Later - Chapter Seven

A Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi fanfiction

By Brian Randall

Disclaimer: The series begun with the light novel 'The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi'/'Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu' is the creation of Nagaru Tanigawa. No disrespect is intended with the creation of this work.

Note: May contain spoilers up through book eleven.

Even I find myself surprised with how quickly I adjust to Haruhi's presence in Nagato's apartment. I'll admit ... perhaps it was just some passing fancy, but I envisioned her somehow relaxing, becoming more thoughtful and meditative.

Somehow, I suppose, I thought she might stop acting like, well ... Haruhi.

Instead, she fills her idle time by tearing through all of my unpublished poems, gushing over them before I realize she's even found my notebooks. I suppose it's for the best I don't keep a journal or anything like that - but I can't expect Nagato to distract Haruhi constantly.

After she finishes going through everything I've ever written, she drags me to her storage locker, where I help her rearrange countless boxes of memorabilia, awards, music and video disks in a painful variety of formats, until eventually, we found the things she was looking for. Should I be surprised that the oldest looking boxes are labeled 'SOS Brigade'?

I am, even if I shouldn't be.

She pauses for a moment when we find those, then shakes her head, going to a somewhat newer box labeled 'books.'

From there, she demands that I sign her entire collection of my books. Flattering, actually. "You know," I remark, when we realize that neither of us thought to bring a pen, "I've never signed a single copy of any of my books?"

"Then, that makes it even more important!" she declares, smirking. "Well ... let's bring them back to your place. I can even have them signed in the same place where they were originally written!"

I glance at a copy of her and Zaizen Mai's debut single, marked as a platinum record.

"I think your work is significantly more meritorious than my own," I muse, hefting the box of books and stepping out of the storage locker so she can close it up. "I've never gotten many awards, either."

"Oh, those are all politics," she answers absently, checking the lock. "Mmm, if you never go out for any signings, you don't generate the kind of recognition you need to win a bunch of stuff."

She leads the way to the exit of the complex, then admits, "Though, I don't know much about poetry awards, to be honest. Hey! How about that - I'll help you out! We can make your next book win all kinds of awards!"

"Maybe," I reply dubiously. We're close enough that I wouldn't have minded the walk, but I am concerned for Haruhi - I pretend the box is heavier than it is when she seems about to try and walk back herself.

Pouting, she agrees to flag down a cab.

Once we're seated comfortably, the box between us, I say, "I'm not sure I'm worried about awards, honestly. And ... come to think of it, you know - except for the fact that you've bought them, I really wouldn't be surprised to find out that Nagato was vanity publishing them on my behalf."

Haruhi rolls her eyes at that. "Do you not even know you've made best-seller lists?"

I laugh at her joke and shake my head.

She narrows her eyes suspiciously. "You are making money off your books, right? Yuki-chan isn't... She wouldn't..."

"It's not like that," I tell her. "To be perfectly honest - you were completely right about me wasting a wish on money that long ago Tanabata."

Her eyes widen fractionally at that.

I shrug. "I have enough, and I trust Nagato to handle the rest."

"What about a house?" she wonders.

"There's nothing important enough for me to save money for," I return. "I'm comfortable, and close to the people who matter to me. I might try and buy a house, I suppose, but that would be for a family - and I'm not married."

The uncomfortable silence this comment creates lasts until we return to the apartment, and then - for the first time in my life - I sign copies of my books. Should I have signed Tsuruya's, I wonder? Well, a dozen years late for that.

Haruhi practically glows with delight, looking over her collection of incredibly battered books as though they were precious treasures. Even though she doesn't say anything else ... just how worn those books are - that sends a message all its own.

One a bit more profound than her just demanding my signature.

Some days later, I am finding myself strangely already growing complacent with regards to Haruhi's returned presence. Given a laptop - newer than the ancient, depreciated ones we used in the club - she's undertaken a personal campaign to better manage promoting my next book.

Which, naturally, obligates me to write my next book.

I don't feel any particular urgency for that, though. There's plenty of time.

Instead, I'm in the gardening shed, studying the injured bonsai. Two of the branches will probably recover very well, but the third is going very slowly.

The door swings open, and I glance at the entrance, seeing Haruhi and Tsuruya peeking in after me. "You have a visitor," Tsuruya announces, gesturing to Haruhi.

For her part, the pregnant woman is still nervous around Tsuruya - though to be fair, she is still a bit cold to Haruhi. I leave that well enough alone, though.

"What's the occasion?" I ask, turning my attention back to the tree.

"Just wanted to visit," Haruhi says, shrugging. She steps into the shed and moves to stand behind me, staring over my shoulder. "What happened?"

"The tanuki family's victim," I answer.

Making a thoughtful noise, Tsuruya moves to study the tree as well. "Will it survive?" she wonders, frowning.

I give a small sigh. "Well ... as it happens, probably. The problem here is this: Of the three branches, this most damaged one is sapping the bonsai of most of its energy - so it isn't healing very well."

Tsuruya clicks her tongue at that, shaking her head.

Haruhi cocks her head to one side, staring at the plant doubtfully. "How do you help it, then?" she wonders.

In answer, I bring the pruning shears up and clip off the most injured branch just below the original break.

Haruhi emits a cry of alarm, staring at me in shock while Tsuruya nods knowingly.

"Strength divided is less strength," the woman says, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Now all of the bonsai's recovery goes to the two remaining branches," I explain, setting down the shears, still holding the short length of severed branch.

While I understand the necessity - and have done this before - it always pains me to remove an established limb from an older bonsai...

I walk out of the greenhouse portion of the gardening shed and study the part in my hand. It's no good; I don't think I can grow a new plant from this cutting. Sighing, I set it aside and take off my work-gloves, rubbing at my eyes. "It's the same with flowering plants," I continue. "Say you've got a plant that has blossoms in clusters of five. If you want larger, more fragrant blooms, then you prune two of the five off."

"Isn't that ... cold?" Haruhi asks, evidently uncomfortable with the idea.

I shrug at that. "Maybe," I allow. "I don't particularly care for the practice - but here, it's to help the bonsai to recover better."

"So, you're saying there's no other option?"

"Well ... I could have left it on and it would have taken much longer to mend properly - and a lot more attention," I answer, shrugging.

Haruhi nods slowly, lost in some thought.

Ah, gloomy nonsense.

"Never mind that, though," I say, shaking my head. "At a guess, this will be back to a good state in a few months. It will take some attention, but it should survive."

The pregnant woman seems somehow dissatisfied, but after a glance at Tsuruya, she ducks her head. "Ah, anyway - I wanted to offer to treat you and Tsuruya to lunch to thank you for all of your help so far," she explains.

I offer a smile at that. "Well, thank you, Haruhi," I respond.

After the meal, Tsuruya apologizes as she's called to a meeting and runs off, leaving Haruhi and myself together. I give her a soft smile and shrug, and she joins me as we slowly walk from the restaurant towards Kintaro's school again.

Spending time with Haruhi like this is nicer than I imagined it, actually, when she's not badgering me for details to help promote my next book. She's still wearing the same bulky coat she seems to prefer for the moment, though I suspect she'll have to switch for something looser as spring approaches.

I think she's overreacting a little bit - she's not showing that much. As it stands, her due date isn't until the end of the first week of July.

She catches my sidelong glance and breaks the companionable silence, asking, "What's on your mind?"

"Just wondering about the baby," I answer. "Did you eat enough?"

She rolls her eyes. "You love playing the big strong protector for damsels in distress, don't you?" she accuses with a grin. "Yeah, I'm fine..."

"Sorry," I apologize, chuckling. "I don't know that I'm any good at it, but what guy doesn't want to try doing that?"

I shrug at her and check my watch. We actually have enough time to head back to the apartment before Kintaro's school lets out, but I like the atmosphere between us, so I guide Haruhi towards a park. She doesn't protest, just nodding in response to my last remark and looking away thoughtfully.

A few minutes later, I indicate a park bench and she nods again, taking a seat. I join her, and she shakes her head abruptly, pursing her lips together in thought. "Kyon," she finally starts, not meeting my eyes, "I know I kind of ... mentioned this before, but..." She shakes her head suddenly, giving me a surprisingly shy look before turning her attention to the grass.

"What is it?" I prompt gently.

"I... I like to believe in second chances," she tells me slowly, not meeting my eyes again. "Of course, life is not so convenient that it gives you second chances all the time... And then, when you look at the concept of karma as something that applies to lives, a lot of people don't understand that, either."

"Wait, what does karma have to do with this?" I wonder, boggling.

She waves a hand dismissively. "A lot of people - especially people who hear it from Westerners who don't entirely understand it - sometimes get the impression that karma comes around in the same lifetime. And I suppose it maybe can, but in the general sense, isn't karma sort of a running total between all your lives?"

I spend a minute thinking back to the philosophy books I hadn't read in decades, or the lectures I'd only distantly overheard at Kurama-dera, nearly as long ago. "That sounds familiar, though I admit, I am not the world's most devout Buddhist."

"I'm probably not much better," she counters, grinning, finally meeting my eyes. "I mean, you've at least spent time working in a temple - that's probably earned you a lot of points!"

"Fair enough," I allow, smiling back, not really motivated enough to question where she was going with this.

She looks away quickly, though, her smile fading. "So ... well, what I'm trying to say is that I don't want to believe that Koizumi passed away for nothing- That anyone passes away for nothing! And ... maybe a bit, it's selfish on my part so I can try and feel less guilty about how things turned out with him.

"I ... wasn't kidding when I said I hoped he got a chance to start over - maybe ... with parents like you and Tsuruya."

I can't say anything to that, and just look away, bowing my head.

"Ah," she says belatedly, shaking her head. "I mean, raised by people like the two of you - so he can have a chance at a better life, you know? Maybe ... maybe it's a bit sad, but still... Ah..." She sighs and hangs her head.

Straightening out, I shift my shoulders, giving her a considering, sidelong look. "Even after this long, you still care about all of the members in your brigade, huh?" I ask. Though, what I'm wondering is ... how badly was she really hurt by what I did?

Another of those painful moments where I cannot be as honest as I wish. I can't tell her what was said to make me leave, and what should be a close moment leaves me feeling keenly aware of that gap. Nagato and Tsuruya keep telling me to look at it as a second chance, but now ... I can't help but feel I'm already cheapening that chance by not being perfectly honest.

"Yeah," she answers softly. "And ... even if she was... Even if she was so upset about how I used to treat her, I'd like to think that Mikuru-chan ... would have gotten a chance to say goodbye to the ones she cared about properly." She sniffs, not quite a sniffle, then forces out a chuckle that's devoid of genuine amusement.

"Anyway, after how everything turned out over the years ... I want better for this child," she continues, running her hand across her stomach, glancing at me briefly again. "In a way, isn't he or she my second chance?"

Second chances, huh?

"Maybe," I say slowly, "it's a second chance for more than just you, Haruhi."

She nods. "I'd like that," she says earnestly. "For a second chance from... From the beginning."

It comes to me almost so suddenly I don't even realize I'm saying it:

"Regret is easy,
"clinging to what we have lost;
"living in the past.

"Until we move on,
"mired in thoughts of what was:
"We have to let go."

She stares at me in surprise, then nods. "Right!" Haruhi declares in response, jumping to her feet, eyes squeezing shut as she nods and smiles widely - before she rubs away unshed tears. "That's exactly, perfectly right!"

I'm not even sure where that poem came from, myself - or that I like it much. Still ... if it works for her, I won't complain in the least.

"And that's why, no matter what, I've decided that I have to bring this life into this world! Even if it means... Well, no matter what, I won't waste this chance!"

I almost want to laugh at her and complain that such determination seems like she's convincing herself to not only have the child, but to be a part of raising it already. Instead, I chuckle softly and rise to my feet, nodding encouragement at her. I take small steps, myself; it's not fair to expect more of her.

"I'm glad for that," I tell her. "Your friends are at your side, Haruhi. Whatever happens, you won't have to face it alone." But, looking at the time... "We should probably head on to pick up Kintaro, or we might be late, though."

She gives me a smile ... for a moment, for some reason, it seems sadder than I think it should be, but the moment passes as she nods and falls into step at my side.

The days pass like this, almost without my noticing.

My awareness of the passing time is fitful, occasionally worrisome, but somehow, there's always the idea that there's enough time that there's no need to rush. Entire weeks pass, and I'm so content I really don't even notice them - followed by hours of agonizing over wasted time...

Tsuruya gives me an amused look when I confess my concerns to her, and assures me that most of the time I'm right, and there's no reason to rush.

Even so, I still don't know if I've had much influence on Haruhi's stance regarding her ability to raise her child. Then again ... I hardly want to pressure her.

It's not until the day we move her out of Nagato's apartment and into an empty room in Tsuruya's home, that I finally try broaching the subject with her. After setting down the last of her boxes, I stretch, cracking my back and eying her speculatively.

For her part, she's absorbed in hanging up her clothes in the closet - clothes she only bought a few weeks ago, to accommodate her changing size. "I hope you'll be more comfortable here," I remark, unsure how to begin.

She glances at me briefly over her shoulder before turning around and putting her hands on her hips. Surrounded by the boxes that had increasingly crept out of her storage locker and into Nagato's apartment (and now here), Haruhi raises one eyebrow and looks at me. I get the impression that like Tsuruya, on occasion she can see straight through the surface of me, and into whatever's truly on my mind, because she offers me a crooked smile.

"You're here, so I'll be fine," she says, before looking away, her cheeks reddening. As though to underscore that thought, Haruhi moves over to the open window, looking out onto the cherry trees, just preparing to blossom. "You're going to be spending more time here than at home, with everything starting to grow again soon, right?"

Yes ... the revenge of the cherry petals is incoming. Even though I frequently refer to the storms of blossoms as a personal nightmare, it's wonderful when that's the greatest of my concerns.

"That's true," I agree, only realizing after that what she called the place where Nagato and I live:


And then ... I wonder if maybe there's no real reason to worry about things after all? Maybe this is enough?

That evening, heading home later than usual, thanks to being distracted by Haruhi, I take my time, just thinking.

Not that I don't have plenty of time to think, anyway... Still.

Midway between Tsuruya's home and Nagato's store, as I'm rounding a corner, I catch the hurried sound of footsteps approaching. No one else is nearby at this time of evening, so I look around, just in time to nearly be bowled over by a young girl in Kitago uniform.

I'm able to grab her wrist before she rebounds off me and falls to the ground. Beneath the corner streetlight, I'm able to see her dark eyes widen as she looks up at me in alarm. Her hair is brown, not quite shoulder length, and the tips seem curled, almost as though implying a smile.

Something about her seems eerily familiar ... but then, she must live in the area. Mindful of the fact that I'm old enough that it might seem questionable, I release her wrist once I'm certain she won't fall. "Be careful," I warn her, offering what I hope is a gentle smile.

I hear the sound of additional footsteps approaching, more quickly. I turn to look at the source - was she running away from someone?

A heartbeat later, a boy almost as tall as me skids into view. He seems familiar in the same way... It must just be that they live in the area, to seem so familiar. The boy says, "W... Uh... W...we should get out of here," undoubtedly to the girl, but he seems strangely distracted and inexplicably confused by my presence.

"What's going on here?" I wonder.

The girl makes a startled noise and grabs the boy's hand. "S...sempai?" she manages, her voice quavering, her eyes still locked on me.

The boy snaps to attention at some signal I don't catch, pulling his phone from his pocket with his free hand and cursing before he and the girl break off, charging down the street. I consider giving chase, but they're younger and faster ... and the girl wasn't under any obvious duress.

I suppose it's none of my business, whatever it was. Perhaps there's something strange and amazing there ... but as I've learned, there's no reason - really - to search for it. If I have to be involved, I'm confident that whatever is to happen will find me.

And, really ... it doesn't bother me too much if it doesn't.

As I think that and resume my unhurried walk, a voice calls me from behind, quiet but with an easily detectable edge of urgency. Well, not my name proper - but considering how few people I let get away with that...

I turn around, bemused, and my heart stops when I see her.

I've told myself for years that it might happen at some point - hoped, really.

I'd rehearsed a thousand ways to greet her, a million reasons she could offer for disappearing so abruptly...

...except, at the end of it, I'd expected to see her older self.

Instead, the girl before me looks like she truly might just have stepped off the train from her college admission test, her eyes wide, her expression stricken. Her voice catching, eyes watering with unshed tears, she repeats, "K...Kyon-kun? that ... you?"

"Asahina-san?" I return, unable to offer anything more intelligent.

"Ah," she starts, shaking her head. "Ah, I n...need to ask you to come with me?"

Her eyes are still wide with wonder. Her face seems to have confusion permanently etched into it, now.

I'm uncertain, so I hesitate, and she picks up on that, wincing and pulling back the hand she had extended. "I d...don't have much time," she offers, "as, um, I can only be here for a few minutes, thanks to ... certain interference. So ... please?"

This much time has done nothing to my ability to resist a young Asahina-san.

I come to my senses lying face-down in sand.

Raising my face from the grit beneath me and casting about, I see at a glance that I'm on a beach, not far from a currently empty pier. A path leads from the pier and through the trees behind me - the stereotypical tropical vegetation, I imagine. Once I think about it and identify the plants...

Further behind that, there's a mountainous peak.

I may not be a geographical genius, but I do know plants - and even though I miss a lot of things, I'm fairly certain I've got this one.

This would have to be somewhere in the Pacific. And an island, at a guess.

Searching my immediate surroundings, I note with a small bit of amusement that there are no footprints around me; I may as well have fallen from the sky to land there.

Then again, perhaps I really did, banished instantly from my proper place and time by a confused Asahina-san.

Beneath my landing site is a dark robe, and beneath that, a mask, looking something like a domino covered with brightly colored wisps of paper flames.

I take those things and sit on the beach for a long while.

To be truthful, ever since Haruhi put the idea in my head and refused to even try and quote any of the poems, I'd wondered what sorts of things they had exchanged. So it wasn't as though I hadn't been trying to make, even if subconsciously, 'fire' themed poetry of my own. But now ... here was a chance to actually eavesdrop and hear first-hand.

Why would Asahina-san have sent me back here, though?

Knowing where this is, and what happens... I know enough from when I was younger to know that I don't want to try and change the past. I'm not thrilled about it, but I know what's happened is what has happened. Knowing that I mustn't change things, all I can really do - unless I want to risk a paradox - is observe.

I'm in the precise position that Asahina-san herself was in, when she was observing us.

Somehow, I had really hoped that the next time I managed a connection with one of the original SOS Brigade, we would talk. But this? This...

Not even an explanation.

Too many unanswered questions. I may have been sent here for reasons I don't understand, knowingly only that I couldn't change anything ... but if I can observe, then I can at least use this chance to discover who the father of Haruhi's child actually is.

I'm left with surprisingly little time to try and consider or plan. Very shortly after my arrival, I see a ship approaching from the horizon - and then another, and another...

Small vessels for the most-part - yachts, not ocean liners. I hide in the foliage, mindful of the fact that I've not actually been invited. When the first boat reaches the pier, it quickly disgorges its passengers, a large group of eagerly chatting folk in robes identical to mine, each already wearing their masks.

Everyone is energetic and excited, all carrying bundles of whatever artistic project they intend to show off. My brilliant plan instantly collapses. Every mask is unique, and I have no idea what Haruhi's looks like. I could recognize her voice, I expect, but I won't know her on sight.

Later still, when I'm confident that I've counted over one hundred masks, I realize how daunting this task is. If there are three hundred people here... But then, how hard must Haruhi have worked, trying to find one nameless masked person out of this entire crowd?

Needing to still myself, and still avoiding everyone - as I'm an observer, here - I crash through the vegetation for a bit until I'm far enough away from the others to think I'm alone. Is it running away when a friend you haven't seen in more than a decade hurls you back through time?

I spend a few minutes letting the hurt and confusion of Asahina-san's actions reach me, then sink to my knees in real despair.

What the hell am I supposed to do now?

I cast about the clearing - and almost instantly my eyes seize upon one possible clue.

The broad, spade-shaped leaf of a piper methysticum is before me, waving slightly in the breeze.

I climb back to my feet.

I can still do this. Haruhi said it was dark when she found the poetry circle ... so I have time. More importantly, unless there's kava everywhere - then whoever is preparing it could be at least able to point me to where the poetry competition is supposed to be.

Steeling myself, I head back to the path, finding my robed, masked figure blending seamlessly into the others wandering between the beach and the larger clearing where the majority of the party-goers seem to be congregating.

I was surrounded by artists, all of them striving to demonstrate what they could of their craft - as anonymously as possible, given the circumstances. I glimpsed a quartet of robed figures dancing in a very practiced, but unfamiliar style. Not far away, a group of people were industriously assembling a giant wooden sculpture, which they seemed intent on igniting after assembling. Over there was a group of painters, showing their works, and past them, someone showing off blown glass sculptures.

I couldn't care less about any of them or their messages; I only want to find Haruhi, and discover who the father of her child was.

Shortly enough, I find what I expect, which was another group of people patiently chatting and discussing songwriting, pulverizing some already-dried piper methysticum roots flat in synchronization. They occasionally spark into song unexpectedly, one of the group deciding on something, and the others catching on and allowing the music to briefly flare before it collapsed in laughter, until the next attempt.

I stalk them as subtly as I can, wandering between stands, occasionally offering praise of someone else's work when I pass it, despite my actual indifference. No one seems to glance at me twice, but even when the sun comes close to setting - I haven't yet found the location of the poetry circle. Frustrated, I retreat to an unattended fire-pit as it grows dark - one with a vantage of the large tubs of kava, though that hadn't proven to be the clue I had hoped.

Not long after I sink wearily to sit by the fire, another man comes by, his mask tilting slightly to one side. "You're starting the poetry circle, right?" he asks loudly.

I turn to refute that, before I spot the small, impatient crowd behind him.

Everything suddenly clicks into place as I know - somehow I know - Haruhi is in that group. And now, I know why that poet seemed so very familiar to her...

I had asked Haruhi about the father of her child, and she had passionately insisted that if she could speak to her child's father at that moment - she would.

Another clue, right before me, and being the idiot that I am, I missed it...

Almost unbidden, as I climb to my feet, I find the words leaving my mouth. "That's me," I agree, sounding somehow less shaky than I feel.

The crowd chuckles, flowing around the fire-pit to form a more solid ring. I don't know which of those figures is Haruhi, but I know at the end, it will be just her and myself...

And even though it crushes me, I can't explain things to her here. Another lie - another forced moment of dishonesty between the two of us.

Now we are closer,
but it feels further apart:
our time burns away.

No ... I can't start with that.

"Well?" the man presses, sounding amused. "Are you just going to stand there all day?"

"Burn my words, and watch art spring anew from the ashes," I reply, even as I am blinded by my tears, behind my mask.

Oh, I'd spent much of the last weeks, ever since Haruhi told me of her island misadventure wondering about those poems. I'd even tried writing a few of them myself, dabbling in the back of my mind while working around the estate - there was nothing I'd put to paper yet.

And probably, I realized, nothing I ever could, now.

Maybe I understand why Asahina-san said as little as she could, after all.

My intention was to have nothing to do with kava.

Knowing what was to come, I want nothing more than to be in my right mind for it, and I have no idea what the stuff would really do to me. Knowing that it had- That it will result in Haruhi's pregnancy...

When the bowl is passed to me, I touch it to my lips and mime drinking before passing it on. This happens many times, and after a while, touching turns to polite sips... I don't mean to, but I grow thirsty after dozens and dozens of poems.

Around the same time as I run out of all my pre-established material, I find myself being effected by the kava. My awareness seems to magnify as time slows down. Strangely, I find it easier and easier as the evening goes to come up with responses to others in the circle.

When Haruhi said that they were magnificent ... well, I don't like to boast, but feeling that it doesn't truly come from me, it seems as though my mind was abstracted, pulling the embers and coals of words into silly little combinations that gained approval from those who surrounded me. It's very like renga, insomuch as there are exchanges; words and ideas flow into shapes, all sparking that same creative core, then flaring bright.

It was the purity of Basho's spontaneity - only now not confined to the nature themes which he and I both adored. With my kava-fueled expanded focus, I wonder if perhaps this is actually the first time I am truly in my element?

So ... while the poems are remarkable - what truly makes it all feel so ... more than real ... is the synergy between us all. I didn't know which one was Haruhi, so I find myself trying - somehow - to forge a connection to everyone else there. Something in my current mindset seems to do that, without me even being entirely aware of it.

From there, sensations stretch and entangle, reminding me of nothing so much as that time when I thought I had gone mad. I wanted so badly to see Haruhi, to try and do - or say - something that would be the vital clue she would need...

...but what could I do without risking everything? If I had met Haruhi on an island and told her about the future ... she surely wouldn't have encountered me in the state that she did. What warning or clue could I give her that wouldn't jeopardize the time-line?

I think those things, but in that state, I can say only that at the last, I find Haruhi.

I try to tell her...

I try to tell her any number of things, but all I can manage are half-formed bits of poems... I tell her she is more amazing than she realizes; that she will create something truly profound in the future... That she is beautiful, and intelligent...

It probably comes across as flirting ... something I never considered myself to be adept at. And yet...

Afterwards, it's just the two of us in a small clearing. Her robe provides bedding, and mine a blanket. It's too dark to see her clearly, but I know her - know her voice. My own is somewhat raspy from the long day of poetry and kava. She's still, her breaths quiet, but not deep enough for her to be truly asleep.

"Listen," I murmur to her. I have to tell her something, here. "Ha-"

And then I black out.

I come to my senses fully dressed, laying atop a bed. I stare at the unfamiliar ceiling for a long moment, gathering my wits, recalling what had happened.

When I sit up and survey my surroundings, I see that I'm in a standard hotel room with a single bed, an entertainment center, and a small table with two chairs. Slumped over the table, her face on her crossed arms, is the slumbering form of the bigger Asahina-san.

I wonder if I might be older than her, now?

For a very long while, I just sit on the bed, trying to sort things out. This is all so much ... so fast... I had thought that strange things might happen, now that Haruhi was back - but for all of this at once?

And for all that I've adored Asahina-san for years ... putting me into that situation ... then taking me out of it...

No time for an explanation? She couldn't even - really - spare me a proper greeting?

I let myself feel pointlessly angry for a minute, until I realize that it's stupid. Didn't, really, Asahina-san give me the chance to be the important person in Haruhi's life she wanted me to be? And ... it's not like I can truly complain about my own role, save that Haruhi doesn't know the truth yet...

So, somewhat calmed, I go to the table and take the other chair. As I sit down, Asahina-san wakes up, sitting up and stretching her arms over her head.

Strangely, when her chest sticks out, my first thought is that by now, she could have bought a shirt that actually fit her.

She blinks a few times, rousing, then gives me a wan smile. "A...ah," she manages. "Um ... g...good morning, Kyon-kun?"

A glance at the clock shows that it's early evening.

"Asahina-san," I return, nodding at her. I shift my shoulders as her smile fades, and she stares at the table glumly.

"It's been some time," she murmurs. "Ahm..., um... Kyon-kun, how many books have you written?"

"Eight," I answer reflexively, thinking of the seven published books, and the one that I'm working on at the moment.

Some of her tension fades, and she raises her face to look at me, though she can't meet my gaze for very long before she turns away. Taking a breath, she seems to steel herself. "Then, can I ask you a question?

I blink at that. Really, I want to tell her that she should answer my questions first ... so I shake my head slightly. "In a bit," I say, meeting her eyes.

She winces and looks away again.

I sigh and lean back in the chair, thinking about what's just happened.

Or maybe ... if I am going to pursue Haruhi, the identity of myself as the father can be a new trump card, just like my identity as John Smith.

Then my thoughts have gone full circle. Do I want that? A return to the state of things in high school?

No... I don't want that at all. The idea of doing that?

"I'm unhappy about the fact that there's something else in my life I can't tell Haruhi about," I say, sighing. Then I shake my head, releasing a bitter laugh. "Of course, I haven't seen you in even longer than I've seen her, and I can tell you anything!" How unfair that is!

At this stage ... I can trust Asahina-san with anything, but I think I'd rather trust Haruhi.

She cringes at that, and I feel bad for the thought - from what I remember ... even if she's older, this Asahina-san is subject to the complex whims of her superiors, isn't she? "I'm sorry," I apologize to her. "This can't be any easier for you, can it? Well, what's your question, then?"

And, really, what could I know that she doesn't?

That prompts a surprised squeak, her managing to look at me for a moment before she quickly looks away. "," she starts in a quavering, uncertain voice, "it's about a poem you wrote? About me?"

I don't recall writing any poem about Asahina-san; it wasn't really an interest when we were still able to see one-another. "Go ahead," I agree with a nod, wondering which poem she thinks is about her.

"I ... had never thought I'd done something to earn your resentment," she says sadly, her gaze dropping, though her determination is still there. "What ... was it that was so horrible that you wrote that about me? couldn't be this if you wrote it before, so..."

"Which poem is this?" I can't help but ask. I don't think any of my poems were resentful - outside of the angsty whining of my first book.

Her eyes flick to me, hurt, and then away. She mumbles something I don't quite catch.

"Pardon?" I ask, leaning slightly closer.

Her expression shifts, and she seems almost ashamed, but manages to meet my eyes, accusation in her gaze as she repeats - loud enough for me to hear, this time - "You know the one, Kyon-kun ... 'The bitch of time'?"

I blink at that, then scratch my head. "I didn't write that poem," I tell her shaking my head.

She makes a confused, alarmed squeaking noise at that, looking at me in a combination of disbelief and horror. " said you had finished your eighth book!" she protests, eyes wide.

"Finished," I agree. "Not published."

She works her jaw for a moment, her eyes filling with unshed tears before she stares at the floor, sniffling. "I did it again," she whimpers.

I suppose ... she hasn't changed that much after all.

No ... the idea of resenting her, when she gets caught up in situations like this without even knowing what's going on herself... There would be no point to being bitter or angry with her.

I heave a long sigh and shake my head. "I don't think I've ever sworn in a poem before ... but after today, I think I can see where it might come from," I muse.

She cringes, and I realize she thinks that I decided to write something horrible about her because of this encounter. Before she can speak, possibly saying something else she shouldn't, I quickly add, "Thinking about things, and the situation I was in ... the real bitch is time itself, not you. If there was something to be upset about ... it's that you'd think so poorly of me as to believe that I'd really do such a thing - write that about you.

"Though, I suppose in order to prevent a paradox, I must write such a poem now."

I rise from my seat and find myself placing one comforting hand on the woman's shoulder... She really does look younger than me.

"Oh, oh," she sobs, flinching away from my touch. "I... Oh, I've made such a mistake!" She bursts into tears. "I d...didn't... I w...wouldn't have..."

"Asahina-san, calm down," I try, as encouraging and comforting as I can. "I don't understand everything ... but you're here now, right?"

"I... I have to go!" she blurts out suddenly, shooting to her feet. She's shorter than me...

She hugs me tightly, pressing her face into my shirt.

"I'm sorry," she sobs, "I had thought- Oh, Kyon-kun... Take care, won't you? I want you to be happy, and so-"

And that's it, then, because that's when everything goes black again.

I come to my senses for the third time, finding myself laying on the sidewalk where I had encountered Asahina-san first that ... day? Is it the same day?

I don't know ... but I can find out.

Running home, I storm up the stairs and throw open the door, winded and out of breath. Nagato looks up from the table, blinking at me in consternation. The calendar tells me that I haven't lost any time at all...

Kintaro is with his mother, tonight, so it's just the two of us. Settling down, I kick my shoes off and close the door before sinking heavily to sit at the table near Nagato.

"You are troubled," she judges, a faint frown touching the edges of her lips.

"I..." Where to begin? Sighing, I shake my head. "I ran into Asahina-san..."

Nagato's lips compress into a flat line, and her eyes harden, flicking across me as though searching for visible signs of damage. Strange.

"She ... sent me back to Haruhi's island party."

Nagato blinks several times at that, her tension relaxing very slightly. "I see," she answers after a moment, studying me in a new light.

She rises from her place at the table and moves to my side, sitting next to me and leaning against me heavily, one arm going around my back.

"You are the father," she determines.

I nod wordlessly.

"Congratulations," she decides, her arm squeezing me slightly tighter.

I wonder what she's going through - what she's thinking... I put an arm around her and gently hug her back.

In a way ... after encountering a Haruhi I couldn't tell the truth to, and then both versions of Asahina-san... After that, Nagato's embrace, her familiarity...

We're family, I suppose. I can trust her with my secrets.

"I wish I could tell Haruhi," I sigh.

She purses her lips at that, not saying anything.

Or ... could it be...

It might be one of many things I would endure for the sake of Haruhi - and our child.

With Tsuruya at my back, and Nagato at my side...

"Nagato, you're too good to me," I decide. "If there's anything I can do for you, well..." As if I hadn't said such things countless times over our years together.

She nods slightly, then says, "Thank you."

Some days later, when I've finished sorting things out - and started on that irritating poem Asahina-san inadvertently obliged me to write - I find the opportunity to chat with Haruhi during my lunch break.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that she creates the opportunity by bringing me lunch. I'm about halfway done with the daily raking of loose cherry petals when she comes out to meet me in the yard with a blanket and a multi-compartment bento. "Hey!" she calls, giving me a bright smile. "Have lunch with me!"

I gladly set the rake aside and help her lay out the blanket. Shortly we're both seated, and she busies herself setting out the meal and serving tea.

"Thank you," I say, offering her a smile of my own. "What brings this all on?"

"Hey, it seems to me that if you're doing something for me, I should do something for you, too, right?"

"Well, thank you, Haruhi, but you've done a lot for me, too," I reply.

She gives me a slightly confused glance, handing over a teacup. "You've got a funny look on your face. So, what's bothering you?"

"Hmm... Haruhi, you asked me a question, and I'd been avoiding answering it..."

She blinks, then settles back onto her heels as she watches me warily, her smile shifting to faint worry.

"I'll be completely honest, since I don't know any other way to do this," I decide, shaking my head and turning to look at the carpet of cherry petals. "I want to help you, more than anything ... but I'm afraid of the idea of you leaving." I laugh weakly at that. "Look at me ... I ran away from you, and now I'm scared to let you go..."

"K...Kyon," Haruhi says softly.

I turn to look at her, and she looks conflicted, uncertain... She's blushing, and happy, behind that, but confused, too. "Um," she says, shaking her head, staring into her teacup. "I..." She pauses, swallowing nervously. "So ... what, then? You think ... I should stay?"

"...yeah. And being honest ... not just for the baby." I shrug. "It's selfish, I know ... and stupid, probably, but then, what else have I ever been? I don't think you should stop pursuing your dream; I know that's important to you. But at the same time ... you're able to do so much that I have a hard time seeing you unable to do all that and still find time to be there for your child.

"And speaking of our impending chibi-Haruhi, I actually like the idea of being part of its life ... but why not leave the most important to you?"

She shifts her shoulders and shrinks into herself somewhat, her hands reflexively going to her more pronounced midsection. "Um," she manages, trembling. "S...stupid Kyon ... what are you trying to say?"

I swallow at that, and hang my head. "I want to say I'll help raise your child," I admit. "I think it's a great chance, but ... I want you to be there too, if you can be. For both myself and the baby. I suppose I'm just too selfish..."

She winces, turning away. "I don't... I don't know," she mumbles, bowing her head. "I... I've been thinking... Ah, about second chances, and the bonsai... Um, if you think about it - we're like branches on a tree, right?"

"Sure," I allow, not quite certain where she's going with this yet. Still, gardening and plant analogies are something of an area of expertise at this point, so it takes almost no time at all to put myself in that mindset.

"If... If one of those branches is weaker," she starts, shivering, reminding me of that conversation in the gardening shed, with the bonsai.

"No!" I yelp, horrified by the connection. "That's- Haruhi, I'm not even going to let you finish that!" I protest, moving around the bento between us and taking her hands. She starts, eyes widening as she looks up at me, strangely small and vulnerable now, but unresisting. "You're not a branch on a tree - you're a real person.

"Bonsai are- Bonsai are groomed show pieces! They're raised in specific, confining situations to-

"No, look, if you really want to carry that analogy, then you're not a branch."

"W...well," she stutters, eyes flicking away, her face reddening. "So ... you're like a trunk that supports a lot of branches, aren't you? If I'm not a branch, what am I?"

"The taproot," I declare confidently. "The most critical part of the support structure, and the part that brings new energy into the plant. Oh, sure, the leaves are important, too, but seeds sprout taproots before those are ever unfurled. How can you expect your child to go on if you try and remove yourself from their life? What..."

I trail off there, and take a breath, gently squeezing Haruhi's hands. I force myself to say what I really mean, and for this, my smile is not at all forced. "How can you expect me to go on without you, like that? Without my taproot ... this trunk is going to wither and fall over ... and how can I support any branches like that?"

"I... I'm not," she tries to protest, shaking her head, but unable to deny an embarrassed, flattered smile. "Um..." She gives a firmer shake of her head and looks into my eyes, saying, "I wish I could believe that, but-"

"I'll prove it to you," I decide, realizing that it's true. "I... Okay. Haruhi, I'll be honest - there have been things I haven't been able to tell you before, and it bothers me to keep these things hidden from you."

She blinks at that, her blush fading as she gives me a more discerning look - though she doesn't try and pull her hands back. "So ... you do know what happened to Tsuruya's husband?" she surmises.

Oh, but that's only the surface, Haruhi. Still ... even though I know I want to tell her - even though I will tell her... It comes to me then that there's a perfect way to explain things to her - and to give me a reason to backpedal and delay my explanations until I can make them reasonable.

"I'll write you a book that explains everything," I promise her. "I swear - once our baby is born-" I start, before cutting myself off, realizing my slip. That ... was careless of me.

"You..." She shifts her shoulders, face reddening as she looks away again. "'Our baby,' you say..." she manages, her cross tone of voice ruined by her delighted grin. She realizes this after she finishes speaking, so pouts, her eyes shimmering. "So... You ... really want do your best for us?" she asks with a scared, hopeful smile, her eyes drifting lower, to the growing life beneath her hands. "I... Well, you take care of other people well enough, so I suppose if anyone can handle it, it'll be you...

"Okay... Okay! Yes, that's - I don't know what amazing secrets you have, but I'll find out," she warns, still smiling.

And then, something else I should have planned, but it comes to me anyway. "You thought of us branches on a tree, Haruhi? How about this, then:"

"Growing together,
"spreading from a lone root;
"branches on a tree."

Her eyes meet mine and hold my gaze intensely. "Yeah," she agrees. "That's ... I get it, Kyon. That's smart of you, not to push until then... I might not say 'yes' before-" She cuts herself off, biting her tongue at that as she looks away and blushes furiously.

There's still a miscommunication there, but I'll let it be for now. Because now ... I will come clean. I will find the right words to tell her the truth of everything.

"There's no reason to rush growth," I agree, nodding at her, almost afraid to hope I correctly understand the implications of her own slip.

Then lunch is forgotten as she awkwardly scrambles off her knees to tumbles into me, seizing hold with all of her strength. It's quiet then, as I put my arms around her, and a soft breeze comes through the trees. For a long while, she says nothing, just clinging to me.

Sitting at the side of Haruhi's hospital bed, I cradle our still-unnamed daughter in my arms. Her eyes are lidded and drowsy, but she smiles up at me anyway.

For all she's just gone through, the new mother is intent on the book in her hands. It's small, and there's only one copy of it. I wrote it, Nagato edited it, and Tsuruya promised me that no one else would ever read a word of the manuscript once it was complete.

I try my hardest not to worry about her reaction, just focusing on the baby. It's not a very long book, but I admit, I couldn't help but think about the way her tired smile faded to a flat line when she saw the name of the author.

Which was not my name ... but was a name I had given to Haruhi once before.

The sound of another page sliding across the book reaches my ears, and I smile back at the little girl. Haruhi closes the thing with a heavy sigh, and I cautiously look up. Her gaze is on the window, distant and unreadable.

The baby gurgles softly, a sound I identified from Kintaro's younger days. Before she can escalate it into a full wail, I rise to my feet, careful not to jostle her, and softly say, "She's hungry."

Haruhi blinks, her eyes turning to me, attention returning to the moment as she sets the book down and reaches towards us.

I gently hand the infant over, and before she can cry- Well, I turn away to give them a bit of privacy, moving to stand by the window. From the foot of Haruhi's bed I gaze outside at the clouds, trying not to think about so many things. I've been in this room, in this hospital, before...

"This is ... kind of a lot to take in," Haruhi murmurs. "It's... I believe you. I really do, though..."

I hesitantly glance at her, but quickly look away when I get an unintentional eyeful, my face red. Haruhi, naturally, snorts at my reaction. "Alright- I really have to know, though- You're sure there's nothing going on with you and Yuki? After she did that for you?"

"Well ... you weren't there," I say, somewhat feebly. "And ... that wasn't the Nagato that's like a sister to me."

"Ah," Haruhi manages, a little off guard by that reply. "Well... Why the hell didn't you marry Tsuruya!"

I turn to stare at her in surprise - and then quickly away again. Really, more than 'Nagato was once an alien,' or 'Koizumi was an esper,' or 'Asahina-san helped me travel back in time to be the father of our child,' she focuses on that?

Then again, really, maybe her priorities are in better order than mine.

"It would have looked terrible to her family," I say, shaking my head sharply. "Plus ... considering that Kintaro is ... officially the heir to two family lines..." I leave the rest unsaid on that count.

"I don't particularly like that, but okay," Haruhi allows dubiously. I catch her nodding out of the corner of my eyes and studiously look away again as she allows a quick hiss of breath. "Careful! Not so hard..."

I hear the rustle of cloth as she shifts around, and an irritated, discontented gurgle from the baby before Haruhi chuckles softly. "There ... better? Hmm... Well, this is ... a lot to handle, Kyon. Honestly ... I'm not really sure what to say yet..."

Bracing myself, I turn to look at her, managing a smile. "If you'll understand that I really, never want to keep a secret from you like that again..." And then, aside from the book, I reach into my pocket, fumbling for the thing that Nagato helped me design, and Tsuruya helped me find a craftsman to make, inscribed with that poem from a picnic, not terribly long ago. "You could say yes?" I suggest, stepping to her side and offering it out.

"Okay," she says, giving me that radiant smile again. "But keep it for now; my fingers are way too swollen."

I can't help but chuckle at that reminder, my eyes narrowing in mirth as a knock warns of an incoming attendant. I ignore it, just watching the baby as Haruhi gently pulls her away and then closes her gown.

"Hello," a cheerful voice calls quietly, giving us a minute to react before she moves around the privacy barrier. A blue-haired nurse steps into the room holding a clipboard; something about that nurse seems familiar, but I really can't bring myself to focus on her. "Sorry for the interruption, Suzumiya-san. Is this a good time?"

"Eh, if it's important," Haruhi allows calmly. "But, hey, I am having an important discussion with the father of my child, here!"

"Oh, if it's a bother - you have plenty of time, I can always come back later," the nurse says apologetically, drawing slightly away. "We wanted to know the name of the father, so that answers one question. Then, for now I'll just ask if you've chosen a name for your sweet little girl?"

"N...yes, actually," Haruhi decides, grinning, shooting me a smirk. "I think I dreamed up the perfect little girl a while back, didn't I? She had a wonderful name, and so - Yasumi!"

"Oh, that is wonderful," the nurse agrees, once Haruhi writes the kanji she's picked out on the clipboard and hands it back. "Now, sorry for interrupting you; we just want to make sure you're well."

"I'm starting to think we will be," Haruhi answers, as both of us turn to look at Yasumi, who seems to belatedly giggle in approval of her name, making a contented sound as her eyes drift shut.