone is broken in there somewhere, she thought, remembering hazily how her piles of rocks would tumble each time the serpent would move, and moving more rocks out of position around the entrance. She wanted the irritating bandages off, but shuddered to think of what her hands looked like beneath.

“Of course you helped, Kuro-chan!” said Karen, using an unfamiliar, but not disliked, nickname. It reminded her painfully of Futaba and Kaoruko. She realized that Karen didn’t realize she had lost her HiME powers as she hadn’t had a chance to talk with Hikari. For now, she decided to keep the information to herself.

“I want to see Hikari,” Claudine declared suddenly, both because she wanted to change the subject and because it was true. She wanted to see with her own eyes that Hikari was alive and had made it out of that cavern. Perhaps they would have to face off later, but last night, they were allies.

Slowly and painfully, Claudine stood from her bed. This alerted a nurse to her patient’s disobedience, and after some negotiations, Claudine was allowed to visit the next ward, where Hikari was, if Karen brought her in a wheelchair. She hated the feeling the wheelchair brought, of helplessness and frailty, but she also couldn’t much argue - the pain in her midsection was still intense, her head was still painful and making her somewhat dizzy, and her hands were fairly useless.

Upon arriving at Hikari’s room, Claudine was relieved to see Hikari sleeping peacefully, looking slightly worse for wear, but not in a desperate condition. Contrary to Karen’s report, however, it was not Mahiru sitting at the bedside, but Mahiru waiting outside in the hallway, a nervous look on her face. “I um…” she started nervously. “Hi, Saijou-san. I’m so glad we found you in time!”

“Hello, Tsuyuzaki-san. How did you find us in time?” Claudine asked.

Mahiru looked Claudine over, as if assessing for damages. Claudine saw her eyes settle on the bandaged hands and tried to tuck them under a blanket on her lap.

“Well, it was from the map, of course!” Karen chimed in, noticing the awkward silence.

Mahiru cleared her throat. “Yes, that map that was caught in the library entryway, it led us right to you. It took us some time to look for you in the library, however…”

“No matter, you found us, I’m relieved. Thank you, both of you, really,” said Claudine. “Now I just want to get a look at Hikari before I check out of this place-”

Karen seemed to want to protest at Claudine’s haste to leave the hospital, but it was Mahiru who spoke first this time. “Actually, Saijou-san, Hikari’s mother is with her now, which is why I stepped out.”

“Oh, I won’t disturb her,” Claudine assured Mahiru, “I just need to look in the doorway and see Hikari’s alright.” Knowing Mahiru and Karen were throwing nervous glances behind her back, Claudine used her perfectly working feet to shuffle the wheelchair forward to the doorway.

There was indeed a woman at the bedside, with the same long black hair and blue eyes as Hikari, but Claudine did not recognize her as Hikari’s mother. In fact, she was surprised that she recognized her at all. She watched as the woman texted rapidly on her phone, unaware, for the moment, of her presence.

There were very few women in Claudine’s youth. There was her mother, and there was the one day Maya came to visit, but otherwise, it was nearly all male scientists and businessmen and tech agents and security guards. This woman, however, was there from time to time. This woman was an agent of the Royal Trading Company. A stunning Japanese beauty with perfect English to boot, she was extremely sharp and represented a major threat once Claudine had escaped. And there she was, inspecting a nail that was seemingly perfect not ten feet from Claudine.

“Ah, do you recognize me at last?” she asked, Hikari stirring slightly where she rested on the bed between them. The piercing blue eyes came up to meet Claudine's all at once, like a predator locking eyes with prey.

And just like that, it hit her… The school Director’s second wife. She rarely visited the school, and when she did, she wore sunglasses and hats typically. Beyond that, Claudine tended to avoid her despite her role on the student council due to how much the woman’s existence offended Kaoruko. But now that the pieces all fit together, it was glaringly obvious. Perhaps she did fancy the director, but it was too convenient that an agent of the Royal Trading Company was here, at Seisho, stationed during the Carnival.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hikari's mother said, her words biting. “What will happen will happen. There’s nothing you, nor I can do about it anymore.”

Perhaps Mahiru and Karen didn’t realize Claudine’s lack of HiME powers, but this woman certainly did. She had seen this before, Claudine realized, as she was one of the people there after her mother died. After her mother… was killed.

Staggeringly, Claudine stood, unable to face this woman anymore. She thought she might vomit, and she wasn’t sure of the way back to her room suddenly. She felt arms steady her, grateful for the presence of Karen, or Mahiru, or a nurse, or whoever was helping her as her mind overwhelmed her with memories she had long repressed.

“Relax, it’s alright,” said Maya.

Somehow, those words had the opposite effect, and every muscle in Claudine’s body seemed to tense. However, this seemed to help her blood pressure get regulated, and her awareness returned to the present. “Maya, where have you been?” she asked, stepping away from the familiar touch.

“Aijou-san, Tsuyuzaki-san, I can get Claudine back to her room. Why don’t you get something to eat?” Maya offered. With no reason to doubt her intentions, the two agreed, and Maya and Claudine were left alone. Claudine walked further down the hallway, away from the prying ears of Hikari’s mother.

“Well?” Claudine pressed. “I could have used some help,” she said, showing her hands. She knew it wasn’t fair to expect Maya to have any idea where she was trapped. She knew it wasn’t fair to expect anything of Maya after she left her facing Junna and Nana. She knew her bloody hands were a sign that her feelings for Maya were not the same as Maya’s feelings for her, and she hated that she somehow felt like she lost. Frustrated at everything, she could feel tears welling up in her eyes.

“I apologize. After that battle, I was exhausted. This morning, once I had rested, I took care of some RTC business and then I came right here. It appears there’s another RTC agent hanging about, though,” Maya said, nodding toward Hikari’s room.

Took care of business. That was what Maya said. Had she… destroyed some files? Busted up their old labs? Killed someone? Claudine shuddered at the possibilities that remained unspoken. And felt weighed down with guilt. Maya had nothing against the RTC. They didn’t turn her into a HiME with years of experiments. They didn’t pursue her across continents when she tried to escape their clutches. They didn’t… they didn’t…. kill her mother.

“No.” Claudine said, commandingly.

Maya looked at her questioningly.

“No, you don’t need to worry about Hikari’s mother. Leave her be.”

“But she-”

“I know who she is. And I said no.”

“Claudine, are you alright? You look a little pale all of the sudden…” Maya leaned forward, and Claudine leaned away. It was instinctive, and she wished she could take it back, as the movement was just enough that she could see hurt flash across Maya’s eyes.

 

“I’m fine. I just… I need some fresh air. You can tell the nurse I’ll be right outside here,” Claudine said.

Maya nodded obediently, and Claudine knew she had put Maya in a bind. She and Maya were past the ‘casual flirting’ and ‘very, very close friends’ stage, they had left that stage when Maya kissed her during the Spring festival. But now… now if Maya wanted something real, she had to allow their relationship to develop from both sides, she couldn’t force it. Maya wanted to just break down every thing that had hurt Claudine in the past, and at the end, what? Claudine would see a path leading right to Maya? She laughed.

She watched Maya turn away to run her errand to the nurse and slipped out the exit. She took off, running errantly, realizing as she turned onto a busy street that she was still in her damn hospital gown. Sighing, she turned down a familiar side street, ducking out of the scores of people doubtlessly shocked by the blonde girl in a hospital gown and bandaged hands running down the road.

The walk to the cemetery was familiar, and not entirely unpleasant. She’d walked it several times since she started school at Seisho. She had not had an opportunity to visit her mother’s grave before then. At present it was overcast but still a fairly mild summer’s day, but Claudine’s thoughts drifted to the rainy night in her childhood, not long after she received her powers.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“We have to go!” her mother implored to her, ushering her from the lab to the connected parking deck, using a fancy swipe badge Claudine had never seen before. “Hurry up, now.”

“But I forgot-”

“No time! Get in the car, buckle up!”

Claudine knew better than to ask more questions. There was no one in the world she could trust more than her mother, or maybe it was that there was no one in the world she could trust other than her mother….

They drove out of the parking facility into pouring rain, and down to the gate at the edge of the lab’s complex. Again, her mother used the fancy badge, and the gate opened to grant them egress. The car sped off down the road, and only then did her mother turn the headlights on.

“We’re on an island,” she said. “Fuuka Island. We need to get over the bridge as quickly as possible.”

Claudine listened attentively. Of course she had been out of the lab and into town before, but to her knowledge, she had never been off the island. She watched as the raindrops streaked across the window in the backseat, and looked out at the sea as they drove along a cliffside road.

“Shit!” her mother swore, which was rare. The brakes screeched to a halt, hydroplaning over the rain-soaked pavement. Claudine had trouble seeing through the sheets of rain, but it appeared that there were several vehicles on the road blocking their path.

“Give us back the HiME,” came the voice of a man over an amplifier. “You have stolen the physical and intellectual property of Ento Labs and Royal Trading Company.”

Under her breath, Claudine’s mother swore again. “She’s not property, she’s my fucking daughter.” Then, she turned around. “Listen, Claudine. I need to go out there and sort this out with the men from the lab so we can leave the island. You stay inside the car, promise?”

Claudine nodded.

“Good. Now if they don’t let maman come back to the lab for a while, I need you to try to join me off the island, alright?”

Claudine was confused about what this meant, but nodded again, wanting to please her mother. The man with the amplifier shouted another demand.

“Perfect, I love you.” She kissed Claudine and left the vehicle.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

To this day, the end of the memory remains hazy, probably because of the fear and the rain coating the car in a protective bubble, but the truth, Claudine knows in her heart, is that her mother was murdered by those men that night.

And who pulled her from that vehicle at the end of that standoff but Hikari’s mother? She laughed a little, walking through the cemetery gates.

She kneeled beside her mother’s grave, using her bandaged hands to wipe away the grime on the gravestone. She knew it would be bad to get dirt in the wounds, but she planned to re-wrap them once she got home. She cleaned the grave properly with some water, upset that she didn’t have a single offering. She should have nicked some snacks from the hospital cafeteria, at least, she thought with a grin.

She couldn’t have let Maya ‘take care of business’ with Hikari’s mother. It would have made her an accomplice, and she was not ready to have that on her conscience. It was also true what the agent said: it didn’t matter anymore. The HiME Carnival was too far along for normal people to affect it any longer. And lastly, Claudine knew the pain of losing her mother. She could not do the same to Hikari. She wondered if she was getting older, wiser, more mature, but smiled again, towards her mother’s grave. Probably not.

After her stop at the cemetery, she walked back to the school, unaware of if anyone even noticed her stroll onto campus in a hospital gown. She took a bath alone in her room, and had a small dinner alone in her room as well. She redressed the wounds on her hands, with dressings that were less bulky this time. Her midsection was purple with bruises, but there didn’t seem to be any deep trauma. The headache persisted, but was lighter than when she first woke up, which she took to be a good sign.

Close to bedtime, Claudine could hear Maya in her room down the hall. She didn’t come by.

The next morning, Claudine woke late. She could tell by the sun shining brightly into her room. She wondered if she was late to class, then realized she didn’t much care. Her aching torso was still sore, but in less pain than when she woke up on the previous day. She got out of bed and searched around on her dresser for pain medication, putting a couple back with clumsy bandaged hands. At least the headache was gone.

There was no noise coming from the rest of the corridor, and after Claudine dressed, she made her way onto the campus and noticed that there was no one around there either. Perhaps Karen’s mission to evacuate the school had been a success, after all. She wondered if the HiME were the only ones left, now. Rethinking her decision to wear her school uniform, Claudine went back to her dorm room to change into more casual clothes, since there was no one to tell her off. Painfully, her chest ached at the thought of Junna, the school’s resident disciplinarian, as she wore a pair black skinny jeans and a white blouse around campus.

As she crossed the main road that divided the campus, thinking of finding something to eat in the cafeteria, she heard a low rumbling. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, and every fiber in her body seemed to scream don’t let this be an Orphan. Hikari wasn’t here, Maya wasn’t here, Karen and Mahiru weren’t here. Claudine would be toast.

The rumbling got louder, until Claudine recognized it as the revving of an engine. In fact, it almost sounded like the engine on Futaba’s bike, though she knew that to be impossible. The possibility of the Orphan had sent a rush of adrenaline that seemed to ground her to the spot, however, and she waited to see what vehicle would appear on the otherwise abandoned campus.

Of all the things she expected, it was not Tendo Maya, in a leather riding suit, riding in on Futaba’s bike. “Nice of you to finally wake up,” Maya said with a light laugh.

Claudine stood gaping for a moment, both taking in the strange scene among the empty campus as well as the bizarre change in Maya's personality. Her Maya, upright, rigid to a fault Maya, was here, on Futaba's motorcycle, cracking a joke.

"Yeah, I'm here," Claudine said, realizing after a few seconds she was overdue to respond. Unlike the previous day at the hospital, she didn't feel the urge to get away from Maya. It wasn't as if she trusted Maya exactly, but after spending every day of high school standing beside Maya after having no one since the day her mother died, returning to Maya just felt normal. School was a disaster, the Carnival was reaching a disastrous peak, but Maya was a constant, at least.

"Where are you going?" Claudine asked, when Maya didn't say anything more.

"I need to check out an old Ento Labs facility just off campus. I have a tip that they might have some research into the Carnival ceremony itself, and how to end it without… well, without a just single winner."

Claudine had many questions. Had Maya really been looking for an ending to the Carnival in her snooping around the Royal Trading Company and Ento, rather than just getting even for Claudine's sake? Did Maya really believe this could end without one winner? Where was she getting this "tip" that could very well be a trap? Still, one question escaped her lips before the others, apparently more important to her heart than the others.

"You don't have a wish you need granted?" asked Claudine.

Maya shook her head. "I have everything that I need." She graduated at the bike. "Do you want to tag along?"

There were many things that Claudine would rather do than return to an Ento Lab, but somehow the allure of Maya in a tight leather riding suit on that motorcycle had her agreeing. And the possibility of ending the Carnival peacefully, of course.

Maya handed her the helmet and she strapped it on, knowing her hair was going to look terrible no matter what when the ride was over. She swung her leg over the seat and sat behind Maya, holding tightly onto her waist. Suddenly, they lurched forward, and though the ride didn't feel dangerous, Claudine was reminded that Maya didn't ride motorcycles every day. As they rode, Claudine thought about Maya's recent actions and today's plan. She was investigating the lab to try to find an alternate way to 'end the Carnival'. Yesterday, when Claudine got mad at her, she had only mentioned "RTC business" and identified Hikari's mom as an agent, she hadn't named any specifics. Perhaps Claudine was being more paranoid than was called for. Perhaps she ought to be helping Maya. They left campus and turned into a winding road, then entered a tunnel. Just before exiting the tunnel, Maya slowed down and turned into a small access rode bored into the side of the tunnel. It was lit only with small torch lights and they had to drive carefully down the narrow pass.

At the end was an old door. There was a badge access that had since been disabled. A large spiderweb was growing across the intercom. Maya parked the bike and Claudine removed the helmet. Maya opened the door without a problem- no alarm sounded. Claudine could see closed circuit cameras here and there, but doubted they were working- Ento has been out of business since she was in middle school.

They walked through the entrance, stepping on broken glass and various debris. Maya looked up towards a set of offices on a mezzanine level. Claudine shook her head.

"Basement first. If I learned anything while I lived in one of these, it was that everything good was kept downstairs."

There had been a little light streaming in from a window that faced the outside, away from the tunnel entrance, but as they descended below ground level, they were plunged into darkness. Maya pulled out a flashlight to guide them, but Claudine could feel herself freezing up.

"Just a little longer, bear with it now, we have to see if this new method will work, I know it's not comfortable, but it'll be over in a bit…."

"Claudine!"

Claudine was surprised to find herself halfway down the staircase, gripping the railing with incredible force. When she saw Maya ahead of her in the dim light, she reached out, hugging her and hiding her face in her shoulder.

"It's alright," Maya assured her. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have made you come here."

Claudine shook her head. "You didn't make me. I… I haven't been back since I left. I didn't know what would happen. I'm… Ok now, we can keep going."

Maya looked at her skeptically but continued down the stairs, staying close. When they got to the basement it was much like the lab Claudine used to stay at with her mother, divided into various rooms for research, experiments, records, and other uses. She pointed out personal offices of the higher ups and the records rooms to Maya, noticing the way Maya stood close to her, more so than what was needed just to share the light.

She wondered, traitorously, if Maya finally understood. If now, at the end of the Carnival, where one or both of them were doomed, if Maya understood what she needed to give and what she deserved to get in a relationship. How appropriate for a life as cursed as mine, Claudine thought sarcastically.

"Let's find the damn solution to this problem," she said, suddenly motivated. Maya hummed affirmatively, already checking files.

They searched in silence for a while, Claudine using her cell phone flashlight and Maya the light she packed. For over an hour they searched, with boxes and boxes of irrelevant research. Once, Maya found something similar to the Carnival mentioned, but there was little relevance in the passage and the rest of the documents it was filed with were no help.

Finally, when they took a break, Claudine felt as though she could speak. "They did experiments down here, when I was young. Not in this lab, but in one just like it. It was often dark, or maybe my eyes were covered, I don't remember much. But it was painful."

Maya was watching her as she spoke, and it became harder to say what she wanted to say, to articulate words and phrases and send them to the ears of this perfect girl. "That's… How I became a HiME," she finished simply.

Maya moved closer, and once again they were embracing. But suddenly, their faces were impossibly close, and Claudine found herself once again kissing Tendo Maya. A flurry of confusing feelings whirled inside her, from desire to fear to longing to nostalgia, but she had no time to process them. From the corner of her eye she spotted orange and broke the kiss, pulling Maya back towards her.

"Shit," she muttered, "No, no, no, no."

She realized about one second before Maya what was happening, though neither of them could process how such a thing could be happening.

There were flames spreading rapidly throughout the lab, consuming the files of paper as fuel.

Maya looked as if she was going to burst into tears at any moment.

"We need to get out," Claudine commanded.

"We can save some of the files," Maya said, summoning Odette.

"There's no time, Maya, look at this fire, it looks like an oxygen valve was left open or something it's spreading stupidly fast!"

Even the Child seemed to agree, and nudged Maya up the stairs for her own well being before Maya sent her away. Coughing and sputtering, they exited the same door they entered through, clumsily taking the bike out of the tunnel and back to the school.

"What was that?" said Maya as she parked the bike by their dorm.

"Someone who doesn't want us to end the Carnival, that's what."

"You think that was sabotage?" asked Maya.

Claudine nodded, out of breath as they climbed the stairs to their dorm. "Absolutely. I don't know if that was the giraffe or one of the Royal agents or one of the HiME who really wants a wish granted, but if there was a chance the answer was there, they were not risking it."

Claudine and Maya bathed and changed clothes, then had something to eat, and found the sun setting over Seisho by this time. After the exhaustion of the day, Claudine was thinking about going to bed, especially so she could ponder the kiss with Maya, but a knock on her door stopped her.

She opened the door to see Maya, dressed now in a kimono, looking deadly serious. She looked rather surprised to see Claudine in a night gown. "Don't you feel it?" she asked

"Feel what?"

"It's time," she said. "If we can't solve the Carnival peacefully, you and I just have to win. I feel it, we have to go down to the Theater of Truth."

Claudine shuddered. She very much did not want to go back down to the Theater of Truth again. Also, she wasn't a HiME, so she wondered if that excused her from these sorts of activities, but recent events indicated it did not. And once Maya uttered the words, it was like a curse. Claudine knew that that was indeed where she was meant to be tonight.

She nodded. "You're always right, seito kaichou. But let me change. Ugh, I have to plan my outfit, I hate wearing kimono."

In the end, Claudine wore kimono, mostly because she wasn't pleased with her selection of casual clothing, she didn't feel like fighting a death match in her school uniform, and Maya's kimono collection was first rate. She chose a pink and orange one with a sakura branch pattern with gold stitching in places. Perhaps it was not the first outfit one might think of for tonight's events, but Claudine believed truly that she fought better when she looked good, and if Maya's gaze was any indication, she looked good.

Maya, of course, was made to wear kimonos. Tonight's had a rather morbid spider lily pattern on it, a blue and silver design with crimson here and there. Claudine thought she looked stunning.

Together, they walked to the terrifying dungeon below the library. The HiME star was frighteningly large in the sky. Claudine felt that if she was on a high enough building she could touch it. "It'll all be over soon," she said quietly.

It turned out that the feeling was correct, and the Theater of Truth was the place for the showdown that evening. Hikari, Karen, and Mahiru stood stiffly on the far side of the cave. The wretched giraffe was there to oversee the events. "I understand you do not want to fight," he said, "but if there is no winner, the HiME star will come all the way down and the natural order of our world will descend into chaos. The Carnival must be completed."

"I've already told you, giraffe, I don't have HiME powers, I'm useless for this," said Claudine.

"And I told you that something lost can be found once again. You need to reconnect yourself to the feelings of caring for a precious person."

Odile. Odile. Odile. Odile! Claudine called out to her Child as she used to and more desperately but still nothing. She clenched her fists in frustration.

Karen stepped forward, looking out of place. "I don't know what your struggles are, Saijou-san, but if it's about your most precious person, I don't think you should have any trouble. Everyone can see how dearly you care for Tendo-san, and that love is more than enough to power your Child."

Mahiru looked at Karen in bewilderment, as if trying to fathom why she would give their opponent advice.

Claudine considered it. Maya. Tendo Maya. Did she love Maya? She kissed Maya. Twice. Well, she was kissed by Maya and didn't stop them. Maya, her first friend. Maya, who's haplessness required her support on the student council. Maya, her only equal as a HiME. It had always been and always will be Tendo Maya. There was no one else. "Odile!" The black swan emerged.

"Odette!"

"Susanoo!"

"Nanuk!"

"Toto!"

It began.

Unlike the last time, Claudine was able to defend herself. This was a good thing, as the attacks started immediately. She knew Karen, Mahiru, and Hikari meant her no ill will in particular, but with the fate of the world on the line, and the kill-or-be-killed premise of the HiME battles, they had ample motivation to fight. Claudine knew that if she or Maya were to be defeated, they would both disappear, and two more pillars would rise. She wasn't positive of the most precious person of Karen, Mahiru, and Hikari, but she was fairly certain their fates were intertwined in the same way.

Nanuk froze the floor, but Claudine was prepared as she saw this happen in the serpant battle. "Maya!" She called, as the ice began to spread, and on cue, Odette used a fireball to thaw the floor around them. Susanoo was blocking their view of each other with his trademark fog, but it didn't matter. Claudine seemed to know where Maya was at all times.

Karen's Tokyo Tower Child was shooting lasers both directly at the swan Childs and at the stalactites of the cavern, making them fall from the ceiling dangerously onto the battlefield. Hikari was using her chain and dagger to try to bind the feet of the Childs, and Mahiru was floating back and forth, sending forth bolts of lighting and letting the others know Maya and Claudine's next moves. Her wind knocked almost all light from the cave, making the pillars of the fallen HiME glitter eerily.

But Claudine and Maya weren't at such a disadvantage either. They had been HiME longer, after all. Claudine used Odile to send out spikes of black ice, a new trick she seemed to develop since regaining her connection with her Child. She also had her Element, the sword, to fight off the flashes of lasers and fight Karen hand to hand.

Maya, on the other hand, fought with fire, Odette coughing up massive fireballs to shoot at the other Childs. Maya's rapier was clutched in her hand, and she was trying to distract Hikari from her mission of tripping up the Swans.

Claudine didn’t have much time to focus on Maya, however. She dodged a deadly laser from that damned Tower, which seemed to pop in and out of the cave floor as it pleased, creating piles of dirt and massive holes here and there, and immediately Claudine was smacked with the paw of the polar bear child of Hikari. Falling onto her bottom, she readied her sword, knowing the bear would prepare another attack. Odile came to her aid quickly, shooting out a spike of ice before Claudine could even right herself.

Hikari found them, however, and took over hand to hand combat with Claudine. Claudine had the longer of the blades, but she knew she had to watch that damned chain on Hikari’s dagger. She tried to back Hikari towards one of the pits created by Karen’s Child’s burrowing, but it seemed Hikari had a sixth sense for knowing where the solid footing was. Claudine also had Mahiru to contend with. The floating girl seemed to have a barrier system, and could force Claudine back whenever she got too close to Hikari. Come to think of it, that was probably how Hikari stayed out of those pits. If Claudine could take her out first… but what or where was Mahiru’s Child, exactly?

A very stupid plan began to form in Claudine’s adrenaline-rushed brain. While Maya battled with Karen and her Tower, Claudine climbed a ledge in the corner of the cave, fighting back Hikari. From the ledge, she leapt off, launching herself and her sword directly at Mahiru who was floating over the scene.

As predicted, a previously invisible dragon made himself somewhat translucent and blocked Claudine’s attack. He did not take well to being provoked and crackled with electricity. He circled his mistress protectively, the two of them watching how things played out as Claudine fell the twenty or so feet back to the stone floor of the cave.

Of course, Odile came to the rescue. Or rather, she was supposed to, but as she was falling, Claudine saw Odile’s legs tangled in Hikari’s damned chain as she struggled with the polar bear to get back to Claudine.

Oh God, I’m going to die, Claudine realized. I’m going to die from one ill-thought out plan to attack Mahiru on a whim to reveal her Child. I only thought one step ahead, and now I’m not just going to lose this battle, or lose my Child, or my precious person, I’m going to die.

But instead of hitting the stone floor, she was caught by Odette. The impact was still abrupt, but Claudine was definitely not dead. Maya had somehow caught on to what was happening both with Claudine and with Odile and sent Odette in for the rescue. Claudine’s heart soared as Odette flew them to safety across the cavern.

But, Claudine realized, if Maya sent Odette, then she was defenseless…

“Maya-” she called, but she needn’t have worried. Karen, it seemed, turned her attention elsewhere, as Odile was beheaded cleanly with one of the lasers from the Tokyo Tower’s insane firepower. Just like that, Claudine was defeated.

Scrambling off of the twin swan, she ran to Maya. Odette seemed to vanish behind her, and Claudine could feel herself beginning to cry already. This was all her fault. She was supposed to work with Maya, not try something stupid by herself and doom her most precious person.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry Maya. I’m sorry!” she said, unsure if Maya could even understand the words she was choking out.

“Claudine, don’t apologize,” said Maya, gently placing a hand on her cheek. “I told you, my wish was already granted.”

Maya sunk to the ground, and Claudine kneeled with her. She wasn’t sure what the other three were doing, and her eyes were too teary to look further than Maya, who was directly before her. “Well my wish is to have more time together, so this isn’t fair!” Claudine protested.

Maya smiled lightly. She seemed to be fading, but Claudine couldn’t tell if this was reality. Claudine didn’t want to hold her too tightly for fear that she would slip away more quickly. “Well, I have bad news. Since you are my most precious person, wherever I’m going, you’re coming with me.”

Now there definitely were green sparkles. It seemed that Maya was trying to stay in this existence for as long as possible, but she was losing her battle. “I’ll follow you, of course, Maya. Let’s go.” Claudine didn’t know if she herself was disappearing now too, but she didn’t much care. She held on tightly to Maya, pressing her forehead to Maya’s, and allowed herself to stay there until she knew no more.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: Karen

Karen sunk to her knees. Toto disappeared beneath the earth once again. It never felt as if she was summoning him or making him disappear, just that he was burrowing and revealing himself from underneath the ground. There was a ringing in her ears, and it was getting louder. It was blocking out the shouts of Hikari and Mahiru. It was blocking out her vision, of those green sparkles causing Maya and Claudine to disappear before her eyes. But there was nothing that the sharp ringing could do to block out her memory, a constant loop of Toto cleanly beheading Claudine’s Child in an instant.

Karen pressed her fists into the ground, grabbing dirt in her hands and feeling the jagged rocks of the cavern floor dig under her fingernails. It was grounding, but it also reminded her of Claudine’s hands the night before, when she and Mahiru found Claudine and Hikari in this cavern, nearly moments too late. They had been allies just a day before. How had it come to this so quickly?!

There was a rumbling across the cave, and two more pillars emerged from the dais. One crusted in brilliant orange stones, one with what appeared to be diamonds. A flash of red light - Toto’s deathly laser - flashed across Karen’s memory once more. She thought she might be sick.

A few minutes passed, with nothing for Karen to do but revel in the horror of what happened, but Hikari finally spoke up. “Come on, let’s get out of this cursed place.”

Karen nodded shakily and followed her roommates. They seemed to fall into a strange space where they wanted to comfort each other with an embrace, or at least a small touch, but seemed unable to reach out and make contact. Instead, they walked slowly and stoically back to their dormitory.

Mahiru mumbled something about letting the other two bathe first, and headed to the kitchen to prepare something for them to eat. Karen was concerned about Mahiru’s withdrawal, but she was filthy - fighting alongside her Child who burrowed in the ground had that side effect - so she decided to bathe first.

She quickly filled the tub, rinsing off and washing her hair while she waited for it to fill. Once she could soak, she slipped in all at once, allowing her sore muscles to be embraced by the hot water. To her surprise, she found herself crying.

“Don’t tell me you think we should have just laid down and let them take us out…” said Hikari, slipping into the bathroom quietly and watching Karen try to clumsily paw away her tears with a wet forearm. Hikari had recovered from her earlier battle against the serpentine Orphan remarkably fast, but Karen could still see bruising on her shoulders and wrists.

“I- I don’t know,” said Karen. “I… don’t know.”

Hikari got in on the other side of the bathtub and didn’t say anything more for the time being. Karen leaned her head back on the edge of the tub. She didn’t blame Hikari and Mahiru, no, not at all, but it was different for them, and it was different from the last time. When they battled Futaba and Kaoruko, there was such a cloud of chaos and the rainstorm made everything more confusing, and no one could be sure who laid the killing blow. And even though one of them was the one who landed the final strike, dissolving their opponents into green sparkles that took them into the ether, none of them had to be certain it was them at fault.

This time, however, there was no question. Karen’s Child, Karen’s Toto, without a doubt, fired that laser beam that decapitated Claudine’s Child in a second. Karen was responsible for Maya, followed quickly by Claudine, disappearing into those cursed green sparkles. No one else had a Child with laser powers. Everyone witnessed it. It was undeniable. The cheerful girl who read the morning announcements and helped out everyone whenever she could… she was a fraud. Truthfully, Karen was a murderer, or at least some sort of shepherd to the Underworld, because Claudine and Maya were certainly not in this world anymore - those two cursed pillars were proof of that.

Karen swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat as she thought of the excitement she felt the first time she summoned her Element. She had been so thrilled to protect her classmates, to defeat Orphans. Now she was defeating her classmates, too. She didn’t want to blame Toto, he was just doing his job. She had commanded him to fight alongside her, and he did his job flawlessly. And where the others just saw a hunk of metal, she saw a beautiful Child, his personality shining through in a way that only she could see. He was a tower, so naturally he was filled with strength, determination, and incredible willpower. He would not bend to anyone’s wishes, and he would carry out Karen’s commands til the end. She found him incredibly admirable, but she had no choice but to send him away after the final blow in the previous battle, as her emotions quickly caught up to her.

Done with her bath suddenly, she stood, ready to address Mahiru.

“It just happened to be you,” said Hikari. “It could have been me, a moment later,” she added. “They were doomed, you were just unlucky to land the final blow.”

Karen blushed and wrapped her towel more tightly around herself as it seemed Hikari could read her mind. She changed into her pajamas, dried her hair, and brushed her teeth. When she re-entered the common area, Mahiru had a salad and a pot of soup on the table, and Karen slid into her chair, not particularly hungry, but allowing herself to go through the motions that her habits carried her through.

“Please, have some. It’s been a long time since we’ve last eaten,” said Mahiru.

“You have some too, then,” Karen prompted, mostly to get Mahiru to stop fidgeting around the kitchen.

They both picked a bit at their meals, for the first time in Karen’s memory without much to talk about. Finally, after about ten minutes, Hikari joined the table and the atmosphere seemed to change.

“So… obviously the Carnival didn’t end just because we defeated the last ‘pair’,” Hikari said.

Mahiru seemed to choke on her soup, quickly gulping down some tea. “What do you mean, you don’t know that!” she said urgently.

“The HiME star is still there, the dais thing still has two spots for more pillars to come up. No one has come up to us to say ‘congrats, come claim your wish’. I don’t think this Carnival is over,” Hikari said, without a hint of sympathy for Mahiru’s distress.

Karen, on the other hand, could practically see Mahiru’s eyes clouding over and the rain dragon appearing. “Well, let’s all take a breath. Maybe we should get some sleep before we discuss this,” she said, trying to force a smile that she knew wasn’t reaching her eyes. They had started fighting Claudine and Maya in the evening, and now it was after dark. Soon it would be time for them to be in bed, though since there were no classes, there was no longer a strict curfew. However, after the battle they had, Karen thought some sleep would help refresh their fried nerves.

“I don’t think we have that much time,” Hikari said. “That HiME star is practically touching the bay. Of course the residents don’t see it, but if we don’t choose a winner by the time it touches earth, I think the whole ‘chaos’ thing the giraffe was talking about happens.”

“We can’t let that happen while we’re asleep!” said Mahiru, rushing to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.

“But we have another problem,” said Hikari, catching Mahiru’s eye. “Even if we were to battle each other full out, I’m afraid we might share a most precious person…”

Mahiru’s gaze turned dark for just a moment, and she managed to turn it back. “Karen,” she asked sweetly, “Who is most precious to you?”

“I-” Karen felt her throat clench. How could she choose between her closest friends? There was no way to say one was more precious than the other.

“That’s not relevant,” said Hikari. “What’s relevant is the precious person you and I share. Either of our defeat assures Karen’s defeat.”

“It’s not irrelevant,” Mahiru insisted. “If I am most precious to Karen, and she defeats… no, if she….”

“It is irrelevant. There are ways to save yourself, perhaps. But no way to save Karen. Listen, if we…”

Karen tuned out her roommates discussing logically the final battle between the three of them. How could they talk about fighting each other to an effective ‘death’ as if it was a strategy board game? She knew they were trying to protect her, she knew what they were trying to reason was how to save her, but somehow that made her feel even worse. She crept into the bedroom and opened the window, at first just wanting a breath of fresh air, but then spying the wide expanse of earth below.

She called for Toto, escaping from the dormitory, and walked across the empty campus under the moonlight that was dyed an eerie red from the presence of the absurdly close HiME star. She was in her pajamas, but it didn’t matter, the entire campus was evacuated, and there would be no one around this late in town either. She felt compelled to go to that wretched star, to walk out to the bay and see how close the thing was to touching down on Earth.

She had asked Toto to return underground, but she could feel him travelling the same path she was, right below her. She wondered if he was drawn to the star or repelled by it, and only going closer by her command.

Once she arrived at the water’s edge, the view was terrifying. The HiME star looked like a small planet or a large meteor, hovering several stories over the bay, a few hundred feet from shore. It was absurd that anyone who was not a HiME could not see this glowing red ball hundreds of feet in diameter floating above the bay. There was a jagged ring of rocks in orbit around it, and Karen realized the entire thing looked like the HiME mark she got the day she developed her powers. It felt right and disconcerting all at once.

She stared at the star, cursing it, for some time. If only it didn’t exist, she would be enjoying her school life with her two best friends. If only it didn’t exist, Futaba would be winning at kendo, and Kaoruko would be leading tea ceremony. If only it didn’t exist, Junna would be disciplining her in the halls, and Nana would be sharing new baked goods. If only the star didn’t exist, Maya and Claudine would be in their usual spots in the student council office. If only it didn’t exist….

Her thoughts were interrupted by Hikari and Mahiru running up to the water’s edge where she stood. “Karen, why did you disappear all of the sudden? Did we upset you?” asked Mahiru.

“Did you come here to check the distance? I think we have a few hours to nap, if we wanted to,” Hikari said.

Karen turned to face her friends. “I know you want me to win this-”

“Of course we do!” said Mahiru.

“You can use your wish to bring everyone back,” said Hikari.

“...But I wish that HiMEs didn’t exist. I wish that no other girls will have to go through this process.” She turned back towards the water. “That’s why I’m ending this all. Tonight.”

“Karen, what are you doing?” asked Mahiru, walking forward tentatively.

But before she could reach Karen, Karen kicked off her slippers and ran into the bay. The water was still warm from the summer sun that day, and she waded forward a bit before Toto came up through the sandy bottom and brought her forward.

“Karen, get back here!” Mahiru called. “What are you doing?”

She continued on, not fully sure of her plan, but knowing that she was the only one who could pull it off. Who knows when another HiME with a giant laser tower would come about? Probably never….

She rode forward with Toto until they were just beneath the star. She climbed inside his iron bars, bracing as best as she could for what was coming. “Alright, this is it. Let’s give it everything we’ve got! 3….2…..1!”

Toto shot upwards, slamming into the star from underneath. Karen was inside the tower, so it was impossible to tell exactly how far in they made it, but it was at least a few stories. “Ok, let’s give it all our firepower, in all directions, Toto! Ready…. Fire!” There was a bright flash as lasers shot out in all directions, and Karen had to cover her eyes. Suddenly, chunks of rock were flying outward, and back into the tower bars. It was impossible to tell if the star was breaking apart or just taking minor damage. A huge piece of rock fell and Karen raised her arm to block it but it still managed to hit her. Karen thought she was falling, falling, maybe? Then darkness.

 

Karen opened her eyes and looked up at a bright blue sky. It was absurdly, falsely blue. In the sky was the HiME star, or what was left of it. Red chunks of rock hung in a fragmented vague planetary shape, very much out of sorts with the gleaming desert landscape. Karen sat up, and could see that she was on some sort of platform. The distinctive red and white beams tipped her off, and she realized she was on the observation deck to the Tokyo Tower. This observation deck, however, had no guardrails. Looking down, she could see that she was in the middle of the desert. Vultures circled overhead, the only blemish in the cloudless blue sky. Had they been waiting for Karen to die?

She stood up, and noticed a telescope perched on the edge of the deck. Had that been there the whole time? She was fairly certain it just appeared. But with nothing else to do from this platform, she decided to look through it. There was nothing to look at up in the sky besides those birds, so she pointed it down at the darker shapes in the desert sand. She zoomed in on one and backed up, almost falling back onto her bottom on the deck. Laying on the sand, looking like a corpse, was Kaoruko. Plucking up the courage, she peered through the telescope again, and sure enough, she spied Futaba, then Claudine, then Maya, then Junna and Nana. Her classmates, her friends here laying there, in the hot sand, unmoving, with vultures circling overhead.

They appeared just as they did when they disappeared: Kaoruko in her skirt and blouse and Futaba in her hakama, both wrinkled from the rain and stained with dirt. Nana and Junna in their school-issued tracksuits, Claudine and Maya in kimono.

Wildly, Karen swung the telescope around, heart racing. Where were Mahiru and Hikari? Did they make it to this world, wherever this world was? Were they back in the ‘real’ world that was about to descend into chaos? Did they think Karen was dead? Was she?

Finally, she spotted them, about a hundred meters from the girls laying in the sand. They were upright, and they were hard to spot from so many stories up as the top of their heads were the only things visible through the lens of the telescope. It seemed that they were standing at attention, Elements summoned, ready to face… what appeared to be dozens of charging shadow figures. Were they… coming to claim the bodies laying in the sand? Karen shuddered. She wasn’t sure whether to keep watching to see how the clash played out or to figure out how to climb down the tower as quickly as possible to help. When she finally decided to tear her eyes away and figure out a way down from the platform she was trapped on, she found herself facing the giraffe.

She ran past him, looking for a ladder or a staircase or even a beam she could shimmy down. Sure it would take a long time to get down the Tokyo Tower, but her friends needed her desperately.

“I’m afraid there’s no way down,” the giraffe informed her. “Your stage is here.”

“What are you talking about?” Karen asked. “My friends need help!”

“Indeed they do. However, you were never supposed to arrive in this domain in the first place, so I don’t see why we should suddenly change the course of things just on account of your arrival. It’s enough trouble that those two arrived before being defeated” he said.

“Hikari and Mahiru? What do you mean? They were supposed to be defeated before they got here?”

“Indeed. It seemed the force of that explosion you caused pulled them into the little rift we had between the worlds, and all three of you arrived here, in the tiny pocket we have for… organizing this HiME ritual. But no matter, the korosu will take care of them soon enough, and all eight tributes will fuel the repair of the HiME star. I guess I should be congratulating you on your win.”

Karen could feel tears spring to her eyes, and turned away so the giraffe could not see them fall down her face. She ran back to the telescope so that she could make sure Hikari and Mahiru were still holding the shadow-y fighters back. They looked worse for wear, but still doing well. “I… I thought that breaking the star would end this stupid ritual,” she choked out. She knew confessing her sabotage to the game’s staff wasn’t the smartest move, but it sickened her to see her classmates and friends lying motionless on the sand, and her two closest friends fighting for their lives at this very moment, while she was told she was a ‘winner’.

“What you did was create a bit of entropy,” the giraffe said. “You did create some waves in… the opposite direction. But we’re talking about the entire world order. It would take a lot more than breaking apart one small star to change the order of the entire Earth. You would need a lot more entropy than that.”

His words came out logically, but Karen could swear he was scoffing at her. And, she supposed, why shouldn’t he? This was a (cruel) game, and he had won. She was stuck on a platform, and his minions were about to pull the finishing move to secure that this ritual continues indefinitely. Her friends were gone. Because of her stunt, she had forfeited her chance at a wish that would bring back her friends as they were ‘needed’ to repair the star. Perhaps she might be granted the leniency to not have to watch the proceedings. She just wanted to throw herself off the tower.

Karen laid back for a moment, feeling as if she was punched in the gut. “Let me go with them,” she said, not even bothering to look at the giraffe. They were the only two on the tower, he would know she was addressing him. “Let me go down there, I want to disappear with everyone else.” I want to fall off this tower.

“I’m afraid that is not how this story ends, Aijou-san,” said the giraffe, his voice as calm and monotone as ever. “Though, this is the first time in all of the hundreds of years this ceremony has taken place that all of the ‘precious people’ have been HiME. We’ve had one or two before, but all of them? Perhaps we are reaching the end of an era…”

Karen couldn’t call it doubt, because the giraffe sounded as sure of himself as ever, but the one moment of musing was enough to instill a spark of hope in Karen. Perhaps this wasn’t playing out entirely according to plan. Perhaps she still had time to change things. If only she could get off of this damn tower…

She wanted to… throw herself... off of the tower…. She knew it was a terrible idea, but the persistent thought wouldn’t leave her. Perhaps it was a suicidal impulse, but maybe, just maybe, it could work. Before giving the giraffe any time to find a way to stop her, Karen sprinted for the edge of the platform, leaping forward as far forward as she could, and calling for her Element. She could feel the sword materialize with familiarity in her hand, but had no time to look at it, as she saw the sand of the desert growing closer by the second.

Karen took a deep breath, exhaled, and called for Toto. She wasn’t sure how a miniature Tokyo Tower was going to help her landing, seeing as it was just as hard and pointy (but with bonus lasers), but she felt comforted if she could have her Child present. Toto seemed to be coming, a divot in the sand was appearing, but Karen only had a couple seconds at most before impact.

Suddenly, Toto appeared from beneath the sand, but with him was a rush of water. Beautiful blue chaos crashed through the still desert, the foamy water cushioning Karen’s fall. She sunk beneath the waves, accidentally catching a mouthful of the sandiest, saltiest water she had ever tasted, but she surfaced again, very much alive and very much off of that cursed platform. The water dispersed quickly across the wide expanse of desert, and Karen could wade through the water to Toto. She gazed up, trying to see where she had come from, but could hardly make out the tall platform. More disconcerting was the large chunk of sky missing. The broken HiME star still hung above, but it seemed like someone took away some of the backdrop and behind it was just… deep nothingness.

“Toto… did you… bring part of the bay with you when you came? I love you! Always thinking on your feet!” Karen cooed at her Child. “Let’s get to Hikari and Mahiru.”

Karen ran across the sand, quickly heating up now that she was not in the cool water of the bay, and the giraffe’s words echoed in her mind. You would need a lot more entropy than that…

“Karen!” Mahiru gushed when she spotted her, panting from the effort of holding back one of the shadow fighters. Behind her was a pile of those slain, but it seemed to be taking a toll. Hikari and Mahiru were now fighting noticeably closer to their classmates.

“I’m here to help!” Karen called. “Can you two summon your Childs?”

“These things have some kind of toxic energy,” Hikari said. “Maybe if we could get away from them for a moment.”

“I’ll hold them off, you get Susanoo and Nanuk!”

Mahiru and Hikari ran off, and didn’t say a word about Karen’s stupid plan or Karen likely getting them all killed or Karen dragging them into this strange world. She could cry, but knew she had to focus if she wanted any chance of getting them out of this alive.

One of the shadow fighters wandered too close to Junna and Toto knocked it into a slump with a rather weak laser. “I think they’re coming from over there,” Karen said, pointing towards a strange crystalline structure in the distance. Toto fired much more powerful lasers this time, and the structure collapsed in a heap. There was a crash in the distance, and Karen noticed another chunk of sky missing.

Mahiru and Hikari returned, their Childs now summoned. “Feels good to get away from those gremlins,” Mahiru said, hovering a bit, mace in hand.

“Well, I don’t think we’ll have to stay here for long,” Karen said. She pointed at the sky. “The reason breaking the star didn’t work was because I didn’t break enough to destroy the whole HiME system. We have to keep breaking things. Hurry!”

Hikari smiled. “I have a giant polar bear robot and you need me to break things as fast as I can? You too, lightning dragon lady… let’s go.”

They took off. Toto took care of the remaining shadow fighters in short order, and then got to work destroying the ‘real’ Tokyo Tower itself, the main component of this desert world. It seemed that this irritated the giraffe, who noticed that the sky was breaking open, and holes were starting to form in the ground as well. Karen wondered how many holes would have to be picked open before this place would collapse.

The giraffe did not come down from the platform, but he sent out Orphans to distract them from destroying the tower. Karen tried to combine these tasks, by slamming the Orphans against the tower, or skewering the Orphan and the tower with a well-placed laser. Sometimes, the Orphan’s attack would harm the tower all on its own. Perhaps that would teach the giraffe to send more Orphans.

Finally, the sky seemed to break open, and the ground fell away. Everyone remained where they were, at least for the time being. The giraffe reappeared at the bottom of the tower, facing Karen.

“Perhaps, I was incorrect. Perhaps, it is time to end the HiME ritual,” he stated.

“Are you saying we’ve won?” she asked.

“It’s not about winning or losing. Like I said in the beginning, I am merely the overseer. The events today indicate that the will to end the ceremony is stronger than the will to continue the ceremony, thus, it shall end. Of course, that means humans will have to find a new way to control the chaos and difficulties on Earth. And there will be no wish.

“We’ve done it!” Karen said, reaching out to grab Hikari and Mahiru’s hands. “Thank you,” she said to Toto, dismissing him for what she knew would be the final time. There was no earth for him to sink into, he merely disappeared like the other Childs usually did, into thin air.

“It is now time for you to return,” said the giraffe. “This dimension is rapidly destabilizing.”

“And the other HiME?” Karen asked.

If the giraffe answered, Karen didn’t hear it. His face began to blur and fade, and Karen could first hear shouting, then only the ringing of her own ears. She felt as if she was dropping through the nothingness in the ground, and emerged… she wasn’t sure where. She fell rapidly, about five feet, and landed on a dirt floor, her ankle twisting awkwardly.

She could hear confused mumbles and groans of two? No… more people, and tried to blink to adjust to the darkness. She didn’t want to get her hopes up to early, but…

“Ugh, Maya, is that you, you’re sitting on my kimono…”

“My apologies, Claudine,” came the reply.

“We… we’re back?” came a tentative voice. Definitely Junna.

“It appears so…” came Nana’s reply.

“Oi, Kaoruko, is that your stomach growling?” Futaba groaned.

“That’s what you have to say to me after our dramatic parting?!” asked Kaoruko.

There was laughter all around, and Karen began to make out the shapes of her classmates as they helped one another up. Those who had been ‘disappeared’ seemed a little unsteady on their feet, but not too worse for wear. And everyone was putting on a brave face for their most precious person. The conversations about what exactly had happened could come a little later.

“I think we’re back in that underground cavern,” Mahiru said. “But all the lights are gone. They were probably lit with magic.”

There was a shifting noise, what seemed to be an ominous sliding of rocks and something tumbling in the distance.

“Don’t tell me the cavern is held up with magic too…” said Junna.

“Let’s not wait and find out. We need to get out of here,” said Hikari.

They were in what seemed to be a chamber with only one path out, so they quickly rushed out, Karen limping a bit but pushed along by the ever-closer noises of rumbling rocks. They moved in near-silence, each staying close to their partner, or in Karen’s case, partners, but not speaking, and not mingling much with the others.

Suddenly, there was the closest sliding noise yet, and rocks began to tumble into the passage where they were moving. Karen, Hikari, and Mahiru had been in front, but were pushed aside as Kaoruko, hand in hand with Futaba, pushed through running forward.

Karen gritted her teeth to hold back tears as pain rushed through her ankle, and had to slow down further. This time, Maya and Claudine overtook them. Karen took a deep breath and kept moving. She needed to make it out of the cavern without being crushed by rocks, after all.

“How does it feel to not be first at something, Maya?” said Kaoruko, presumably from the head of the line.

“Lay off, Kaoruko, Maya isn’t the reason we lose in the Carnival,” said Futaba.

The cave walls made the conversation flow right to Karen’s ears, despite being several meters back.

“I didn’t end up in first. Claudine and I lost to Karen, Mahiru, and Hikari,” replied Maya, as if she was reporting the weather.

“Ah, so we both lost to that group,” said Kaoruko. She was silent after that, but Karen could feel the weight growing in her chest. Could she ever return to a normal school life with her friends and classmates? Was she naive enough to believe that they would be grateful that she ended the Carnival? Did they even know?

More rocks tumbled and they ran forward, this time emerging in the main cavern where Karen had defeated Claudine’s Child. They rushed across to the familiar entrance, prying the doors open with strength, now that the magic seal was broken. Notably, the shimmering columns were gone, the dais cracked and unremarkable now that the ceremony was over.

Nana looked in that direction. “You did it, didn’t you?” she asked quietly. “You ended all of it. You found a way to bring us all back, and to end the HiME ritual.”

Karen bit her lip, afraid that she would cry if she even nodded. But it was enough that one person understood. She took the last spot in line leaving the cavern, and it wasn’t a moment too late, as she could hear massive boulders collapsing the chamber as they left. They emerged near the library, and though Karen had no idea what time it was, the sky was dark. Had only moments passed from when she blew up the star? Had an entire day passed? Did it matter?

Without so much as a ‘goodnight’, the four sets of roommates went their separate ways. As they were walking away, Karen could see Kaoruko and Futaba start a conversation with Maya and Claudine, and wondered, with a sense of paranoia, if they were talking about her. Junna and Nana caught up to her and Mahiru and Hikari after a moment.

“We’ll be able to bring everyone back to school,” Junna said. “But maybe after a day or two, I could use a little rest.”

Karen wondered if Junna was referring to going back to work on the student council with Maya and Claudine. She didn’t know the details of how Nana and Junna were defeated, but it wasn’t by her hands, which left few possibilities.

“I’m glad. I miss seeing everyone. And… and I missed all of you while you weren’t with us!” Karen said, her tears finally falling.

Junna blushed, at first recoiling in surprise from the hug that Karen sprung on her, but then settling into it. Nana came and joined as well, gently smoothing Karen’s messy hair.

“Now, now,” said Nana. “Don’t cry. We’re all back here now. It’s over, everyone is safe.”

But somehow, Karen’s tears would not stop, and only seemed to trigger tears in Mahiru and Junna both. Slowly, they climbed the stairs into their dorm, quiet and empty due to the evacuations.

“Let’s all get some sleep tonight,” Nana suggested. “I’m sure things will look more clear in the morning.”

Wiping her tears with the back of her sleeve, Karen nodded. In a zombie-like state, she followed the others through the routine of a bath, a light meal, and brushing her teeth. Although it seemed that it was almost dawn, Karen had to admit she was exhausted, so she followed the others to their beds and got under the blankets.

She thought of the others. Were Kaoruko and Futaba really mad at her? Maya and Claudine hadn’t said much, what were their feelings? Nana said she was appreciative, but she was always the most intuitive… was she just saying these things for Karen’s sake. Even Junna, who disliked her HiME powers, seemed reluctant to return to normal life.

“Hikari?” Karen whispered, surprised to hear her own voice foggy with sleep.

“Yeah?” Hikari whispered back.

“Did I do the right thing?” she asked. She couldn’t make out Hikari’s face in their darkened room, only a silhouette.

“You did the right thing. It was the only way to get everyone back, and it was the best solution. You can go to sleep without any worry.”

Karen smiled for the first time since before the fight with Claudine and Maya. “Thank you, my sweet Hikari,” she answered, perhaps teasing a little. She was rewarded with a pillow tossed at her face and Hikari turning away quickly to face the wall.

“Karen?” asked Mahiru tentatively. Karen had thought she was sleeping, and was surprised to hear her awake.

“Yes, Mahiru?”

“She’s right. You did the right thing. Sleep well now.”

Karen yawned, very much relieved now. “You too, Mahiru. Good night.”

Chapter Text

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.”