Meeting: Two. Spring Semester. Time: 10:15. Date: 21 May 2011.

Councilor: Jouji Higashikawa

"All right, well, sounds like we're all set. Next week, right? Of course, right?"

"Yeah."

[shuffle of chair]

". . . Say, Kyon?"

"Yeah?"

". . .I—well, it's a stupid question. Really, feel totally free not to answer; it's really got nothing to do with our little chats. I've just been asking around. You don't mind if I ask you something, do you?"

"Guess not."

"No, of course not. How do you . . . oh, I'm never sure how to ask it. But, well, how do you feel about fate?"

". . . Not sure I get the question."

"Well, you know. Fate. The big F. Though, I guess you could call it 'destiny', too. But, well, what do you think about it?"

"I don't."

"So you don't believe in it? Not even a little?"

"Not really."

"Oh."

"I gotta get going—"

"Oh. Of course, go ahead. See you next week."

"Bye."

[closing of door]

"

. . . What a shame."


Ten: "As Punishment (or As According to My Will?)"


"As punishment for my contempt for authority, fate has made me an authority myself."

Albert Einstein


Miss Inoue was Tsuruya. Was Grandmother Tsuruya, technically, but I think I'm well within reason not to refer to her that way. She has never seemed as old as she really was, to me. An aunt, maybe, but a grandmother? Impossible. I couldn't make out a hint of a resemblance to her granddaughter either, which made me feel better about missing it. In hindsight, it certainly made sense. She lived in the building; she knew Kino (though given Kino's stunned silence, it was a safe bet that at least here, she had been as clueless as I had been); she pushed me (well, tried) to Kino. But while Kino had jumped immediately to mind as suspect, I'd never given her a second thought. She was just present enough in my life for me to feel comfortable with her, but just enough outside of it that I didn't think of her once.

Just like a distant grandmother, come to think.

"Are you okay?" she asked, pulling tighter a dark blue shawl wrapped around her shoulders. "I hope my people haven't stepped outside their bounds. Tenjou, for one, is notorious."

The Organization agent in question bit her lip but said nothing. Surprisingly, I couldn't see a hint of anger in her eyes. Tsuruya the Younger hadn't been worthy of any respect in her mind, but Tsuruya the Elder might as well have been synonymous with the word.

"He is fine."

Nagato spoke before I could even try. She gave me a glance and raised, ever so slightly, her eyebrows like she dared me to break in.

The New Nagato, finally in action? This I had to see.

"I think he's capable of speaking for himself," Tsuruya said. She glanced at Nagato then redirected to me, as if Nagato weren't worth the trouble, and my blood pumped faster. Was the Miss Inoue I knew a total fake? I couldn't even fathom her treating anyone like that, like they were just barely above ant level when it came to the world's affairs.

"At the very least," she continued, not even sounding the same as the woman in my memory, right down to the cadence of her voice, "I have functional interfaces if he really finds talking so difficult."

I stepped forward but Nagato was faster, putting herself between us. "He will only speak when specified non-negotiable terms have been satisfactorily met."

The laugh was barely restrained. "Non-negotiable?"

"Correct."

"And they are?"

"No weaponry or tools manipulated to bring harm or create deceit are allowed. You will speak only in the main quarters of this apartment, and only to him and Haruhi Suzumiya. There will be no other members allowed in the space during the conversation, and they cannot enter until you leave the space, signifying that a desirable conclusion has been reached by all parties involved."

"Including yourself?"

". . . Correct."

That wasn't the most exciting thing to hear, but it made sense. If we expected them to play by our rules, we would have—

Wait. 'Haruhi'? What was Haruhi's name doing in those conditions? Don't tell me—

"Haruhi's not allowed anywhere near that space!"

Nagato didn't acknowledge my outburst, which really said enough for me, but Tsuruya explained anyway:

"While you were busy hiding away with Kino, I made it quite clear that I need both of you in attendance."

But . . . why? "I find it hard to believe that you'd throw away years of secrecy willingly."

"I don't do it 'willingly'." Her patronizing smirk vanished, making her look more like a defeated queen holding on to her dignity after the battle. "You did, however carelessly and unintentionally. This whole . . . 'fiasco' quite clearly proves that you and Suzumiya desire a choice in this matter. It was not given to you as I did not—and still do not, I might add—consider you capable of making the right decision. But, congratulations; you will get what you want. But it will be an informed decision—by both of you.

For the first time since Tsuruya entered, Kino spoke:

"Don't do it."

Tsuruya turned to her and though only for a second, I caught a glimpse of Miss Inoue. However different she was, not all of her affection for Kino had been faked. Or maybe over time the act became real just enough for that tiny little "Sorry" sign she held in her eyes before turning back to me again. Kino saw none of it though, refusing to look anywhere but at me as she leaned in to say:

"Trap." Her voice was carefully set, with just enough determination coming through to let me knew that it was more than just a guess.

Tsuruya, however, wasn't fazed.

"I can honestly say that I am not lying."

"I didn't say you lied," she said, still looking at me, "I said it was a trap."

"Kino—"

"—Don't call me that."

I tried to get a clue what Kino was trying to say, but she let nothing slip; just kept staring like I should automatically get her point. Okay, think then: she said before that they hadn't told her a thing. So, either she was lying then . . .

Or maybe that was it. They hadn't told her a thing; and they'd gone to every length possible to keep me from getting here. To have a sudden change of heart now? Not likely. Tsuruya—the younger Tsuruya—had said she was fine with it, but it had to be Plan ZZ for them, the very worst case of worst case scenarios.

But a back-up plan was still a back-up plan. Tsuruya knew everything; like a tarot reader, the cards were hers, and only she knew what they meant just by looking. She wouldn't dare show them unless she knew she still had that control.

Yeah—definitely a trap.

But did I really have a choice? Kino failed to look at the obvious: that it was a trap I'd been running to jump into. Tsuruya was right. I made things pretty clear, and as much as I hated to admit it, Haruhi had too.

Time to flip the cards.

"I'll do it," I said. "If you'll follow the rules."

Out of the corner of my eye Kino started to fume, but it didn't matter. With a nod, Tsuruya had already made her way down the hall, Tenjou silently—though pretty unhappily—trailing behind. When both were safely out of earshot, Kino burst out with an "Are you serious? What part of 'trap' was so insanely hard to get?"

Sorry, Kino. Really.

"Nagato, make sure she leaves?"

At this, Kino started up another round of cursing but I focused my attention on Nagato, who nodded. I blinked, and in that split-second, Kino crumbled to the floor between us, fast asleep.

Wait, what?

Slowly though I realized, and Nagato: the proverbial hare to light speed's turtle, abd liable to throw the Sandman out of business forever. She must have injected Kino with anesthetic. I had to wonder, though:

"How come you don't always move that fast?"

"It is not always necessary."

A small little shudder went through me. I had to admit, in a way, it was probably a gift to have been oblivious these past five years. To think that the DITE—a species so advanced that the ability to move before a human brain's synapses can even fire is considered 'not always necessary' when interacting with us—were watching my every move was a terrifying thought.

Though not nearly as terrifying as going into this without having the one DITE member that I do trust by my side.

"Am I doing the right thing?" I asked. It wasn't the same as having her there, but a little boost of confidence now would have to do.

"There is not enough data to determine an answer."

I sighed. Of course; leave it to Nagato to be blunt. Yet I did feel a little better, and her next words, as she lifted the almost-a-foot-taller-than-her Kino like she would a paper doll, only sealed it.

"However, in a similar situation, my actions would be the same as yours."

I couldn't help but smile. "Thanks, Nagato."

"Don't die."

"I'll try not to."

After all, I still had to make you actually accept my gratitude one of these days.


"Idiot."

This caring introduction was courtesy of Haruhi, who plopped down next to me like a punished child. Pouty lips, crossed arms, snarl twisting her lips. If it wasn't for her eyes, clearly bright with curiosity no matter how hard she tried to hide it, you'd think she didn't want to be here at all. She was just still annoyed with me for running out on her.

Well, allow me to join the fray then:

"You didn't exactly warn me, you know. A sneak attack really wasn't how I pictured that happening."

Her eyes popped at that, and only too late, as they became smug slits, did I understand why. "So," she said with a smirk, "you pictured it happening before?"

Curse my mouth.

I'd like to point out by the way that while Kino's little rant was still tunneling pathways through my brain, I hadn't really budged on the issue. Not because I was discounting it, but this really was no time to even try to find ways to do so (and believe me, I intend to later). Whether or not it was something that Haruhi wanted to talk about, there were more pressing matters right now.

Like Tsuruya, who just sat down in front of us.

Even Haruhi stilled a little. After a quick evaluation of the woman though, she leaned forward, her smirk kicking into full power. It was impossible to tell whether she was truly fearless or whether she was just refusing to show it—but then, she wouldn't be Haruhi if I could actually understand her logic, and it wasn't a surprise when she struck first with:

"So you're this grandmother I keep hearing about?"

Tsuruya nodded, causing Haruhi to narrow her eyes.

"You don't look old enough."

Tsuruya smiled, and turned to me. "Is this really what we're here for?"

I shrugged. "Haruhi has her own way of doing things."

"So she does."

"Spit it out, Grams; what've you got?"

I sighed, but I could understand the sudden antsiness. Though she had allowed a greeting (or rather, her 'unique' idea of one) for politeness' sake, she must have been itching to get to the good stuff. Hell, I was feeling pretty anxious myself, though my feelings were of a distinctly more negative branch.

But even with that, Tsuruya didn't answer right away. Whether it was because she was safely away from her judging subordinates or because she'd suddenly realized how low she'd fallen, her smile faltered and she looked down at her lap. As she stroked a wayward curl behind her ear again, careful not to get it caught in the earring, I couldn't help but again think of her as Miss Inoue, in the part of my mind that still didn't believe this whole mess. It was just what she would do, when she and Kino would laugh about some in joke between them, and she was left to the task of deciding whether or not to tell me the details. The only difference here was that there was no smile.

And when she looked up again, it was hard to imagine that she'd ever smiled before in her life.

"Years ago, I believe it was you who found this."

She uncovered a fold of her shawl and revealed something I'd never thought I'd see again. Thin and metal and decidedly futuristic, it could have been a child's toy. It was just that nondescript, though emanating a feel that it was more than the simple rod it appeared to be. Beside me, I could see Haruhi's eyebrows furrow, but before she could ask I explained:

"It was buried. In February of my first year of high school, I was . . . digging to . . . build muscle—"

This apparently wasn't the save I thought it was, as Haruhi snorted, so I sighed and went for the truth. "Okay, I was digging because Asahina's older version told me to in a letter, and I found it. Your granddaughter said it belonged to one of your ancestors." Still didn't explain why you had it here, though.

"That is correct."

. . . And? "Mind saying a little more? I didn't know what it was then and I don't know now."

"Not even a guess of its origins?"

Well, I did have that, admittedly. Two actually. And looking at it again, I still stood firmly by them both. "It's either from the time travelers or the Thought Entity. If I had to pick, it'd be the second one."

"Right instincts. Wrong choice."

The immediate answer startled me, but looking at Haruhi you'd think Tsuruya had just announced the sky was raining chocolate. "Huh? So that's real, without-a-doubt technology from the future? What does it do?"

Tsuruya lifted the device, raising it to eye-level.

"In itself," she answered, "practically nothing. In some respects, it's nothing more than a glorified piece of paper. It'll be used to deliver messages, long after the time traveler outside in the hall has come and gone."

It was from a time even father in the future than Asahina had come from? At least that explained why she didn't recognize it, if it were really something so simple.

"But," Tsuruya continued, "I suppose that's irrelevant. It's the message inside, seen if you hold it and manipulate it in just the right way, that's valuable—given one has the resources to translate it, of course."

"Which you do." Show off.

"An advanced, anglicized version of Japanese, mixed in with a few other languages—" she, surprisingly graciously, handed it to Haruhi and me "—nothing more. It's prepared, just look through the slot."

Haruhi took first dibs, but quickly released it. She was smiling, but as I looked through, I couldn't see why. However Tsuruya tried to explain it, they just looked like doodles to me, albeit doodles that shone directly into your eye in a perfect left-to-right order.

"It took us a few years but we managed to crack it: a message from one of our own descendants, handed down to her throughout the centuries and now given back to us."

Handed down? Given back? "Just how old is this thing?"

"I don't know."

It was only instinct that caught the device as it slipped from my fingers. Glorified piece of paper, my ass. If that were true—if the descendent had seen it passed down all along the family line from the Tsuruya in front of me and the Tsuruya I knew in high school, and then gave it to an ancestor of this Tsuruya to bury and one day be recovered . . .

Then I was holding in my hands a concrete time loop: a device with no beginning and no conceivable ending.

Haruhi snatched it back, apparently less concerned about the quantum mechanics than she was the contents. "So what else does it say?"

"That we'd end up here, for one."

Wait.

"You knew this would happen? All of this?"

"Not precisely. It simply ends, to quote, 'But know: our attempts will be challenged, and it will lead to our own destruction. A tale that will die with those who suffer it'."

Well. That definitely sounded ominous.

"I'll admit," she continued, "I did think that perhaps, I had avoided it. As the years passed, it seemed like I had somehow manipulated things to a better end. A little foolish, I know, but it's only human to think it could be done."

"But you don't even know what it means! 'Our' is a vague pronoun thrown out of context, and 'destruction' could mean everything from dismantlement to chaos. If the writer of this really is your ancestor, why wouldn't they just tell you what was so important?"

"Because that isn't what is important."

Then what the hell is?

She sighed, twisting the shawl around one hand until it disappeared in the blue. "The message," she started slowly, as if building up energy, "was a story. More a folktale, actually; about a princess in the sky who wove robes more beautiful than anyone else's."

Hold on a second. I knew that story. And when Haruhi leaned forward, I knew it was because she did too, even before she named it: "Orihime. That's the Tanabata legend."

Tsuruya nodded, but continued anyway. "However, for her all her skill and beauty, Orihime was not a happy princess. She had been punished by her father, separated from the one she loved—a lowly, though remarkably talented sheepherder across the river. But then, why shouldn't she have been? For when the princess was with her beloved, neither had been able to fulfill their roles. She had refused to weave, even though the kingdom could not survive without her fabric—"

"—What? Orihime was happy and didn't need to weave anymore, and her jerk dad—"

"—and the sheepherder had refused to act as all ordinary citizens ought, leaving the kingdom in total disarray—"

"That's not what happened!"

Haruhi was standing now; cartoon smoke practically shot out of her ears, but Tsuruya didn't crack, only making it Haruhi gearing up for a slaughter, I stood and broke in with:

"Could we please just actually get to the point?"

"Why? I feel as if Suzumiya here has adequately proven it."

Come again? And this time with an actual explanation?

But despite my confusion, Tsuruya paid me no attention. Her eyes were locked on Haruhi now, as she asked, "Why are you so angry at me, Suzumiya? It's just a story, isn't it?"

Haruhi opened her mouth to retaliate but I lunged, covering it with one hand. "It's one of her favorite stories," I filled in. She elbowed me in the gut in response, and I let go, just as Tsuruya said:

"And what if it were not just a story? What would you say?"

Haruhi scoffed, and though I think it was more out of annoyance at me, I had to second the act. "I don't really feel like playing with hypothetical situations."

"Humor me."

I sighed. But if that was the only way we were going to get anywhere . . .

"I would say that she knew Orihime. Or knew the herdsman, or—"

"—That she was Orihime?"

Silence—from both me and Haruhi. Not so much from the words themselves—those were easily ignored. But Tsuruya, perhaps knowing how laughable it sounded, had gone completely still, and she stared at Haruhi with such intensity that I almost wanted to step between them, just in case lasers started shooting out.

"Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, she was allowed to meet with her beloved, weather allowing. After so many years, did you ever think that maybe they would have thought to create a plan? Something to escape their punishment? Orihime was a goddess, after all; surely, she had some tricks. Surely, it wouldn't be so difficult, for her to hide them both in human forms—albeit ones constructed to maintain her abilities."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Haruhi sit down, and as hard as I tried to follow, my legs refused.

"But," Tsuruya continued on, " there would be the matter of memory. By being reborn, neither one could remember their true selves. But still. You have to think, if these humans were crafted by a goddess, they must have been created to not be so different from their usual selves. So, it'd hardly be surprising if that young human girl, the former Orihime, felt a strange connection with the story of Tanabata.

"Don't you agree?"

My mouth went dry, but somehow, I spoke.

"If it were actually true."

It sounded a trillion times more confident than I felt, but I had no other option. Because this was it, I realized. The trap, just as Kino had warned. Either Tsuruya was right . . .

Or she'd manipulate Haruhi's powers into making her right.

"I'm not lying," Tsuruya reitereated. "Not anymore." But I didn't budge.

"It's ridiculous. Not to mention impossible."

At that, Tsuruya actually laughed, if not entirely convincingly. "Outside in the hall are a psychic, an alien, and a girl from the future. Sitting right there is a girl who can make things happen just by wishing it—and don't even try to deny that, you've known that for years."

I kept my eyes forward, not wanting to even think about what Haruhi's response to that would be.

"How can you," Tsuruya continued, "call this impossible?"

"Because your supposed proof is in some language I can't even read!"

It wasn't until I said it that I realized it was actually a pretty good point. I was going on her very, very biased word, and even assuming that she was actually repeating it word for word, there was still this: "And you don't even know if you can trust whoever wrote this. You don't know who wrote it at all! Besides, Haruhi's not weaving any robes whether she's with me or she's not—"

"—It's a metaphor for her powers."

"That's easy to say without proof!"

"She can bend reality to her will; who's to say she doesn't create it? And you and I both know that with you, her powers were stabilizing. By the end of your third year they were close to disappearing completely."

Don't look at Haruhi, don't look at Haruhi.

"When did that stop being a good thing?"

Tsuruya sighed, some slight frustration leaking out. "I'll give you that her earlier days weren't. . . ideal. But, neither is total stagnation. I'm sure of it.

You're sure of it? "A hunch doesn't give you the right to mess with our lives!"

She looked at me, and her eyes were Miss Inoue's again as they filled with an emotion I couldn't ignore.

Compassion.

And that was when the sudden surge of confidence left.

"Kyon. Kyon with the auspicious name. You saw Haruhi again for the first time in five years today, correct? Just before midnight. Do you know what today is?"

A last ebb of power said "Not July 7th" before dying away.

She smiled sadly. "No. August 28th.

"The seventh day, of the seventh month, on the Lunar calendar."


If you all only knew how neurotic I am about posting this chapter . . . I mean, this is it. What the story's really about. There's no more hiding behind everything else that the story SEEMS to be about. I am anxiously looking forward to seeing if anyone has guessed it though (there are none-too-subtle clues if you know what to look for, and it's not a new theory for this series; do please look at the Korean name for Hikoboshi, it's a real kicker).

There are three chapters left (the next one was actually supposed to be part of this one, but it just didn't work). They will be written by the end of this week (next week at the latest), and posted after betaing. Speaking of: THANK YOU, ROCKE. EVERYONE HUG ROCKE. Because she does, in fact, rock. Till then, see ya. It's going to be a fun ride.