July 7th, 2025, East Junior High, Tokyo
The school never really changed that much. We sat on the bleachers, our knees feeling awkward and our legs a little too-long. It had been years since high school for most of us, and I'd grown a lot myself since I had been in junior high.
Uncle Itsuki was trying to make me eat something, but I couldn't. I really couldn't put anything in my mouth. My stomach was tight and full of acidic fear. What if the signs that Aunt Yuki and Uncle Itsuki had been monitoring and researching all week were false positives, or just natural variations? What if my own data was flawed?
I clasped my hands around my knees, my fingernails digging in. I didn't feel any pain. It was like I'd been running on pure nerves and anxiety and anticipation since that dinner with Mum. Tense and numb. Mum herself was striding back and forth across the bleachers behind us, calling out to Aunt Yuki about the construction of the symbols. Aunt Yuki knew them back to front by now, after all these years. But we were all scared. That was how Mum coped; she had a photograph, an old newspaper clipping, clutched tight in her hand. She was wearing shorts and a too-big T-shirt, and the hair that she'd grown out again the year before was tied back in a tidy ponytail. If something went wrong and she hadn't tried her utmost to make it work, I knew she'd only blame herself.
I sighed heavily and gritted my teeth. I took the bread roll from Uncle Itsuki and just held on to it. Didn't even open the plastic wrapping around it. He took another from the bag for himself, and he unwrapped his, but didn't eat it either. He tore it into small pieces in his fingers, arranging the crumbs in the shape of constellations and mystic glyphs. I suppose we all had our own ways of coping.
"I... never meant... I mean... I didn't..." Uncle Itsuki sounded very choked up. I was pretty sure he was talking about that incident where he'd tried to confess to Mum, and Kyon had punched him. We hadn't known at the time of course, but we'd all discovered one way or another that Mum and Kyon had been too committed to each other for something like Itsuki's own issues to be a problem. Uncle Itsuki knew it, usually. When he was in his right mind. But in the same way that Mum needed to contribute to the glyphs on the ground, Uncle Itsuki needed to feel this irrational guilt. I could tell from the way his fingers shook as they poked at the food on the wooden slats beside our feet; if he didn't feel this guilt, maybe Kyon won't come back... that's the sort of thing he was thinking. That maybe, somehow, it was his own feelings that had separated our family all those years ago.
"You know Kyon never cooked much, and he was terrible at empathising with people." I didn't expect my words to have any effect, and Uncle Itsuki gave no signs of having heard them. I shrugged and stared resolutely down at the movements Aunt Yuki was making as she methodically lay down the chalk.
"I mean," I said after the silence (aside from Mum's shouted directions) had stretched out for a few seconds, "that you couldn't possibly have taken Kyon's place. And you know from the research we did that it might have been all or nothing. Kyon for nine months, versus his eventual return and maybe even my existence. You don't wish I'd died at birth, do you? Or that I was deleted from the universe?"
Uncle Itsuki shook his head slowly, and did not turn to look at me, refused to meet my eyes. "You know I don't. Of course I don't."
Summer went on around the school, cars and crickets chirping and somewhere someone drunk shouting something unintelligible. I took a quick glance at Mum, who was gesticulating wildly and making Yuki redo the last part – though of course it was picture perfect – and not paying any attention to Uncle Itsuki or myself.
"The only thing to really worry about is whether or not we've got the calculations right. It's been a lot of time, and errors may have been made in transcription. The star-charts may have been wrong. Suou and Yuki's shared coding language might have flaws – you said you only spent a day on it in that room? - or there could be a problem with the whole linkup system. Our whole plan is in beta."
Uncle Itsuki stared at me as if I was mad. "First, no way would Yuki or Suou ever make an error in calculation like that. Those two can do the work of a thousand years of programming in a minute, and they had a whole day to work on it. Second, don't be stupid, you know you got the star charts right. Finally, the linkup will work. We only theoretically need one Esper, one time-traveller, one god, and we've got... two time-travellers, two Espers, and odds-on three gods."
He didn't say a thing about transcription errors. He didn't have to, really, and I shouldn't have mentioned it at all. Though they had taken accurate data back with them, there was no guarantee that the hints they'd left for us in the Tanabata story were all retained through the retellings and changes in Japanese language over the years. Maybe it was next year, or maybe we needed to be doing more than simply just being here, being ready to be one big noisy beacon that would be seen through time and space and special little bubbles of closed space. Maybe we were the ones who were supposed to be breaking through? If the documents were wrong, then we were wrong, and no matter how accurate Yuki and Suou's calculations, no matter how well trained Fujiwara and I were at time-travel, no matter how far Itsuki and Tachibana could project their thoughts, we might never recover our lost family.
How surreal. I was training Sasaki during my working week, and here I was shivering with stress over the thought of losing her in the past forever. I was of course worried about Sasaki's colleagues, and my heart was breaking with fear for Kyon, but the oddness of Sasaki's own chronology was striking.
I swallowed, and shook my head resolutely. Suou would have planned for redundancies. That was why the story was so universal, so well distributed. She would have kept all the pertinent details simple, things that were unlikely to be changed very much over time. The core elements of the story. In the end, it really came down to the constellations, our geographical location, and the ways that our two groups shared connections.
"Yeah, we'll be fine." I didn't sound anywhere near convinced. I was trying to be brave and confident, but I bet I didn't pull it off at all. But it was now or never, and we were ready.
"All right, you two! Come on, MOVE IT!" Mum turned her megaphone on us, and there was a small screech of whining feedback around the edges of her voice.
Itsuki and I winced and shared a sympathetic smile. I stood, tucking my roll back into the backpack he'd carried through the chain-link fence, and hefted my own higher on my shoulder. We'd brought things. Candles, flares, glow-sticks, fireworks. You name it, we'd brought it. If it could make a noise or a light, it was somewhere lumped in with our stuff. Aunt Yuki was done with the first glyph, and when Mum nodded sharply in my direction I walked down to the ground. With careful meticulous attention I started with the glowsticks and began outlining the words. I set flashlights on small improvised tripods (disposable chopsticks and gaffer tape) in predetermined places so that the right light and shadows were cast across the words.
I followed Aunt Yuki across the sandy pitch, leaving light and shadow in my wake. I could hear Uncle Itsuki composing himself, taking a sip of water from a bottle and then coming down to join us. He checked on the lights, replaced the duds and started lighting the smaller candles that I'd left untouched.
Mum probably didn't notice her own power. She'd never been very self aware. But I think we all could feel it. That buzzing on the skin, short hairs raised all along the backs of our necks. Even the breath in our lungs tingled with it. It was curling and weaving, settling into the strange patterns on the ground.
I could also hear Aunt Yuki's muttering, I was close enough to her now. Like a Buddhist mantra, over and over again she repeated the same strings of data. Some of the sections resonated with my own programming, and I wondered at what had gone in to my own augmentations, but most of it was beyond me. I could travel through time, but I barely understood some of the science involved. This was more complex, and far beyond me. Somewhere in another time and place, Suou was doing this exact same thing. Two irreconcilable datastreams working in synchronisation. Aunt Yuki was only echoing what she'd picked up from her own scans, and we could only hope that she'd analysed her results properly.
Behind me, Uncle Itsuki began to feel larger. More potent. I did not doubt that his ESPer powers would be fully usable. The whole world felt a bit like twilight; like a closed space. Any second now, I half expected giants or monsters or demons to appear. Something big. Instead, though it felt intense, there was just us and the balmy summer night.
I had never been trained like Sasaki, and I was too meek; I couldn't wield the raw talent of my mother. But I felt full to the brim with potential and energy. I tried with my heart and my sticky sweating pores to push it out through my skin, to have it sink into the other things being done, charge them up or something. But I have no idea if it worked or not. I suppose it might have been wishful thinking, all in my head. But I think that as our work progressed the glow-sticks lasted longer and there were less false-starts and dead batteries to contend with in torches.
After we were done with what felt like a very rehearsed and important ritual, the rest of the evening was depressingly normal. We retreated to the bleachers again and sat amongst torn cellophane wrappers and backpacks. The sounds of the night – cars, people, trains, birds, trucks – didn't change. It was like any other Tanabata.
For a family that was very used to calming each other down, we were all highly strung. Aunt Yuki turned the pages of her book unnaturally quickly; she lost all pretence of humanity. I fidgeted, and Mum alternated between running her knuckles over the top of my hair and scowling at shadows in the treeline. Uncle Itsuki sulked and occasionally tried to force a smile onto his face.
We said nothing.
When the sound came, I barely noticed it. It had been hours, and I had been folding the paper bag we'd brought the matches in into small brown lumpy flowers (well you try origami with thick waxed paper in the dark!) and I just must have assumed I'd dropped something through the gaps in the bleachers. By the time I'd realised that the sound hadn't come from us, but the pitch below, the scuffling had come again.
I didn't want to get our hopes up, but I looked across the words. I scanned intently, eyes peeled for the slightest hint of movement.
Beside me, Aunt Yuki closed her book and set it aside. She spoke with a tone that sounded relieved. "Finished."
"What?" Mum pulled her hand out of my hair, and scrambled to her feet as I winced and rubbed at the painful tug.
"What? Where, Yuki?"
Aunt Yuki pointed, and sure enough, there was a tall male figure standing there. It was so far away that we couldn't really make out his face, or the human-shaped shadows behind him that could be – must be – the others. I don't know how we got down there without any of us tripping over or stumbling, but we did. We were standing with the last of the candles slowly drowning in their own wax at our feet, squinting into the darkness as a very tired looking man made his way across the symbols towards us.
It was Mum that called out first. "Hey, John Smith, you're late, asshole!"
The voice that answered her was older than the Kyon I'd known, but he sounded fresh and full of joy. "I had some work to get done, Haruhi. Cut a guy some slack!"
I could hardly believe it. Mum could, though. She ran to meet him, and we trailed behind her.
"Kyon! It's really you? Really? Did you bring me back anything interesting?"
He snorted and then laughed. "I go missing for twenty years, and this is what I come back to? I'm glad you're still the same loving woman."
Mum swatted at his head, and then wrapped an arm around him as if he'd never been gone. As if this was just another day in the good old clubroom. "Oh, things have changed. You have no idea, really! I've been running a biological and social experiment in your absence."
My arm was being tugged. I stepped forwards, close enough to make out Kyon's face. He was older, and I'm not sure why but it shocked me. He was Mum's age, of course. An adult.
"This," Mum proclaimed proudly, "is the result of my machinations! Isn't it nice?"
Kyon ignored her, though he kept an arm wrapped tightly around her waist. He smiled at me. "So I'm guessing we don't call you 'Mikuru' anymore, right?"
"It's, um, K-kurumi."
It was hard to see his face in the low light, but I was pretty sure he'd rolled his eyes. "Kurumi. Well, we can hardly call you Haruhi's experiment alone. I am at least partly responsible."
Mum sounded scandalised when she spoke up. "What? And here I thought I'd have something to surprise you with! You had better have brought me something good."
Kyon – not really Kyon, but my father I suppose now – shrugged and held up his free arm. He was holding a pair of very rustic and rough-looking handmade sandals.
"I'm pretty bad at this thing. I only got the one pair done in all that time. Sorry."
Things got confusing after that. Everyone was hugging everyone, even Aunt Yuki. The others had arrived, too, and I'd hardly noticed that at all. There were too many arms and our feet were turning the sticky summer dust of the sports field into sweaty crumbly muck as we shuffled around between each other. We were crying and laughing and then trying to hide our own tracks. To clean up, so we could go home. Dad sighed wearily as he packed exhausted glow-sticks into a backpack.
"You do realise that with the brightness of Tokyo, there's no way you could have seen this from space?"
Mum pouted and kicked Dad gently in the shins. He pretended to be hurt, but he couldn't keep the grin off his face. He just kept looking around at everyone, and smiling.
"Oh come on, you weren't in outer space," Mum retorted, "I know for a fact that you couldn't have found the wood to make those shoes up in the stars."
Dad shrugged, and just wrapped his arms around me. He rested his chin on my head, and shared a look with Mum that I couldn't see in the dark. "How," he asked with what sounded like a very tight throat, "did you and I make someone like her?"
Mum shrugged, and wrapped her arms around us both. Then there were two pointy sharp chins on my skull, and I felt a little too warm and crowded in with the summer night air. But it was good. I didn't feel like an adult, just a little girl. Everything felt whole and right in a way that it never had before.
It felt like home. Like I'd been living in the chaotic black space between two constellations, and something had finally bridged the gap.
Endnotes: Wow this was a long journey. When I came up with this idea, I really disliked Mikuru as she was presented in both the books and anime, and a lot of the problems I had with her were with the ways that she was sexually objectified and Kyon was reduced to an ogling slavering idiot at times. I started writing early drafts trying to find a way to like her partly as a personal writing challenge, and in the end I've really come to love her and care enough about this story to work it into readable chapters. I still find her annoying in canon sometimes, but I think it's more the situations she's placed in than anything else. I really hope that everyone's enjoyed reading this, and I want to say a big, huge, wonderful thank-you to everyone who's been following and commenting and reviewing. I'm not sure I deserve half the praise I get from you guys, but I'm glad you enjoyed this story.
I may write further, some people have said they're curious about Sakaki, but I'm studying and working so if anything does come it may be some time. If you want to discuss anything, pm me! If you write something similar and I haven't commented, please let me know, because I'd love to read your stuff! If you're in Japan or know anybody there, I hope that everyone you love is safe, and I encourage people to consider donating to the relief funds if you have any cash to spare.