Our Inevitable Fate
A Higurashi/Bokura no/Haruhi crossover/fusion.
Disclaimer: Higurashi was created by Ryukishi07. The novel series begun with 'Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu'/'The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi' is the creation of Nagaru Tanigawa. The Bokura no universe, as demonstrated here, was envisioned originally in the manga by Mohiro Kitoh, and then adapted for the anime by Morita Hiroyuki. I'm borrowing their paints (more Morita's than Mohira's)
No disrespect is intended by the posting of this fanfiction, as I do not own the characters or settings involved. For fans of Bokura no's characters specifically, I'll warn you now that not so many of them show up (apologies).
Note: I was told to keep this style on the back-burner for the day I might use it again. That day has just arrived. Let's see if it still works.
[[ I came to terms... ]]
They met in the wooded area a kilometer from the lodge, beneath the light of the stars and the waning moon. "I probably don't need to say a word," he remarked, holding his hand out for Kimidori to take.
"You don't need to," she agreed, clasping the proffered hand in her own. "But if you like, it's fine."
"I don't want to talk," he replied. "Or think. I'll save my energy for your analysis."
She held his hand in silence for long minutes before releasing it with a sigh. "There are gaps in the data," she said quietly. "The destruction of their reality was not fully recorded."
"I thought that might be the case," he mumbled. "Where to even begin.... I can only say what it looked like. The world turned gray, then red. Then it ... shattered, and faded. The stars went out forever, one by one. Then there was nothing until we came back here. I suppose you'll want me to watch it if it happens again?"
"I expected. With everything else, my job is now to watch realities die... If it isn't to destroy them myself."
"We would like to modify your nanites."
"Will you need to bite me?"
"It would be faster."
He thrust his hand towards her once more. "We can do it the slow way," he said.
[ ...long ago, but not so far away ]
The call woke her up from a dream of Satoshi. Not one of the old dreams, where he had returned healthy and happy. One of the newer dreams, where she sat at his side in the secret medical ward in Hinamezawa.
She stared at the ceiling of their shared room in the darkness, hearing her sister's soft breathing. She smiled, and decided not to wake her just yet.
He had liked baseball, before things became too stressful for him. She wanted to read him books, stories of more wonderful things than he had endured. But it hurt, and felt like a sad escape.
He remained unconscious anyway, so eventually she had discarded the books and gone to Satoko. Only because of her role as Satoko's 'nee-nee' was she allowed into the hallowed realm of Satoshi's room in the old Houjou home. The pair of them spent the better part of two days cleaning the year and more worth of accumulated dust from his things, then another day carefully picking through his scrapbooks and memorabilia to determine his likes and dislikes.
She wasn't certain what he _liked_. He had seemed to be a fan of the Fukuaoka Softbank Hawks, but Satoko was certain that he couldn't stand the Hanshin Tigers. So Shion had collected every article of their defeats, and read those to Satoshi's slumbering form.
Kyousuke had a lot to weigh on him, Shion decided. Even so, Shion could recognize him as an emotional anchor -- everyone else relied on him, so she decided she would, too.
The more pragmatic side of her cautioned that Kyousuke could easily be next, so she had a backup, too. Mikuru seemed a gentle soul, though even she had hardened after all they'd seen together. With Mion distracting Suzumiya and Satoko, Shion called the two into her room and outlined her plan:
"It's my job to take care of Satoko for her ... missing brother," she began. Then she raised her skirt to show the deep blue sword-shaped markings that lined her thighs. "Maybe I'm a terrible person, but I almost wish she were chosen first ... just so I could be with her when it was her turn."
Kyousuke bowed his head and covered his eyes with one hand. "I'm sorry," he said softly.
"Oh, no," Mikuru murmured, her eyes watering. "Sonozaki-san...."
"It's fine," she said, forcing a smile. "I'll be okay. I'm lucky ... Kyousuke-kun is going to be able to give me strategy advice, too, right?"
He sighed, but straightened himself up and nodded. "I will do my best for you, absolutely," he agreed. "For all of us."
"I ... know how hard it was," she continued, trying to be delicate, "watching one little sister go."
He said nothing, but offered a stiff nod, tears filling his own eyes.
"B...but even so, I wanted to ask the both of you, when I'm gone, can you watch over her for me?"
"You don't need to ask that," Mikuru said, with a strength Shion didn't know the other girl had. "But if that's what you want to be happy, then I promise you that I'll do my best."
Kyousuke wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve and sniffled, nodding. "Sure," he choked out. "I promise, too. It's amazing that this still hurts ... that it never gets any easier. Not the slightest bit." Dropping his arm to his side he gave a bitter laugh. "Sorry. Please ignore me; you don't need to hear that right now."
Shion laughed softly, amazed that she actually felt the tiny bit of amusement. "No," she told him. "That's exactly what I needed. You're a rock and an anchor to us all. But you're still human, just like the rest of us. We _all_ need one another. If you _didn't_ need us ... that's what would scare me and make me feel bad. Is that strange?"
"I don't think so," Mikuru murmured, smiling weakly. "Is there anything else you want?"
"I...I'm going to see a friend in Hinamezawa, before I go," she answered, shaking her head. "Satoko will be coming with me."
Shion's chair in Zearth was not a proper chair, but an adjustable stool. The seat next to Satoshi's bed.
"Did I interrupt something?" Koyemshi drawled, as she allowed the newspaper in her hand to fall to the floor. The teleportation had severed the top third of the sheets anyway.
She smiled brightly, shaking her head. "I'd just finished reading about the Hanshin Tigers being crushed," she answered.
"What do you have against my home team?" Kyousuke jibed with a wry smile from his usual spot at Rika's side, in the middle of the circle.
She giggled, and the others managed their own nervous chuckles and titters, not knowing the joke had been rehearsed.
Zearth's view washed away the surrounding blankness, and Shion shook her head with a frown. Of course; she'd been in Hinamezawa when the battle had been called. She'd hoped somehow for an 'away' battle, but if that wasn't to be the case....
"Damn," she murmured. The enemy robot was a giant cylinder, looking like a massive grinder of some kind, with sharp curved edges on all sides. Zearth stood less than a kilometer away from the clinic, directly opposite the enemy. "Kyousuke-kun, I want to protect that building," she declared, pointing at it. Obligingly, Zearth provided a zoomed-in oval portal showing it in more detail. "What should I do?"
The enemy robot collapsed suddenly onto one side, and Kyousuke's eyes widened. "It rolls. Lure it down a slope away from the building," he said. "Quickly, before it gains momentum."
"Hmm, you're quite the crutch for your team," Koyemshi mused. "It'll be a real pity for everyone else when your time is up."
"Bigger pity for me," Kyousuke returned, not looking at the creature.
"You're an amusing one, though, I'll grant that."
"You're too kind," he said in the same dry voice.
"Nee-nee!" Satoko said suddenly, her eyes widening. "I see it! One side of the enemy is bigger -- I bet it turns faster to our right than to our left! That's perfect -- lead it through the rice paddies and into the swamp, then you can save Irie-sensei's clinic!"
Shion grinned. "You never had a chance against us," she said, eyes fixed on the enemy robot.
[ ...a yesterday many tomorrows from now ]
When her name was called, she saw the curved golden star-burst appear over her left eye in the mirror. She gave a sad smile and shook her head. Girls smaller and younger than her hadn't run away or given in to defeat. Even Kyon -- Kyousuke, she reminded herself -- even his little sister had fought.
As much as it scared her, she would too. No matter the fact that it violated so many of the rules she had been taught before being sent to this timeplane ... somehow, though she wasn't certain _how_, this ordeal managed to supersede that tiny little limiting factor of temporal causality. So she went to breakfast that morning with the others as normal.
Kyousuke had become more solemn since the trials began. After Rena, he had decided that once someone was marked, he'd spend every day until the next battle in the 'uniform' that had been picked out for him. She had decided to follow suit, though the lovely ceremonial kimono slowed her pace, preventing her from easily breaking into a run.
"Kyousuke-kun," she began while he paced slowly next to her, through a short wooded path down the hill from the lodge, "have you been angry at me recently?"
"What?" he asked, staring at her in surprise, before realization dawned on his face, and he looked away guiltily. "Ah, sorry. It's ... complicated."
"What is it? I can't imagine--"
"It's classified," he answered, shaking his head. "I know that's a weak answer. I can say this much: It concerns your superior ... the one who gives you orders."
"Y...you know my superior?"
"You always did wonder why my requests went through without delay, didn't you?"
She could only stare at him in amazement. Here she had thought she was an experienced time traveler, sent to observe and occasionally assist, or provoke changes indirectly. Ever since that time she had ended up being kidnapped, he'd seemed oddly more aware of time travel than she had thought possible. Even when he didn't _act_ it.
"I once asked Nagato a question on the nature of paradox," he continued, when she was silent. "Of changes to the past giving rise to different events in the future. Something happened that seemed, to me, to violate the rule of 'not changing' the past. Of course, the event in question ended up being the way things had _always_ been. I'm sorry if this is vague; I don't want it to worry you, even if it confuses me. But the one thing I have learned about time-travel is that it seems it _is_ possible to change the past ... but those changes seem pre-determined to people who don't believe it."
"I might understand," she said, offering a smile. "That reminds me of what ... that unpleasant person who didn't like me said, though."
"To hell with the Sneering Bastard," Kyousuke grumbled. "For all of his bitching and moaning, he believes in pre-determination, too. He just resents it." He shook his head. "Anyway, I spent a stressful week trying my damnedest to make sure I didn't cause a paradox, once. That only happened because I happened to be given knowledge of what _should_ happen. Maybe it seems vague and pointless, so please forgive me if I'm wandering. The point is this:
"What's happening right now violates future knowledge I possess. I'm guessing it goes against yours, too?"
"W...well, that's ... classified," she admitted, unable to keep from smiling. "But I guess you already knew that."
"I did," he admitted. "But all the same, I believe that because I've never seen the _future_ altered, certain things are going to work out. That's the small rock I've been clinging to in this sea of madness. And I won't give up on that belief, because ... hell, everyone is depending on me, these days. I have to keep it together, don't I?"
"It's not just these days," Mikuru said quietly. "We've all _always_ depended on you. And that's ... not fair. I wanted to one day be the one to save you ... to return the favor."
He frowned, some thought occurring to him that he didn't voice, and stopped walking.
"Kyousuke-kun, could you close your eyes for a moment?"
"Sure," he replied, doing as she had asked. "Are we-- _Can_ we travel through time, now?"
She stepped before him and stood on her toes to plant a kiss on his cheek. "No," she whispered, settling back to her feet and leaning into him as he reflexively embraced her, eyes startled and wide. "I ... know I shouldn't do this, but it's one tiny thing I want to take selfishly ... one small happiness we can share before...."
"The people of this Earth don't want to die, either," Satoko said, sadly. "In a way, I have to admire their dedication ... it must have taken quite a while to make this hole."
"While you're busy being nice to them, you're losing," Koyemshi noted. "Makes no difference to me if you live or die, though." The enemy robot began to fill the pit trap that Zearth had fallen into with corrosive acid.
"Kyo...usuke," Mikuru asked, her voice shaking, "what do I do?"
"It's not a question of strategy," he said, shaking his head. "It's a question of confidence."
"M...maybe I don't have enough confidence," she said weakly.
"Hey," Mion protested. "We can't give up here!"
"Yeah, you've got to get a hold of yourself, Mikuru!" Haruhi added, scowling. "Come on, just like our movie -- blast him with your beam attack and get out of this hole!"
"I can fight," she cried. "But I don't want to kill anyone! I don't want ... to destroy this Earth!"
"If you're content to let your own Earth and all your friends die," Koyemshi chuckled. "That's fine, then. Of course, you'll be dead too."
"It's not fine," Kyousuke countered, turning to face her again. "Come on. The Asahina-san I know is stronger than that."
"I...I'm not that kind of person!" she protested, shaking her head.
"You can be," he insisted. "You're lucky; this _isn't_ our Earth. To you, these people are brief two-dimensional images pasted into the real world; nothing more than paper dolls."
Mikuru's tears shone on her face, but her eyes were suddenly dry. Haruhi wondered how those could be the perfect words for Kyousuke to say, and more that he had known to say them.
But it didn't matter. Raising one hand to the star-burst pattern that had surrounded her left eye, she whispered, as though in a trance, "Just like the movie."
The resultant explosion of beam energy melted through half the enemy robot's upper torso. Zearth surged up from the pit, acid sloughing off. Shaking in her chair at Mikuru's sudden change, Haruhi felt her own eyes tear, but bit her lip and said nothing.
"Asa--" he began, before cutting himself off. "Mikuru," he said more softly. "You may not know it, but you already are the one who saved me." Haruhi swallowed, knowing she hadn't been meant to overhear.
[ ...with my friends ]
"I'm sorry," Satoko murmured, looking away. "I know you don't like your nickname, but your name is hard for me to say."
"I know," he said, nodding. "I hear that a lot. It's fine. You can call me Kyon."
"I don't want another big brother or sister, just to lose them again," she added. "Or to lose myself. Even if that's what nee-nee thought...."
He glanced to where Mion sat, watching with dull eyes. Rika sat not far away, though she seemed lost in thought herself. "I understand."
"Then, for Rena-san, why don't we just be friends?" Itsuki suggested. "All of us should be that at least."
She smiled wanly, holding up a hand wrapped in faint orange stripes. "Okay," she agreed. "As friends."
Mion roused herself and asked, "Your happiness? What would you like, Satoko-chan?"
"I want to see my brother again," she answered quietly. "Even if he can't wake up ... I want to see him one last time. But if we can't have that ... I want what Rena did. I agree with what Itsuki-san said -- the answer we were given ... I don't like it. I think there's more to it than that." She turned back to Kyousuke. "Have you guessed anything else?"
He looked troubled, then, and shook his head. "I'm trying," he said with a weak smile. "But this is hard." After a heartbeat of thought, he took a pad of paper from the common room table and scribbled something on it, gesturing to Haruhi and Itsuki. He handed the paper over to them, then gave Satoko a nod. "Let's go for a walk."
"Koyemshi," Itsuki called, as she hesitantly accepted Kyousuke's hand.
"Hmm," the creature mused, appearing in the room and watching Satoko and Kyousuke leave. "What is it this time, ape?"
"We had some questions," Haruhi said levelly. "About the circumstances we're in, and...."
But then they were out of earshot, stepping out of the house. Kyousuke led her on a path through the woods a short distance in silence, then called suddenly, "Kimidori-san."
A faint buzz and distortion of light wavered before them, revealing an unfamiliar woman with light-green hair, her lips pursed pensively. "W...what?" Satoko asked, blinking. "How-"
"It's a lot to explain," Kyousuke interrupted, holding one hand towards Kimidori. "I'm sorry, but for now, let's leave it at Kimidori-san being a ... close friend of Nagato's. She's our friend in this matter."
Kimidori's eyes were unreadable, but she offered a genial smile and took Kyousuke's hand. "You were able to observe them destroying another reality?" she asked.
He nodded. "Any closer to answers on your end?"
Satoko's eyes widened in realization. The two spoke of terms that she couldn't follow, complex technical things she didn't think she'd ever be able to understand ... but the meaning was clear. They had a great many more friends helping them out than she'd realized. Finally, Kimidori said something she _could_ understand, but could scarcely believe, just as she finished talking about some sort of change to Kyousuke's 'banana knights' or something like that, and released his hand.
Kimidori turned to her and crouched to be closer to the same height. "Houjou-san, you have a brother, yes?"
Kyousuke crossed his arms over his chest and watched warily.
"Satoshi," she clarified, nodding. "But he's ... not well. Shion took me to see him...."
"He's very unwell indeed," she replied with a sad smile. "I do have something for you, though. Now that ... my friends and I are aware of the situation, we can make him better, should you like it."
"Do you think that was necessary?" Kimidori asked him, once Satoko was out of earshot, running back to the lodge. "Was it truly needful?"
"Is any of this?"
Kimidori nodded slowly. "I suppose minor abuses of what influence you have must be tolerated, given your situation," she allowed. "Was Nagato-san's faith in you well placed?"
"I'm working with an incomplete understanding," he said, turning back to her. "But I've got a plan. And hope."
[[ Ain't Youth Great? ]]
In a way, after watching the small blonde girl fight so fearlessly, Tsuruya was relieved that she had been chosen next. It was getting harder, instead of easier, to watch friends vanish, even if it was to save the Earth.
[ Spread the joy ]
"Okay!" Tsuruya chirped, grinning her widest and leaning towards Haruhi in an almost leering manner. "Haru-nyan~!"
"W...what?" Haruhi asked, flinching back and finding herself trapped against the wall behind her. "Tsuruya-san, what's going on?"
"I've been chosen!" she announced, standing perfectly straight and spinning on one toe. "My mark's a blue zig-zag, but it's in a private place, so use your imagination, nyoro~!"
"Now! You have to do something to make me happy, right? That's the rules?"
"Okay! Go make up with Kyousuke-kun!" She suddenly turned stern, though she didn't let her smile slip. "And don't say something that makes him try and smack you, or he's getting thumped. I mean it, Haru-nyan! My last request to you is that you tell him how you feel! Okay?"
Haruhi worked her mouth silently, then finally gave in and nodded weakly.
"S...so, Kyousuke," she said, walking by his side, dressed up in the official 'uniform', as he almost always did, now. "You walk through the woods a lot these days?"
"Walking is mindless," he answered, nodding. "Sometimes I like to not think. Sometimes I do think, and forget where I was going. Once in a while, it makes me think of the hill below our school."
She smirked at that, shaking her head. "I don't really miss the school at all," she murmured. "But I asked you out here because I want to ask you some questions."
He glanced at her sidelong, then sighed. "It always comes down onto me," he groused. "Fine. What is it, Haruhi?"
"How long were you and ... Yuki...." She shrugged, not able to find the words.
"What? What do you mean?"
"When ... Yuki asked to be with you on the beach before she ... died ... the guide-bug thing showed us. Let us see...."
"Ah," he said softly. "Well. Is that all he showed you?"
"What else is there?" she asked, despairing about how to make peace with him, for Tsuruya's sake.
"Eh ... Mikuru kissed me, too, before her fight," he added. "I won't lie about it. But even despite all that, it's not what it had appeared. With Nagato.... I may never be able to explain what Nagato was to me. Sometimes, she was like another sister. After that stupid love-letter debacle, the one you found, I admitted to myself that it wasn't just seeing her as a sister, or something like that. She _did_ shake the bell in my heart. Even then, she was always emotionally distant. She wanted to be ... close with me, before the end. It was _my_ selfishness that made me kiss her, if that's what you saw. I cared about her -- a lot." His voice had grown rough, and he stopped, raising one sleeve over his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm trying to be strong, for everyone."
"You're probably afraid," she mumbled, staring at her feet. "Because ... I always gave you crap about it, didn't I? I'd give you a hard time, make you feel guilty.... Let me admit something here, Kyousuke. I think you know it, because you know _me_, but I still have to say it. I don't understand you, but I really really l...like you." She heaved a sigh at the sudden weight lifted from her chest when she spoke those words. "I don't _get_ you. But ... you mean a lot to me. And you probably knew I was getting jealous, even when I couldn't admit it. So, don't blame yourself for having your own feelings when _I_ was just being part of the problem."
He lowered his sleeve, though his eyes were red. "This is all so strange," he murmured. "But, you're right. Let's leave blame out of this entirely."
"A...anyway ... I'm not stupid, so I don't expect anything from you. I've come to terms with the fact that you liked someone else. But ... I promised I would tell you. And now that you know, I want to be ... more like you. Strong enough to stand through all of this. Because I _do_ like you, I want to be someone _you_ can rely on. I don't think it's fair that you have to be the strong one. I would just get frustrated, or try and find something else to do.... But there's no opting out of this contract. Is that strange of me, too?"
"A little strange," he agreed, reaching a hand forward to brush his fingertips across her cheek. "But I don't mind."
She shivered at the contact, then smiled, glad she was able to feel it. "S...so, tell me about the girls you liked, Kyousuke. Let's start ... being real friends, and not just making you pick up the pieces when I.... Well."
He shook slightly, his eyes glistening. "I..." he began hesitantly, before shaking his head. "I'm trying to be strong," he repeated, licking his lips nervously.
"Then depend on me, damn it! Or is it my turn to slap you!?"
He burst into laughter at that, tears streaming down his face.
[ Share the love ]
"Koizumi-kun~!" she caroled, once Haruhi had towed Kyousuke outside for a 'talk'. "My time's up, so I need you to do something for me!"
"Ah.... Of course," he said, looking up from one of the books Kyousuke had brought with him, a bit puzzled. "What can I do for you?"
"Mmm, there's six of us. We're going to make sure we can make Rika-chan and Mion-san smile, okies?"
"Right," he agreed, setting the book down and rising from his seat on the bed. "That's ... what you would like for your happiness?"
"Yep! Kyou-nyan and Haru-nyan are going to be okay, so we only need to really worry about the two of them."
He frowned slightly, nodding.
"Oh, that reminds me, you have a girlfriend, Koizumi-kun?"
"Uh, no," he answered, blinking in surprise. "What does that have to do with Sonozaki-san and Furude-san?"
"Don't worry about that!" she said brightly. "Let's go ask them what they want to do!"
Shortly, he had been hauled to the common room, where Rika and Mion sat at the table, playing Othello, and Tsuruya repeated her question.
"I don't know," Mion said slowly, looking around the room, frowning. "Um, you guys mentioned a movie a bunch of times, right?"
"Haru-nyan's movie!" Tsuruya agreed, jumping to her feet. "Almost forgot! Did you want to see it?"
"Yeah, that might be fun," Mion agreed. "Are you in it?"
"Is Kyousuke-san?" Rika asked, still struggling to pronounce his name.
"Haha, yeah, I'm a terrible extra!" she agreed. "Oh! I'm actually two of them! But Kyousuke-kun was the camera-man and narrator, so you don't see him. He did the special effects, though! And Koizumi-kun's an ultra-bishonen male lead, nyoro~!"
Koizumi's face colored as Tsuruya rifled through the drawer beneath the television until she produced a hand-made DVD. "Here it is!"
"You don't understand, though," Kyousuke said, shaking his head. "I had affection for Nagato. I was attracted to Asahina-san. But the girl I _liked_...."
Haruhi stared, puzzled. Someone she didn't know? Maybe from before high school? Certainly it couldn't be Tsuruya, or one of the girls from Hinamezawa ... could it?
"The girl I liked was too energetic for her own good, and took a long time to learn that other people had feelings. She'd cause trouble recklessly, and occasionally, she'd do things that would drive me utterly mad," he continued, turning his face upwards, towards the late afternoon sky. "And you're right. I was ... no, I _am_ afraid. I want to like her, to tell her how much she actually means to me, but I'm terrified of changing her ... of the wrong word destroying the entire world, as I know it."
"I...it's not too late," she said blinking away the wetness in her eyes. "There's ... plenty of time. After Tsuruya's fight, we can find her, and you can-"
He shook his head, eyes closing. "She already _has_ changed, though," he said. "And our world still could be destroyed."
She frowned, staring at the ground.
"I want to see the glow of entire universes in her eyes. I like her more than her figure, or her intelligence, though those are admirable. I like her _despite_ her rough edges when we first met. When she smiles, I know it means endless pain for me ... but most days, it's worth it. I know I may never see it again, but when her hair was in a ponytail...."
"K...Kyousuke," she said quietly, blinking. "Who is it? Asakura Ryouko? Did you and her ... before...." Was _that_ the start of his impenetrable stoicism? Being separated from his lover, their affair always being hidden.... It did explain so much. Kyousuke would complain about her to his girlfriend, then Asakura would speak to her to try and cheer her up and get her to leave him alone. When it was time to investigate Asakura's disappearance, he didn't care in the slightest -- because he'd already _known_ what happened.
Laughing again, he stared her in the eyes, one hand brushing through her hair. "No," he said adamantly. "I don't think I really hate anyone, but she's about second on my list of people I'd like to never see again. Haruhi, stop playing dumb; it doesn't suit you. It's _you_, and it always has been."
Her eyes widened as she realized he was right; but she'd been so afraid to hope....
[ A borrowed smile ]
The movie had left Mion and Rika speechless. Kyousuke and Haruhi had returned near the middle, just as it switched genres to a love story. "This ... is amazing," Mion said, struggling to keep from exploding into laughter. "Oh, _wow_."
"Kyousuke-san's good at telling the story, too," Rika added.
"Oh, _that_ movie?" he asked, incredulous.
"It's high art!" Haruhi said, crossing her arms over her waist and nodding.
"Join us," Mion said, snickering at Nagato's expression during her 'confession' scene. "Bwaahaha!"
"Fine," Kyousuke grumbled, even though he smiled the entire time.
Haruhi sat at his side, leaning into him. "I always wanted to make it a trilogy," she remarked. "But I guess for now I should just be proud of what we accomplished."
"Mmm. Where's Koizumi and Tsuruya-san?"
"Kaede-chan said something about a date-" Mion began, before cutting off into another bout of amazed, hysterical laughter.
Rika looked back to see Kyousuke and Haruhi share a glance and a shrug, then turned her attention back to the movie. It _was_ amusing, she had to admit. "It's nice to remember carefree times, nii~paah! We should all thank Tsuruya-san when she gets back."
"Kyousuke-kun walks this way a lot," Tsuruya remarked. She had decided to follow his example, too; hell, for all she cared, they could wear their uniforms all day. It wasn't like the burden of saving the world at the cost of their own lives shouldn't come with _some_ benefits. "I never took him for the naturey type!"
"Hmm," Koizumi murmured, looking at the trees on either side of the trail. "I can't believe it's already Autumn."
"Ehe. I didn't really ask you to come with me for talking about Kyousuke-kun, or nature ... or even Haru-nyan," Tsuruya said, softly. "But you always seemed pretty sharp anyway. To tell you the truth, my plan was always to just be a bit character in the background. I was satisfied with that."
"A calling such as the one we've received cannot be ignored, though," he returned, shrugging.
She eyed him sidelong, her soft smile shifting to a smirk. "You've had one before, nyoro~?"
"Ah ... well. That's not important-"
"Koizumi-kun, I want to ask you for something. It's just for today, so can I?"
"Stop pretending. Show me a real smile, huh? I know it's hard, but I want to know the real you."
He stared at her, his smile fading. "Am I so transparent?"
"Nope~! That's why I'm asking!"
The smile he offered her next was much weaker. "I ... will try," he allowed.
"Good," she announced, before sweeping in unexpectedly and giving him a peck on the lips. "Eh-hehe.... _There's_ a real face!"
[[ The Masterminds ]]
"Tsuruya's gone," he said flatly, holding his hand out for Kimidori to read once more.
"Eh. Eventually, we're all going to be dead, aren't we? Nothing to apologize for. Sad as it is, I think at this point we've all come to grips with it, pretty much."
"If we can observe one more 'away' battle, it seems likely that we can determine the nature of those who are behind this," she told him. "In that instance, if we were to gain the capability to act against them, wouldn't the inevitability be lessened?"
"You'd think that," he said, grimacing.
[ Brighter than light ]
Their presences were blinding; not just visibly, but in every spectrum of perception, they flooded his awareness. As the enemy robot was destroyed, and the surroundings blurred to the destruction of yet another world, he tried to look at Mion. Tried to consider her final words and thoughts. Heard her say, "Sorry, Rena ... I'm coming too, so we're going to be competing for him, now."
She said something else, then, something to him, and to Haruhi. He thought he nodded, but his world was being swept away -- not just the world around them, that foreign Earth they had condemned to destruction. But _everything_ was consumed into a singular awareness, surrounding him on every side, with every sense.
He could _taste_ their austerity, _feel_ the disdain they felt towards his daring to spy on them. He couldn't handle it; his mind retreated from their presence, scurried into comforting darkness, chased by their laughter. They weren't afraid ... or alarmed. They weren't surprised ... only amused.
[ Stronger than force ]
"More ape tricks?" Koyemshi growled. "Really, now."
He blinked several times, coming to his senses, his vision restricted to the comforting view he usually held as he stared up into the concerned eyes of Haruhi and Rika. To one side, Koizumi gazed up at Koyemshi, who was shrouded in shadow as it faced down at him, teeth bared.
"So, was it worth it?"
"What happened?" Haruhi asked him, her face worried.
"They call themselves gods," Rika answered, shaking her head. "Maybe they even believe it."
"Tsst!" Koyemshi hissed, rotating away through the air. "You apes make me _really_ mad! I thought it was you, Kyon, but I see it was the little brat, wasn't it?"
"Who is a brat?" Rika asked, her voice sounding aged beyond her years. "Fighting for life isn't shameful."
"The chairs are already moving," Koizumi murmured. "Why so soon?"
"Don't piss me off any further!" Koyemshi warned. "You're going to be next as it is." Sure enough, when the chairs stopped spinning, it was her mat in the loop.
"Stop," Kyousuke said, climbing to his feet with Haruhi's help. "Furude-san, that's enough," he added, placing one hand on Rika's shoulder. "Koyemshi, we're done here. Please send us back."
[[ Echoes ]]
Her sign was a blue wheel across her face. It made her eyes look unnaturally shadowed, haunted. She gazed at her reflection in the mirror and shook her head. The other three were waiting for her ... she was the last of her original friends, and all she had left were three relatively comforting strangers and the ghostly form of Hanyuu.
A sad smile came to her lips. One way or another, she would try and keep things together; the miracle couldn't occur if they didn't all work as one.
She wasn't ready to give up just yet.
[ Let me borrow him, just a bit! ]
"So," she said, her face slightly pink, "I won't get another chance. I know he's important to you, Suzumiya-san, but can I ask to borrow him, just a bit?"
"Sure," Haruhi answered, her eyes pained. "I don't know how a lug like him got so popular ... everyone always wants to have their last walk with him."
"If I'm chosen next, I would as well," Koizumi added.
"Not exactly comforting," Kyousuke remarked, sliding a worn piece of note paper to the two. "Good luck."
"Ah ... you as well," Koizumi returned.
"On a 'date' with a girl that young!?" Haruhi said, glaring at the pretty-boy.
Rising, Kyousuke offered Rika a hand, and they took a step outside.
"You seem very comfortable in that outfit," he remarked, as they strolled through the trees.
"I've worn one many times before," she assured him, smiling weakly.
"I don't know how long they can keep ... it ... distracted," he added. "So would you like to hear my story, or tell me yours?"
"You're wise beyond your years," she remarked, discarding her mask. "I was trapped in a loop of repeating time ... going through the same endlessly repeating June."
He nodded sagely. "This happened to me the August of last year," he told her. "Two weeks, repeated over and over ... fifteen thousand times. Nearly six hundred years.
She missed a step and tripped, but he caught her, then sat down on the side of the path. Uncertain, she sat beside him. "W...were you murdered at the end of every loop as well?"
He started at that, eyes widening. "No, not once," he said, shaking his head. "That I know of, anyway. I don't remember those loops directly ... there was just a strong sense of deja'vu, until I finally broke it. It sounds like you endured something infinitely worse than I did. In any case, the only one who remembered everything, _everything_ was Nagato. It ... wasn't good for her."
"I believe I've been alive for over one hundred years, repeating that month, until I too broke free," she said quietly.
"I'd like you to meet a friend," he said without preamble.
Rika blinked languidly at the young woman who had appeared before them, giving a sad smile and brushing her pale green hair behind one ear as the wind loosened it. "This is Kimidori Emiri," Kyousuke said, nodding at her. "Sit with us," he added, holding a hand out to the woman.
She nodded, sitting at Kyousuke's side opposite Rika and taking the proffered hand. "Hello," Rika said hesitantly. Bolstering her strength, she shook her head, and said, "Hanyuu, show yourself."
Kyousuke turned to look at the small god when she appeared and bowed his head politely. "You're the 'other data-entity' I've heard about?"
"Wha...wha...what's a data-entity?" Hanyuu asked, eyes flickering nervously between Kyousuke and Kimidori.
"My ... people are scientists," Kimidori said after a moment. "We used that label because it most closely matched what we had known. Nagato was one of us ... probably our most powerful and skilled. Since this began, we've been trying to do what we can to understand the how and why of this situation, in hopes of resolving it."
"You must understand," Kyousuke warned, "Haruhi does not know this. It doesn't work right _now_, because ... well ... I'm not certain. But Haruhi has the power to change reality. So we hid everything from her. She didn't know that Nagato was an ... alien, or that Asahina-san was a time-traveler. She doesn't know that Koizumi is an esper. We probably shouldn't let her know about ... Hanyuu-san right now, either; that might just be too much stress for her."
"J...just Hanyuu is fine, Tadamichi-san," the horned girl replied, blushing faintly.
"Then just Kyousuke is fine, too," he told her. "But we're digressing. Did the nanites reveal anything else, Kimidori?"
"Our information is as complete as it is likely to become," she said, shaking her head. "There are memetic gaps; you were able to observe things that we are not allowed to record."
"I saw them," he said, his voice suddenly hoarse. "The ones behind it all. Did you, too, Furude-san?"
"Rika," she whispered to him, smiling. "But, yes. Hanyuu and I saw ... with you. They think they are gods."
"They were so remote ... shining ... powerful. They knew we were watching them."
"They thought we were amusing."
[ Deeper meaning ]
"What are you calling me up for?" the creature asked, annoyed, rotating between Haruhi and Itsuki. "It better be important ... I'm still in an unhappy mood!"
"What's this for?" Koizumi asked. "What's this really all about?"
"You want to fall again?"
"We're not saying you've lied to us," Haruhi said quickly, crumpling the note that Kyousuke had left them up in one hand. "We just want to understand ... if there are an infinite number of Earths and you divide that number by thirteen, how many will be left?"
"Spare me your logic puzzles," Koyemshi growled. "And the number isn't always thirteen. Some Earths are lucky ... and it's only eleven. Some are less lucky, and it's fifteen. Or some number between. I've seen more realities than I can count destroyed. We jump through time as well as space. You can say that an infinite number will never be reduced, except when you consider the fact that we have an infinite amount of time to do this.
"Eventually, all realities will be merged into a manageable handful in number. Even those that are more divergent than the ones you went to have their own battles, just like this one. But more importantly, with each reality that's destroyed, we harvest more energy."
"S...so, this is all about getting power?" Haruhi asked, staggered.
"Of course not," the creature returned. "But you've been pushing my buttons long enough. Next I'll _show_ you what you're asking."
[ Inevitability ]
Rika sighed, shaking her head, and took her seat, kneeling on her mat.
"Koyemshi," Kyousuke said, frowning. "Who are those shining people I saw? Why are they doing this?"
"Shining people? That sounds familiar. Still don't know! The people who started this, maybe? It doesn't matter! What does matter is that we go about our jobs and do what we're told! Until some _stupid_ apes muck things up. Tell me, do you know how many fights you've been through so far?"
"Nine, not counting Kokopelli's," Koizumi answered.
"His counts," Koyemshi replied. "So, do some math."
"One of us ... will survive?" Haruhi asked, eyes widening.
"Bingo! Except ... not Kyon, because of his stupid messing around! If your precious doll wins this battle, it's _his_ head on the chopping block next! That's what you get for poking your nose where it doesn't belong!"
Kyousuke strode to the center of the circle, walking past the creature. "That's fine," he said mildly. "I am prepared. Rika-chan?"
"I'm not afraid either," she said. "We will win."
"Humph! Well, you two may be condemned. It's a real pity, Kyon! I had high hopes ... I was going to save you for last. I was going to let you win, because I found you amusing!"
"Very kind of you," he said dryly.
"Hah! That's the stuff."
"Are you saying you choose who goes next?" Koizumi asked. "It's not just the chairs that pick us?"
"Of course not.
"What happens to the one who survives, then?"
"They become the next Kokopelli, or whatever they want to call themselves. They recruit the new pilots, show them the rules for the first battle, then get to live the rest of their lives." Turning to face Haruhi, the creature suddenly changed the subject. "I watch you from here when you're not piloting, you know. Say, Haruhi, did you know how many other girls your boyfriend kissed?"
"Yes," she returned mildly. "And that's fine. We aren't boyfriend and girlfriend. We're just _good_ friends. I don't care who he dates, as long as they make him happy."
"AAAUGH! You guys ... REALLY piss me off! I want to see despair and tears! Rage! I hope this next enemy kills you all!" It flew directly before Rika's face. "Give in!" the creature shouted. "Cry! Beg for your life!"
"I won't," Rika returned, smiling, radiating calm and confidence. "And we won't lose, so you don't get that satisfaction, either."
"I _hate_ you!" Koyemshi roared, zipping high overhead before suddenly freezing. "Well. Fine. Do whatever."
[[ I don't like this game anymore ]]
After her victory, Rika had given a bright, genuinely happy smile. "I know I'll see you again," she said, before she faded into light.
"I'm tired of being strong," Haruhi said, her voice empty. "I want this to end."
[ Stay with me... ]
Kyousuke put one hand on her shoulder, flinching slightly. "I've been called," he told her. "And I know you don't like it. None of us do. But we can't give in. Remember what I told you?"
"I ... suppose," she said. "And I said I wanted to be strong for _you_. But this is so hard...."
"Well, the one who makes the rules probably has the most fun," he said, shrugging. "But that doesn't matter. Listen to me closely, alright?"
"More than anything, I believe in you. It may sound stupid, but I'm your strategist, or at least, that's what was decided, right?"
She nodded, brushing his hand off her shoulder and stepping directly into him, leaning her head on his chest. "Keep talking," she murmured. "I don't want to lose another second of being close to you."
"Even when ... I'm gone, I'm going to be with you. But I believe you can make it. This will probably seem crazy, but when things seem darkest, when it seems like there's no way out ... when you _win_ and you're ready to beat this thing once and for all ... when you need me, call for me. I _will_ be there."
She rubbed her face against the front of his uniform robes, wondering how many other tears it had already absorbed from the other pilots. "That is crazy," she said. "And I will. Is that the thing you want to be happy, before you go?"
He didn't answer, just hugging her against him.
"Hey ... Kyousuke.... Stay with me tonight."
He didn't say anything for a long while, just running his fingertips up and down her back. "Are you making that offer just because you think it would make me happy?" he asked.
"It's ... selfish of me. It's for me, too. Because I want it -- want _you_. And ... maybe a little ... I want to try and make you happy however I can."
"Oh, hell," he finally muttered. "I can't say no to that -- not _now_."
[ An unlucky day ]
"A 'home' game," he observed, frowning. Sighing, he shook his head and marched to his seat for what Haruhi thought was the first time he'd ever used it in this space.
"Oh, what a pity," Koyemshi remarked. "It seems to be in your hometown, Kyon, instead of your little mountain hideaway. What a strange quirk of fate!"
"That's for sure," he replied. "A strange coincidence indeed."
"Does _anything_ make you mad?"
"People molesting Mikuru," he said after a moment. "People picking on my sister. Hmm. In another strange coincidence, they're not around, either."
The enemy robot across from them was tall and slender, with four blade-like limbs. Without waiting for civilians to evacuate, the enemy began charging immediately, spinning around and tilting forward to create a cutting wall.
Koizumi and Haruhi both gasped as he yawned, Zearth leaping into the air and flipping easily over the enemy. "H...how?" Koizumi asked, baffled.
"Giant robot anime," he answered flippantly. "Too much science fiction."
Then he turned his attention to Koyemshi, as Zearth zipped forward, before the enemy robot could right itself. The enemy robot was seized and flung into the hills behind the Tsuruya estate, still scarred from earlier battles. "More importantly, the realization that all I need to do to win, is _want_ to win. I know what you're thinking, you flying piece of junk. You think you can make me suffer by telling me that before I die, you're going to make Haruhi the next pilot."
"Eh," Koyemshi managed, baring its teeth. "All your tampering, your attitude, and now this? You're going to spend your last moments falling from a long way up!"
"Hehe ... yeah ... but I've realized that you can't touch me _while_ I'm piloting."
The creature's teeth vanished, and it turned away. "Your girlfriend will still be the next pilot."
"And?" he asked, grinning. "She knows as much as I do about piloting this thing. So you've just guaranteed that my reality survives. You lose, little monster; I get to die happy, and after, we'll be together."
"Y...yeah," Haruhi echoed, wiping tears from her eyes. "Together."
"Fine!" the creature roared, turning back and baring its teeth once more. "She DOESN'T! Your pretty-boy pal can easily fail, and your girlfriend has to move on to another reality and start this entire thing over again! She'll live out her life and die in a reality that never touches yours! Maybe she won't teach the other pilots well enough, and she'll die the first time they actually fight!"
"Humph. You're really trying, aren't you? Well, fine. I admit that makes me a little sad." Even as Zearth tore apart the enemy's armor, searching for the vital point, his smile widened. The vital point came into view, clutched in the three crushing tines of one of Zearth's massive arms. "But only a little."
"There's one thing I never told you," Koyemshi added. "Even if your pretty-boy pal wins ... your Earth is going to be forced to sell off its life-force to survive. Not that it'll be hard; your battles play right into our hands."
He snorted, shaking his head. "That's what you think."
"Kyousuke," Haruhi whimpered, as the core was crushed, and he vanished instantly.
[ The last challenger ]
He had watched the lights on the robot's face. There had been three, for a while after the creature had teleported Kyousuke away.
He'd held his breath and hoped.... But then there were only two. He tried not to think about the creature's final words, just standing in the middle of the circle with Haruhi -- his place. More-so than his chair in the spinning ring. Eventually it stopped, his own seat in the loop. He felt the call, very different from the awareness of closed space.
"I should be happy," he told her, then. "This is the last fight. If we make it through this...." He shrugged.
She nodded at him dully, and he looked at the last image of Zearth's crest, a smile coming to his lips as he counted the lights again. Then the viewing portal vanished, and both he and Haruhi were teleported away.
"Is there ... anything you want?" she asked him, not meeting his eyes.
Oh, there had been, once. Something she could have given him. But now.... "I'm fine," he said confidently. "I just want you to remember what Kyousuke said."
"So strange," she murmured, shaking her head. "We called him by that nickname for over a _year_, and he never actually complained to us about it. It took ... his sister.... It took...." She sighed, shaking her head again. "I miss him," she said quietly. "I don't know if I want to go on."
"Have faith in him," he told her. "Absolute confidence. He's our strategist, isn't he?"
"It doesn't matter that he's gone, right now. He left us what we needed to win."
"What he needed for _me_ to win," she said, eyes tearing. "In a world without him!"
"Suzumiya-san ... don't think like that. Just remember what he said. In the meantime, hang in there. It may sound a vague and empty assurance ... but I believe in his plan."
"I have to admit that I don't know. I never could follow his stratagems in chess. I tried to think seven moves ahead of him, calculating everything in my head, but when we played, he seemed to know the outcome of the entire game within three moves. I got frustrated over not being able to ever do anything to him in Othello ... that's why I kept trying other games.
"Occasionally, maybe he would be distracted, or feel guilty, and he'd let me win. But I knew he was letting me win. Even then, I couldn't grasp his stratagems, and it's no different here. I don't understand his plans. Even so, I know they are good enough. And I know that part of his strategy was that be believed in _you_. So, I do too."
[ The Prize ]
"Well!" Koyemshi said cheerfully, as Koizumi vanished into light. "That's it! You've won! I gather you always wanted to go to new worlds and meet new people? This should be grand! An entire new alternate Earth awaits you! Assuming you train the pilots well enough that your new Earth isn't destroyed. And that you live through the demonstration battle, anyway."
The viewing portals irised shut.
"A little late for tears now, isn't it?" the creature asked her dryly. "The last trainer took the name of Kokopelli because I told him that's what the trainer before _him_ called himself. His actual name was Seki. But that doesn't matter now. There was quite a lot of trouble with the last Earth before this one! I'll spare you the details, but he crossed me, so he had to die after training you. I'm sure you'll be better behaved, but what nickname will you wear when you gather the new pilots?"
She blinked furiously, her vision wavering. The bobbing creature before her spun idly.
"Quickly now," he said. "We're about to leave your Earth ... this will be the last time you ever see it!"
"Kyon," she called weakly.
"What? That's what you're going to call yourself?"
"No," she said, shaking her head, gathering her will. "Kyousuke!"
"What stupidity is...." But anything else he was going to say was cut off, somehow.
She felt a pair of tiny hands on her shoulders, soft breath on the back of her neck by one ear, and heard a gentle voice whisper, "Time ... _STOP_!" The creature and circle of chairs around her -- everything but herself, it seemed -- had turned monochrome gray.
"Kyousuke, what do I do?" she asked, shaking. "What's going on?"
She looked up, and he was standing there, standing in the center of the circle as he always had, still wearing the robes that Rena and Tsuruya had picked for him. "This is it," he told her. "The point where the people behind this are most vulnerable. But we can't do this alone; we'll need everyone. Call them, Haruhi."
She nodded numbly, reaching in through the inner emotions she'd accumulated, layered like the skin of an onion. She reached deepest first, guilt compelling her; selfishness had demanded she rely on Kyousuke. Now she'd do things _right_. "Keiichi!"
Dressed as he had been the day he died, he stepped from behind Kyousuke, near the middle of the circle, an aluminum baseball bat in one hand, cocked over one shoulder. "Hah," he chuckled. "I knew there was a way past it."
She stepped from behind Kyousuke as well, standing on the opposite side of Keiichi. She nodded at Haruhi, saying nothing.
The girl appeared directly between herself and Haruhi. "Nii-san!" she squealed, flinging herself at him and latching onto his side. He ruffled her hair with one hand, nodding at Haruhi approvingly.
"So, _this_ is the answer?" she mused, walking to stand beside Keiichi, holding a double-handed cleaver and narrowing her eyes at the frozen gray image of Koyemshi. "That thing was just a puppet, too."
She stood next to Nagato, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I'm here!" she called from beside Haruhi, bewildered. "But I don't understand how or why!"
She appeared from behind Kyousuke, running to embrace Shion, who knelt to catch her.
"I'm back, nyoro~! That's a scary place, but I knew Haru-nyan and Kyou-nyan would put things back together!"
"Those weapons won't stop me!" she cried, leaping from behind Kyousuke to seize Keiichi in a hug.
The girl appeared right at Kyousuke's side, where she had always stood when they fought ... until it was her turn. She smiled, wisdom beyond her years shining in her eyes. "With all of us, the miracle can still happen."
He appeared before her as well. "I'm glad you believed," he said, bowing to her.
"But, now what?" she asked, turning to Kyousuke, worried.
"Behind you," he said. "Her name is Hanyuu. She's part of our nakama as well."
Haruhi turned slowly, surprised to see the blushing, floating figure of a girl Rika's size, with violet hair and a pair of deep blue horns. "Hauuu..." she murmured in greeting, ducking her head.
"Together," Kyousuke continued, "we can do this. I know a little about the nature of our enemies -- as much as anyone can know without being destroyed or becoming them, I guess. Remember, there are _people_, post-human 'masterminds', behind this. They made the rules."
"If the rules aren't right, and you don't like the rules..." Keiichi began.
Shion picked up, yelling, "...use new rules!"
[[ The nakama which trumps fate ]]
"That's right!" she said, blinking suddenly. "Why did I let myself get stuck following their stupid rules for so long? Something this bad ... in an infinite number of realities it's inevitable that something so horrible is real. But why would I ever let myself become trapped in this? Why would anyone!? Those so-called masterminds...."
"The plot of 'weeding out' realities that we didn't need was obviously a falsehood," Koizumi added.
"Even their ploy to drain all the life force of the worlds that 'won' seems silly," Rena agreed. "Destroying so much? It shouldn't even be required!"
"There's better ways to get what you want or need," Mion agreed, nodding as well.
"I don't believe they will succeed," Mikuru cried. "They can't do this everywhere, or every time -- there's a way to avoid them!"
"No, no reason to hide," Shion disagreed. "To let them prey on all those Earths.... But we _can_ get past their defenses!"
"Especially when the only reason they have to prey on others is sadism," Rika whispered. "They find our struggles amusing. To them, we are just a source of entertainment -- everything else we've been told is a lie."
"Even the 'guide' is a part of amusing them; a selected person is turned into that thing to see how it reacts; how its behavior is changed by being given immortality and the responsibility of keeping those who watch amused," Nagato added.
"Kyousuke," Haruhi said, looking across at him. "We have to stop them. Forever."
"That's right," he agreed, nodding. He carefully broke away from both Rika and his sister, then pulled Haruhi closer to the center of the group. "And we're ready to take the battle to them."
"I will forgive no false gods," Hanyuu breathed.
"And yet, we must," he continued, turning to look at the small god. "Even as we stop them, we must forgive them. What else can we do? Go into their world and murder every last one of them? That's what they expect; that's what they're prepared for. Hells, they might even find it _entertaining_."
"You think we can end this with simple words!?" Haruhi cried, shaking her head. "But--" She cut herself off and smiled. "If it's your plan," she allowed, "then of course it will work. When ... we go ... will you hold me?"
He nodded, one arm going about her as he slipped behind her, pulling her close to him. She wasn't certain why, but the sense of his left hand pressed gently against her belly flooded her with courage. She could do this.
"But I won't be satisfied with just that," she said. "They won't be false gods, when we're done. So you can forgive them too, Hanyuu."
"They killed us!" Mion protested. "We're just letting that go?"
"Of course not," Rika said. "We won't be dead when we're done."
"I see it!" Keiichi shouted. "All of us together -- prepare to see the magician of words cast his strongest spell yet! Great strategist Kouysuke, what do you know about the masterminds?"
"Enough," he said from behind Haruhi. His breath tickled her hair, and she could imagine his eyebrow twitching at the title. Despite herself, she smiled. "They are brighter than light, stronger than force, and..."
[ ...more brittle than diamond ]
Zearth transitioned, guided by the will of all thirteen pilots, arriving in a strange Earth filled with flying islands, ivory towers and crystalline buildings. Everything shone and glittered, colored with a vibrancy that assaulted the senses. Painfully deep blue skies were fleeced with idealized clouds, the optimized sun beaming exactly the right amount of light onto the world, in all of the perfect wavelengths.
"It's beautiful," Mion began slowly.
Rena finished, "But empty."
Abruptly an oval-shaped viewing portal zoomed onto a remote ivory structure, revealing a single male figure in white robes, smiling brightly at them. "You can hear me," he said, "I know this. You are not the first to have come this far. Many others have, too. Your fate will be no different from theirs."
"It will be," Haruhi disagreed. "You think you're gods, but you're not. You're spoiled brats using alternate realities as your playthings -- and that ends _here_ and _now_!"
"If you wish to contest us-"
"We don't! You don't understand! After everything you've done, everything you've found.... We forgive you."
The man on the viewing portal looked mildly confused, his smile slipping the tiniest amount. "You ... _forgive_ us?"
"Your expanded minds have become contaminated with the concept of infinity," Nagato told him. "It is not a fault of your own that you began to devalue the existence of lives in those other realities. Even though the toll was beyond comprehension, it is easy to understand that you did not realize what you were doing."
The man's face cracked, a dark fracture from the corner of his mouth to one ear. "You do not understand the meaning of the words you utter."
"The most devious master of traps occasionally makes a snare so well designed ... she can fall for it herself," Satoko observed. "It's the same for you."
Another crack appeared on the man's face, splitting it vertically. Within the depths of the crack was a roiling darkness, studded with sparkling lights, infinitely more vast than the man himself. "You believe that all we have done is an oversight? A miscalculation?"
"It's understandable that you think you're knowledgeable enough to avoid making a mistake," Asahina said, shaking her head. "But that's theory, for you; a way to go wrong with confidence.
The man's entire image flickered, distorting with darkness and glittering lights; a crack ran from his face to the sky behind him, shattering one of the distant crystalline cities. "Lies," he said, though the sound was a buzzing whisper.
"Anyone can make a mistake," Keiichi said, dropping his baseball bat on the floor and looking solemn. "In another world ... I went mad and ... slaughtered ... the people I love. The people I _love_! If simple madness can cause such a horrifying 'oversight', then that's exactly what this is! How else could beings with your power willingly do this to their own cousins and brothers? You came from humanity! Even if you believe yourselves to be something else, now ... you are human, through and through.
"If there's _one_ thing I know, it's that humans make mistakes. And that's why we're able to come here and defeat you. Because we are individual humans, and all of us make mistakes. But as friends -- as _nakama_ -- we work _together_."
"Love?" Mion and Rena whispered together, turning their eyes to Keiichi.
"Yeah," he said, nodding, eyes fixed on the viewing portal. He only smiled when each of the girls grabbed onto him, turning their attention back on the broken image of the man. "Because of the friends I had -- and the new friends we've made -- I'm here. I shouldn't be, but we all stuck together as a group! We tried to get along and work together, to overcome every obstacle!
"But every other Earth you visit, every life you touch ... you have a chance to make strong bonds, build friendships, raise your fellow man -- your family! -- above their limitations! Instead, you throw that away because you're _scared_ of that responsibility; it's so much easier to just kill and try and laugh it off, convincing yourself that you're superior, when you're no different from us at all! You just want to be normal people, and you're trapped in this terrible cycle that you've created."
"LIES!" the man screamed, his entire body shattering, leaving an outline in the shape of it behind, filled with endless, infinite darkness, and thousands of scattered jewels of shining light, like an entire universe contained within one being. Ivory and crystal structures around him exploded, shattering into dust. "You have _no_ understanding of what we are! We are perfect! Peerless! We are _gods_!"
"_I_ am a being that has gone beyond man," Hanyuu said, her voice cold, her eyes glowing black. She threw her tiny arms wide. "I hated you once for all that you stood for and did! But listening to these mortals, I see you for what you are! My heart aches fit to burst with compassion for you." Brilliant tears flowed from her unblinking eyes. "Give your sin unto me, and be forgiven!"
"Until then, we're closing off your ability to touch other worlds -- forever," Haruhi added. "And while we're at it, we're going to undo every single connection you've ever made with other realities -- so you can't even blame yourselves for all you've done ... because it won't really have ever happened!"
The thing on the screen screamed. The world cracked, fire and darkness flooding it; the stars wept plasma and radioactive flares; the sun collapsed into a dark mote that absorbed all light; there was nothing.
[[ Fireside discussion ]]
Tsuruya had hauled Kyousuke's little sister off to the hostel, pleading sleepiness, when the others decided to stay on the beach and talk.
"Kyousuke," Keiichi began, broaching the silence first. "What happened? Was it a dream, or...?"
"It was real enough," he said, glancing to the girl at his side. She shivered a bit, then he smiled. "I'm afraid I'm going to need to start with an explanation to Haruhi, first."
"I chose to remember everything," she said quietly. "I know we all had the _choice_ to forget, but...."
Kyousuke nodded, then turned to the fire pit that he and the other two boys had dug. After a long minute, the fire was started, and just as the sun went down, Tsuruya returned. "Hiyas~!" she said brightly. "Sanae's asleep. All worn out from swimming!" She dropped several bags of skewers and marshmallows on a nearby towel. "I miss anything important?"
"We were just starting," Kyousuke answered. "So ... Haruhi ... listen to me. This is a lot to take in, but the world was already wilder and more interesting than you knew ... even before Zearth appeared."
"How?" she asked, frowning, grabbing a bag of marshmallows and preparing to roast one over the fire.
"You didn't believe me ... but I told you that time travelers, espers, and aliens exist?"
"Yeah.... I remember. Why?"
"Well ... maybe it's cheating a bit ... but I knew we were going to get through the Zearth trial from the moment Mikuru was chosen."
"What?" she yelped, dropping her marshmallow into the fire. "Why didn't you _tell_ me!?"
"It does seem like the kind of thing that could have been brought up earlier," Rena remarked, smirking.
"I _did_ tell you," he reproved her mildly, handing her his own just-roasted marshmallow. "Just not in those specific words. I had to find out what to say that wouldn't just let us live through this ... but would actually let us resolve this issue and get rid of the 'masterminds', while also finding a way to bring everyone back."
"Truly," Koizumi said, shaking his head, "I fear the man who creates a plan that includes his own death before the final stages."
"Why did I get a penalty for losing strategy and bluffing games to this guy?" Keiichi asked. "I mean, seriously?"
"But even that's not the point," Kyousuke continued. "You have a special gift, Haruhi. A power. And the _reason_ you have an alien, an esper, and a time-traveler watching over you is because of that power."
"Ah, is this really the time for that?" Koizumi asked, suddenly looking nervous.
"I have a _power_?" she asked, dumbly.
"That's what I wanted you to see," he said, shrugging. "You are ... a being with the ability to manipulate reality around her. What you truly desire -- your subconscious thoughts -- already become reality. Did you know that it almost accidentally killed me when we were filming your movie? Several of your imagined 'Mikuru beams' became real. If it weren't for Nagato, I'd have been cooked--" The marshmallow on his skewer burst into flame suddenly. "Like that!" He flicked the skewer and the flaming marshmallow vanished into the flickering firepit.
"Suddenly," Mion said, shivering, "that movie got a bit less funny."
"Y...you mean ... _I_ am a post-human?" Haruhi asked, the color draining from her face. "Like ... the masterminds? I ... threatened you with my power without ever knowing it!?"
"You saw how terrible a being like that can become," Kyousuke said, shaking his head. "It's not my job or anything, but because...." He coughed, his face coloring, even in the light of the campfire. "W...well, I want you to be better than that -- and I think you've learned a lot about having fun _with_ other people, not at their expense. It's the most extreme example I can imagine, but I wanted you to see them so you'd never become like them. We've been hiding this from you as long as the SOS Brigade has been around, and I think it's time you knew the truth."
"I never want to be like that," she said quietly. "I don't know what you mean, and I'm not certain how this works. But if my desires _really_ become reality, then you'll be able to stop me and make sure I don't do anything I shouldn't."
"Usually, that's about how it's been working so far."
She looked up sharply and narrowed her eyes. "It sounds like you've got a lot of stories to tell me," she remarked. "But stop kidding around! I do believe in you ... even if it's stupid ... I really do."
"So, she's like a god?" Satoko asked doubtfully.
"That's not the way I think of it," Kyousuke said with a shrug. "But I've heard others say that."
"What am I to you, then?" Haruhi asked, shivering slightly.
"You're a girl who had some trouble making friends, but is quickly growing beyond that," he answered. "You're the energetic, unstoppable leader of the SOS Brigade. You've gotten a lot of power, but you're becoming a much more responsible person, so ... you're the one I look out for."
"Okay ... so ... I'll accept that ... for now." Then she turned to Hanyuu, quietly floating at Rika's side. "But I don't understand -- where did you come from, Hanyuu?"
Hanyuu's eyes widened, and she squeaked in alarm.
"If this is a moment for revelations and truths ... then she, too, is a being with the power to manipulate reality, though I doubt it works like yours," Rika answered. She turned to Keiichi and looked apologetic. "I never spoke of this to you ... but before the events last June ... I had relived that June, or one very similar to it, hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. The only companion I had throughout was her.
"She was killed a very long time ago. And it was only when our lives reached a point of crisis that she was able to step in and saved us. Specifically, she is an ancestor of mine from over a thousand years ago. We are connected by blood."
"How can you see me?" Hanyuu whimpered. "We're not connected by blood! There's no link!"
"Well," Kyousuke said, frowning, "just before Rika's fight, Kimidori-san modified my genetic code to be within the correct wavelength to see you -- she said it would help keep you here as an observer by anchoring us together. Something like that. Remember?"
Hanyuu nodded hesitantly. "I didn't understand her words," she admitted.
"She's here now?" Rena asked, glancing around.
Hanyuu pouted and made a tiny gesture.
"Ah! Still SO CUTE!"
"Kyousuke's blood was changed so he could see Hanyuu?" Keiichi asked, scratching the back of his head. "So, how did Haruhi get the ability to see her, too?"
Koizumi smiled widely. Nagato stared studiously at her roasting marshmallow. Mikuru's face slowly turned incredibly brilliant red. Kyousuke looked confused. "That's a good question," he said. "How did that work?"
Rena's eyes widened and her jaw dropped before she seemed to teleport directly between Haruhi and the fire. "So cute!" she squealed. Seizing both of Haruhi's hands, she shook them furiously. "*Congratulations*!"
Instantly, she switched positions and grabbed Kyousuke's hands. "*Congratulations*!" she cried again. "Ooh! You'll let me see it, right? Once it's here?"
"What..." Kyousuke began.
"I don't..." Haruhi followed.
"Oh!" Rika said in realization. "Kyousuke, if we're related by blood now, that means that we're like brother and sister!"
"Uh ... I guess technically?" he managed.
Rena moved to one side and leaned against Keiichi, both hands balled into fists beneath her chin. "Isn't it _romantic_?" she purred, batting her eyelashes at Keiichi.
"I don't get what's going on here," Keiichi said, shaking his head quickly.
"Hey!" Mion protested, crawling into Keiichi's lap to try and pry Rena away. "What do you think you're doing?"
"What-- Mion! Watch where you're sitting!"
"Kyousuke-nii-san," Rika said, patting him on the head, then turning and beaming her brightest smile at Haruhi, "I'm going to be an auntie!"
After Haruhi fainted, the joking calmed down a little bit. Nagato spoke, her first contribution to the conversation thus far: "Well done."
He wasn't certain if that was a good thing or not. Haruhi came to her senses quickly enough while he worriedly patted her wrist.
"Kyousuke!" she roared, the second her eyes focused on him. "Who gave you permission to knock me up!?"
"You did!" he babbled, wincing, cringing back from her inevitable wrath. "I mean, you asked -- that is, um, you were just so hot in that miko outfit -- I mean, um, it was -- the world was going to be destroyed -- I said we should find a -- you said we didn't have time to get -- AUUGH! Why didn't I keep my head together and say no?! I really tried to -- _Somebody shut me up_!"
"Well, it's _done_ now! So ... you'd better take responsibility!"
"Oh my god," he groaned. "My mom is going to kill whatever pieces of me you don't!"
"Wow," Shion said, grinning. "The man stares at robots that can destroy realities without batting an eye, sets a plan in motion to destroy the masterminds behind the sadistic plot, and _this_ sends him over the edge?"
"She'd better not!" Haruhi yelled. "I'm going to need you! Do you know how much work it's going to be!? And so embarrassing at school! Great, I'll be lucky to make it to Winter break before I'm showing!"
"Gurk!" Kyousuke gasped.
"Well!? Are you going to do it? Are you willing to take responsibility?"
"Yes!" he yelled back, his face red. "Of course. I am a man -- I'll do the right thing. Whatever your choice, I'm behind it!"
She suddenly lost the fury in her eyes and looked away. "I ... we've all seen too many lives vanish to lose another one. So ... Kyousuke ... since you told me my beliefs can change reality, I'm going to believe that you're going to make a _great_ father!"
He couldn't find any words to say in response to that.
"Okay!" Tsuruya commanded, leaping to her feet. "Ladies, with me! Boys, stay out of the way -- we must plan the wedding immediately!"
This, he could speak against: "But, there are laws, and-"
"Nonsense! The Tsuruya family has connections everywhere it's needed! Ever since we fixed that weird situation in Nerima, we've kept the people in the department of the registry in our pocket -- there'll be no trouble getting the paperwork through! You all enjoy your guy talk for now, nyoro~!"
The girls, as a group, slowly began working their way to the hostel, Haruhi pausing long enough to give Kyousuke a deep, searching kiss, and order Koizumi, "Don't let him run away or you get demoted!"
Once they were out of earshot, Keiichi asked, "Was that part of your strategy, too?"
"Hmm, so even master strategists can occasionally get tripped up."
"It may be a once in a lifetime event," Koizumi remarked, preparing another marshmallow. "We should count ourselves fortunate to have seen it."
Author's notes: Not nearly as stylistic as Forging. At nearly 180k, this thing weighed in muuuuch larger than intended. Also, totally intentional that it didn't follow the guide in the last few segments -- Haruhi got sick of it and broke the mold. Zearth was probably not a name that Haruhi would have agreed with, but I stuck with the original name anyway for reader recognition; enough trouble seeing 'Kyon' as 'Tadamichi Kyousuke'.
Other departures: I know that the original Koyemshi was killed (but they're all named Koyemshi). Here, this was his chance at 'redemption' to the masterminds. He redeemed them, alright. He redeemed them but GOOD.