Ephemeral

A Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu fanfiction by Durandall and Sarsparilla

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.


It had started out like any other day.

Sasaki had chosen her beige suit in anticipation of the searing hot afternoon temperatures predicted by the weather forecast — a modest comfort not afforded to the majority of white-collar samurai sharing the early morning commuter train with her. She stood impassively in her favorite corner, leaning against the back wall of the passenger car in apparent contemplation of the suburban scenery rushing past the window to the monotonous clatter of the train.

If anyone had been using the same line often enough to pay attention to her propensity to choose the particular spot they might have mistaken the habit for a precaution against chikan, and she was content to leave it at that; though, she couldn't help feeling mildly annoyed by the fact that groping in public transport was common enough a phenomenon to have a specific word reserved just for it.

While securing her bodily integrity from potential molesters was certainly an ancillary benefit, it also drew attention away from the fact that, from this vantage point, she could entertain herself by discreetly observing other passengers.

Sasaki started with a man in his late twenties, standing in the middle of the corridor like the owner of the place. Jaw jutting out, he was practically radiating self-confidence while casually eyeing other passengers, as if looking for a challenger for his status. She dodged eye contact while analyzing the case. Upwardly mobile based on the attire and demeanor. Very competitive, a typical alpha. Which device could be used to sell him an idea? Posed as an implicit challenge, perhaps competitive sports with a strong emphasis on personality? Golf? Motorsports?

She stole a second glance to affirm the assessment and noticed his wristwatch. Definitely motorsports.

Then, there was a middle-aged man on a side seat. Nervous and preoccupied by his thoughts, based on the twitchy manner of constantly readjusting his eyeglasses. Sitting with a slight hunch: reserved, tired, beaten — a common enough combination for Sasaki to know instinctively what would work. First, something unexpected to startle and grab attention, humorous rather than threatening, then an upbeat message promising success and inclusivity while the recipient is still chuckling at the initial joke. Easy enough.

Next to the man, an adolescent with headphones, lazily browsing a shounen manga magazine.

Too easy.

Reading other people had always felt natural to her. The awareness that most people could not do the same — and might even find the concept uncomfortable — was what made her daily pastime a bit of a guilty indulgence. Certainly, early on her husband had been delighted by her ability to anticipate his wishes; it was not until much later when….

That was not a line of thought she was particularly interested in following on such a fine morning, but since the mood had already managed to get its foot in the door she reluctantly gave up and turned her attention to the day ahead. She had already reviewed the results that would be presented during the morning meeting, and she was confident enough to stand by her conclusions, but Tanaka was an uncertain factor in the equation. There was nothing obviously wrong with the numbers he had provided, but she could not escape the suspicion that he was withholding some information from her.

There was a distant possibility that it could be a personal issue. To her mild consternation, Tanaka had made thinly veiled advances to her at the official new year's party, after her status had become common knowledge in the company, but he had done it in a sufficiently circumspect manner to save face when she had declined the offer. Tanaka was not a stupid man and had not broached the subject ever since, but there had been a subtle change in his attitude, as if he had initially thought of doing it as a favor. Well, he was two years her junior.

In any case, Sasaki was not interested in favors, especially of that kind. Especially now.

Or perhaps she was reading too much into that single incident, and it was just a matter of usual workplace politics. There had been rumors of boss Matsumoto making preparations for retirement, and since his son was the head of Sasaki's department, career advancement opportunities might open soon for those of hard-working persuasion … or cunning, as it might be. Sasaki liked her job to the extent of knowing that she was good at it; the thought that somebody might intentionally sabotage the common effort for personal gain, and the very real possibility that the company could actually end up rewarding such behavior, felt like a travesty.

She was not personally that interested in a managerial position, just averse to the idea of Tanaka gaining it through less than wholesome means. However, there didn't seem to be anything she could do about it since voicing her suspicions without tangible proof of obstruction was out of question. She would be on shaky ground even if she managed to produce irrefutable evidence, as the necessary measures for achieving that might be interpreted as acting in bad faith to incite internal conflict.

Oh well, too bad.

She sighed under her breath and this time actually turned her attention to the scene outside the window. The train was slowing down as it approached Kitaguchi station, and the traffic information on the display updated. She would have six minutes to catch the next southbound train on the perpendicular line — more than enough for a short walk between the platforms.

The train arrived at the platform and stopped with a minor jolt. Several passengers were leaving at this station, so she had to wait for a moment before getting out. The outside air felt refreshing both in a figurative and literal sense, and she joined the stream of people heading to the proper direction.

The other — and somewhat less pleasant — side of Sasaki's inclination for analytical observations manifested itself in situations like this when there were too many people to be considered as individuals. She let her mind unfocus a bit until reaching what she liked to think of as a mental phase transition; the scenery around her ceased to exist as a collection of people and became an organ of The Society, pumping its precious lifeblood forward with an almost mathematical exactitude. On this level the properties of individual agents were rather insignificant as long as they averaged out in the end, making it possible to capture the behavior of the whole into simple equations. She knew this to be true to a disconcerting degree — after all, she had written some of those equations herself.

It was an ethical dilemma — even if she only used the knowledge to state how things were, nothing prevented the clients from applying the leverage for pushing things into a direction they wanted them to go. Hume had not provided an opinion on how culpable she would be if something bad came out of that. But on an even more fundamental level, she found the approach deeply unsatisfying. It was almost as if an individual did not matter at all, being too insignificant to cause a noticeable deviation, and too easily replaced by another random specimen of the same class. Quite emphatically, she did not want it to be true; it was really too bad, then, that her job depended on it.

Sasaki was still contemplating the apparent downfall of existentialism when she became aware of a discrepancy in the model, pulling her back to the physical reality of the transition hall. She looked around to find the cause of the anomaly and caught a glimpse of a person standing in the middle of the hall, reading traffic information from the large display on the wall. A person she had not seen in a long time….

She managed to go through a number of possible opening lines in the short span of time it took to cover the remaining distance until she stood face to face with the person who had now also seen her. She noticed the details almost unconsciously. A taupe gray blazer, striped shirt, no tie. Blue trousers. An urban backpack. He was slightly taller than she remembered. Not just taller, but more … robust. A man. And still, the change was so subtle that Sasaki suddenly had an uncanny feeling as if she had just stepped into a time capsule.

She decided to go for the obvious option.

"Hi, Kyon!"

What was the expression on his face? Surprise? Delight? Certainly those, but also something beyond that.

"Sasaki?"

A remark was made in Sasaki's mind, pointing out that statistically speaking the statement only had a 45% chance of being true; she immediately ignored that line of thought. Not only was it true at the moment, but it also felt right, a subtle reminder of less complicated times. She knew that the smile she had as they both stepped to the side to give way to other passengers felt more genuine than the practiced one she had to wear daily at work.

"In this situation, people are expected to reply that they haven't seen each other for ages, but it would actually be rather silly to do so, since we both know that already. When was the last time, the third year of high school?" she asked, despite knowing the answer.

He seemed to give the question a serious consideration. "If I remember correctly, it was a day after the graduation ceremony. Right … it has been a long time."

"This is also how I remember it. Back then, you were aiming for Toudai. Did you return to Nishinomiya after university, or are you here just on a visit?"

"I live here in Kotoen, at least most of the time. How about you?"

"I have an apartment in Ashiya, but my workplace is here. Now I'm feeling guilty for not staying in contact after the high school. To think that we may have been passing each other daily without noticing…."

"Regrettably, this failure has been mutual. My apologies."

Kyon scratched the back of his head while apologizing, and this gesture made Sasaki realize that the reply was not just a pleasantry — the issue really bothered him.

Right then the display behind Kyon flashed, reminding Sasaki that she would have to cut this chance meeting short if she wanted to get to work in time.

"I am terribly sorry, but my train leaves in a minute. Please call me later!"

Sasaki's official business card holder was too large to fit comfortably in her purse, but she always carried a couple of cards in a smaller case for unexpected situations like this. She picked a card from the stack and, after checking quickly that it was indeed one of her own, offered it with a practiced bow. The sudden formality seemed to amuse Kyon, but then he went along and accepted the card with a bow of his own. Sasaki apologized once again before hurrying away.

Just before heading down to the platform she turned around momentarily to smile and wave. He was still standing at the same spot and responded to her gesture. It was not until then that she finally figured out the inscrutable component in his expression. If her intuition was still working properly, the relevant word would have to be … bewilderment? That did not seem to make sense, and as she stepped into the train she had to suppress an urge to check whether there was something wrong with her hair.


After the unexpected encounter, he found himself studying the business card on the remainder of his trip. He knew the formula for exchange; even if he didn't have his own cards, he still had a case for those he accepted. But there was no reason to scribble any notes or reminders to himself on the back of her card; she was one of those precious few people he'd never forget, under any circumstance.

If he were younger and more excitable, he would have called her almost immediately — continued the conversation that hadn't even properly started on cell-phone. Certainly, that sort of thing was looked down on in the crowded commuter trains, but if it were important enough….

He resisted that temptation, despite his long-ago thoughts that he would never see her again, and instead merely studied the card. The number was already programmed into his phone, making the physical artifact almost entirely pointless.

Almost.

Instead of obsessing over it, he saved it carefully with other business cards he'd been presented with in the past and focused on his current mission.

If it could even be called that … it was playful, in some senses, or grandiose in others — giving the self-assigned task more gravity and weight than it probably deserved. On the other hand, it was how he made his living, so the situation did deserve to be taken at least that seriously.

His phone held his other notes, so he pored over them from transfer-to-transfer, until reaching the small village of Ohara. A tourist trap if he'd ever seen one, and far enough away he might have been better served driving instead of relying on public transit.

Driving wasn't exactly an option anyway, seeing as his car was in the shop getting the timing belt replaced. It shouldn't have worn out quite as quickly as it had, but stranger things had happened, hadn't they?

In any case, if he hadn't been in Kitaguchi, he wouldn't have had the chance encounter he had — and then where would he be?

So there wasn't any sense in complaining about it.

At least the temple of Jakko-in itself felt authentic.

From the bus stop it was a short hike up the stairs to where his 'client' awaited, though he'd been subjected to — and indeed, subjected himself to — worse. The priest was wearing the traditional tsuseno headpiece, and robes marked with large colored spots. He had to judge the priest's garb as a reassuring sign; typically those who were seeking attention or participating in a hoax had the more formal attire.

Without introducing himself, since he himself was wearing fairly casual clothing, he nodded his head to the fretting priest and moved quietly to the offering box. A donation bought him a few moments to study the area discretely, while contemplating. He'd seen more than enough shrines in his time, so it wasn't difficult to judge — to pick out the small signs that indicated the priest took care of it himself over mere observances to tradition and the cultural heritage.

The grounds-keeping wasn't immaculate, though he wouldn't have judged it bad. That suggested the priest actually did it himself, which was a promising sign. The shrine in general didn't look poor, so it wasn't probably a desperate attempt at generating income, either. The most obvious explanation that it might be a hoax would be the priest's rank of gonsekai; if he were looking for some 'event' that would elevate his status and help bypass the seikai rank exams….

Enough of that; he didn't want to be judgemental, even if he had done this — or something very like it — many, many times before.

Turning to look at the priest, who stood near the torii leading into the shrine's courtyard garden warily, he introduced himself, concluding as he did from long habit — something else ingrained into him from those long-ago high school and college years — "…but you can call me Kyon. Most people do, anyway."

The priest nodded anxiously, and without even trying to probe, Kyon searched his face for a reaction. Mild tension about his eyes released; he heaved a sigh and offered an uneasy smile. He was either a very good actor, or actually believed he was relating the truth.

"You're the … paranormal investigator?" the priest asked anxiously.

"While I can think of someone who would be delighted to call me that, I'm just a journalist," Kyon demurred. "But I do happen to investigate paranormal events for the subject of my articles."

Smiling softly, betraying a hint of uncomfortable nervousness, the priest asked, "But, you've got experience with this sort of thing?"

Like he wouldn't believe, in point of fact, but instead of saying anything along those lines Kyon just nodded. Clearing his throat briefly, he posed, "Well — let's go over the history, first. There was a fire here, years ago, wasn't there?"

"Yes, but the restoration finished long ago, as well," the priest countered, shaking his head.

"So I see," Kyon agreed appreciatively, looking across the grounds again. Going over his notes mentally, he summarized what he'd already known from the cursory internet searches he'd made.

"Let me offer you something to drink. We can continue this discussion in the teahouse, so you can at least sit down," the priest insisted.

Kyon nodded in response, thinking it would be nice to set down his bag. "Thank you," he said politely, bowing before falling into step behind the priest.

The temple had been established centuries ago, and its claims to fame were the two and a half meter tall wooden statue of Jizo-Bosatsu, and the tomb of the historical empress Taira no Tokuko, also called Kenrei-mon In. When the Taira family was nearly wiped out by the Minamoto clan, she had been one of the few survivors, and ultimately become a Buddhist nun in that very same shrine.

Or not exactly the same shrine, considering the fire — but that wasn't really the point of the investigation. He had time to think about it while the priest fussed over making fresh tea. As he returned, bearing a pair of steaming cups, Kyon rummaged for a pad of paper from his bag and prompted, "And now … once you're comfortable, can you tell me what happened?"

Nodding, the priest's jaw shifted slightly, setting in determination. He was steeling himself to deliver the story, something he expected would not be believed. And that was something Kyon was more than familiar with, as well.

The priest haltingly started his explanation, while Kyon jotted down the observations — and here and there a direct quote for later use. It wasn't terribly dissimilar from other stories that Kyon had heard before, in reality. Of course, it was hard to label such a thing 'typical'. As always seemed to be the case, there was no proof, just the visions that the priest recalled. His story was simply that the Taira matriarch had somehow revived in spectral form and wept before the statue of Jizo-Bosatsu.

When he was finally done, the priest asked, "So … what do you think?"

Really, he thought it was strange that he was considered an authority on the subject, and that priests turned to him for his advice. He could think of one person would would be pleased about that, though.

"Well," Kyon said at length, tapping his chin and considering things. "The empress had lost her family before retreating to the temple. It does make sense that she would have a connection to the statue of Jizo-Bosatsu, given his role as a guardian of children."

Did that really 'prove' anything, though? As always, he had to admit to himself that it didn't, really. He didn't have the option of just giving such a weak answer and dodging the question, however.

The priest pressed, "But you've interviewed many people with similar stories. What do you think?"

"I think we can see and be touched by things we can't prove to others," Kyon finally answered, closing his notepad and putting his pen away.

"I see…" the priest answered thoughtfully.

Shaking his head to dismiss a distracting thought, Kyon bowed. "Thank you for your time; this has been an interesting interview."

"Thank you for listening," the priest returned humbly. "I wasn't certain who to take such a tale to."

"I think you can share it with the Jinja Honcho," Kyon suggested after a moment. The Association of Shinto Shrines would listen, certainly. "I don't know what they would make of it, but there's no reason to tell one journalist and stop there."

"Perhaps I shall," the priest returned, smiling thoughtfully.

After relating similar stories he'd heard at other shrines, while he was careful not to offer too much of his own opinions, Kyon excused himself for the long journey back. It had taken long enough to get to the village; he wouldn't reach his own home to begin writing until late that evening.

It was only after a bus had dropped him off at a train station and he was left with a ten minute wait that he returned his attention to the business card he'd received only that morning. It did list a cell phone number, not just an office phone. It was even the cell phone number he'd already programmed into his own — but that wasn't the question. It was more … at this hour, would it be too late?

Was Sasaki the type to fraternize with her co-workers and go out drinking, as commonly seemed to be expected of someone in her position? Would she excuse herself and avoid it? Or perhaps her office was different and didn't do such things?

Then again, it was also possible that she was still working.

Shrugging, he thought about what other longtime friends of his might have done, and mustered the courage to call anyway. If it was a bad time, he could leave a message for her, and she could call back when it was more convenient to her.

After the third ring, he resigned himself to the message, trying to formulate it in advance so it wouldn't sound clumsy and halting— And she answered.

"Hello," she said politely. "This is Sasaki — to whom am I speaking?"

He belatedly realized she wouldn't be able to recognize his number yet, so chuckled and said, "Well, hello, old friend. Is this a bad time to speak?"

"Ah, Kyon," she replied softly, sounding suprised, but not unhappy. "Well, I am afraid I do not have very much time at the moment, but I can spare a few minutes. I did ask you to call me later, after all."

"In that case, shall we try and arrange something more convenient?" he asked. "Perhaps we could meet for lunch some day?"

"Certainly," she agreed. "Your schedule isn't too busy?"

He suspected that was more a comment on her own free time, but perhaps it was actually a probe into his own schedule. "It usually isn't," he admitted. If there were any people he didn't see a reason to bother hiding things from, she would be quite near the top of that list.

"In that case, are you free … three days from now?" she asked, pausing as though checking her own calendar.

"That should be fine—" He frowned as he heard the train tracks begin to hum. At this remote station there were only a pair of other passengers waiting to board. "Ah, my train is arriving. Can you send me an e-mail saying where you would like to meet, and when?"

"That means I get to choose — but I look forward to speaking with you again," she replied warmly. "Take care, Kyon."

"And you as well, Sasaki," he returned, before they both disconnected, as the approaching train's brakes began to sound.


The commercial district surrounding Imazu station had relatively little pedestrian traffic at lunch time. Sasaki was fairly certain that she could get to the meeting point in time, as it was just a short walk away from her workplace; however, she couldn't help feeling unusually self-conscious as she approached her destination.

She had hesitated for a while before choosing the wisteria skirt suit that she was sparing for special occasions. By doing so she was certainly forfeiting her ability to blend inconspicuously in the crowd; instead of being able to discreetly observe other people, she could sense how she was now the target of many an aside glance. While the attention she was drawing was not disapproving by any measure, she would rather have done without.

She reminded herself that this was a special occasion. The unexpected meeting a couple of days ago had acted as a reminder of a different world that was at apparent odds with her own; of events that in retrospect felt like a fever dream.

In the past she had occasionally tried to convince herself that it would be better to forget certain things altogether, but the lingering awareness of a fundamental fallacy in the rational, mechanistic world view refused to go away. If it was the truth, the only prudent course of action was to accept it regardless of how nonsensical it appeared at the first glance.

But if she was to be honest with herself, there was more to her anticipation of this meeting than just the philosophical aspect. Sasaki knew precious few people with whom she could speak her mind without reservations, and Kyon's name had been on top of that short list for a very long time. Concerning the extraordinary, then … since she had lost contact with Tachibana the only remaining person on that list was him.

That had to be the reason for why she was feeling so cheerful today, wasn't it?

She arrived at the square in front of the station and saw that Kyon was already there waiting for her, raising his hand in greeting as soon as he noticed her.

"I am sorry for not arriving earlier," she excused, after greeting in response. "I hope that this did not cause too much inconvenience to you."

This was just a standard courtesy, as she could see from his expression that he was anything but bothered in the situation.

"You were punctual, so there's no need to apologize — and this is about as far removed from inconvenience as I can imagine," he replied. "I assume that the restaurant is nearby?"

"You are right, it is only one block away. Regrettably, this area doesn't have as many options as Shugukawa, but I couldn't arrange a long enough break for going all the way there and back … so I am glad that your schedule was flexible enough to accommodate this."

Kyon shrugged as they headed in the direction she had indicated. "There wasn't any schedule worth mentioning. This is only the second fixed item in my calendar for this week, after the one I was working on the day we met the last time.

"That's also why I arrived early," he continued, while they walked down the street. "I didn't have anything that absolutely needed to be done until tomorrow, so I decided to take a look around this side of the city. I remember when this was mostly a residential area, with some industrial facilities closer to the seafront, but in the last ten years those seem to have given way to offices and shops, to the extent that I can hardly recognize the place."

Sasaki reflected on the statement and found it to be true; certainly, her own company was one of the newcomers.

"It is not that different from succession in an ecological system, is it?" she eventually said out loud. "The same laws of survival and expediency govern the collective actions of people, complex group behavior emerging from the seemingly simple choices of individual agents. People can accept personal responsibility for their actions to the extent those affect their immediate surroundings; however, the relation between that and collective responsibility is tenuous at best.

"This only suggests that the society can be treated as a living organism, and like all such entities it must reaffirm its existence by constantly recreating itself through the dissociative and constructive processes of metabolism."

The comment drew out a chuckle from Kyon, and noticing Sasaki's curious glance he explained, "There wasn't anything funny in what you said. It was just that — well, I couldn't think of anyone else who would make a comment like that, but coming from you it sounds completely natural — trivial, even."

He smiled reassuringly. "I'm just glad to see that as much as things change, some of them always stay the same."

Sasaki was not sure how to respond to this, but she knew that Kyon had managed to point out a reason for the buoyancy she was feeling at the moment. He might have a slightly more outspoken, decisive air on him, but he was still very much the same Kyon she had known. Despite all the intervening years, he had still called her a friend.

And it was an acceptable break from the principle of equality for friends to set some time aside to be shared between them, even at the exclusion of others, wasn't it? For personal needs to temporarily supercede those of the community. After all … personal did not have to mean the same as insignificant.

Those thoughts got sidelined when they reached the intended destination, a small and outwardly inconspicuous restaurant on the ground level of a multi-storey building.

"This is a traditional place?" Kyon asked, taking a look around after they had stepped in and were courteously shown to a table. The two-person booth they were given was separated from those on either side of it by simple screens of white paper in a wooden frame, of the same tone as the table, providing a semblance of privacy. Other than a piece of calligraphy on the wall, interior furnishing followed a starkly minimalist style.

"I hope that you find Kyoto-style kaiseki an acceptable option. I can attest to the quality of the seasonal dishes," Sasaki confided, leaning closer to keep the conversation private. Seeing his expression, she laughed and continued, "Of course I do not eat here daily. Never mind the price, I wouldn't possibly have enough time to spare for a full course. However, my colleagues and I sometimes bring our clients here for a dinner, if meetings last that long. Everyone agrees that this is the best place in the area."

"I've mostly had kaiseki while staying at a ryokan — that is, not very often," he said reflectively, "but I think that it is an entirely appropriate choice. After all, the original kanji used to write the word simply stood for a 'get-together meal', and I'm happy to share one with you today."

"I am relieved to hear that, as I had taken the liberty to make the order in advance," she admitted, as an elaborately arranged appetizer was brought in. "This way, we will have more time to talk about things while eating. So … itadakimasu."

There was a moment of polite silence as they gave an appropriate amount of attention to the assortment of colors and tastes of sakizuke.

"So, how have you been, old friend?" Kyon asked after a while. "From what I can see, you appear to be working just as diligently towards your goals as when we were at school."

"It can't be helped that we all behave in a way that is in harmony with our personal tendencies, can it? After all, that is exactly what makes us who we are," she said. "It is true that work takes a large part of my time right now, but that is a choice I made myself. I can only hope that the results will be worth the effort."

"Well — since I got your business card I took a glance at the web pages of your company, but that didn't really tell anything pertinent about your job. What is it that an analyst does in the context of PR consulting?"

"I could give a detailed answer, but it would require you to sit still and listen for two hours, without breaks, and I don't have my presentations with me, anyway," Sasaki said in a wry tone. Finishing the morsel she had picked from the plate, she continued, "Basically, it is my task to find out why people behave the way they do, and how they can be enticed into doing something specific."

"Sounds like psychology to me," he observed.

"It is that, too, but applied to the society as a whole. Mostly, it is just statistics. I must assume that you would find my day-to-day work incredibly boring compared to your own. While we both work in fields that could arguably be seen as facets of social anthropology, at least you get to travel around and actually meet the people you write about. In a sense, our jobs are polar opposites of each other, since I study the many for the benefit of a few, but you study the few for the benefit of everybody."

Kyon blinked. "Correct me if I'm wrong … but I don't remember telling anything about my own job — yet."

The openly sceptical expression on his face reminded Sasaki of times long gone, and she could not help feeling a little bit nostalgic.

"But of course, it must be a trick," she said, laughing. "The detective who can deduce astonishingly accurate facts from inconspicuous details is a well-known archetype, but in reality sufficiently specific details are almost never present. Or, a mentalist who seems to be reading minds is just delivering carefully crafted platitudes and relying on confirmation bias for the opponent to unwittingly fill in the facts.

She shook her head. "While it might be an interesting proposition to be able to do something like that, the reality is as mundane as my work. I know about your job because I have read several of your articles over the years. They are well researched and thoughtful, so finding a new one is always a delight. Besides the stories themselves, it makes me glad to see you doing something that you so evidently enjoy."

"Ah, you're too kind," Kyon managed, slightly taken aback by the direct praise. "After some studying most stories practically write themselves, so I'm just a middle-man of a sort. And — if you say that your work is mundane, then most of what I do could be described with the same word. Reading books, going to a library or museum to check a fact, having a meeting with the editor….

"But you're right, I'm doing it because it's enjoyable — at least when it doesn't rain on a field day," he added, with a smile.

"So, you were investigating a new lead on Monday when we met at the railway station?" Sasaki asked. "I assume that it was the other appointment that you mentioned."

"That's right, I was going to Ohara to have an interview concerning one potential case — although I don't know yet where and when I'll be using that material. Sometimes it feels like for each case that ends up in an article there are ten just using up space in the archive."

"Would you mind telling me about it? Somehow, a place like Ohara does not sound like the most likely destination for an investigation of paranormal phenomena."

"Most of them don't," Kyon countered, just as sashimi was brought to the table. "On the contrary, eyewitnesses' accounts tend to be more authentic when there isn't any apparent reason for the things they experienced. I'm sure that you're well aware of preconceived notions affecting people's interpretation of events, which is why there are so many ghost stories related to famous haunted locations like the Himeji Castle — each of those stories more suspect than the other. But, this one sounded reasonably genuine — if I'm anybody to judge these things."

As he started with the story, Sasaki noticed that she was paying more attention to how he talked about the events than to the described events themselves; there was something in his calm and measured tone of voice that made her wish that the story would be as long as one of his written articles, although that certainly could not be the case.

Now that she thought about it, hadn't one of the things that she had liked in the articles been that she could hear his voice behind the written words — sometimes laconic and factual, sometimes erudite and verging on the philosophical, but always mindful and sensible? So dependable that the reader couldn't help agreeing with his point of view. That was one of the traits that made him such a compelling writer. She always felt as if he was making a personal connection through the text, talking directly to the reader. To her.

And now he was here with her, doing exactly that. The experience was so far removed from her daily routines that it felt slightly unreal.

She wondered whether she should feel at least a little bit guilty for enjoying the moment so much, for appropriating his attention just for herself. Was it selfish? A sign of repressed emotional issues? She rejected the notion. She would have noticed if there had been any romantic undertones to the situation, and there weren't.

Just two old friends having a lunch together. There was nothing wrong with it.

"…and then, while waiting a train back to Nishinomiya I called you," Kyon finished his description.

"And … that is all there is to it?" Sasaki asked, cocking her head appraisingly to the side. "It feels somehow … incomplete."

"That'd be a rather befitting word for most cases that I encounter. We humans tend to seek closure in a story because it's a satisfying experience, like a refined dessert at the end of a good meal. It's something that every decent writer knows by instinct to include — but in the real world most stories hardly get as far as to the soup.

"Or, there might be a closure, but we'll never learn about it because it happens somewhere else, to someone else. That … is something we just have to accept the way it is."

His tone of voice was surprisingly solemn, making Sasaki think that the issue probably had some personal meaning to him. However, it would have been impolite to point that out in the middle of light conversation, so she decided to change the topic a little.

Remembering his supernatural friends and their club for searching the extraordinary, she was impressed by what they had managed to accomplish after high school. Wasn't it a bit like hiding in plain sight?

"So, how do you divide the work?" she asked casually.

As soon as she had said this she knew that she had made a mistake; she just didn't know yet how big it was.

"What do you mean?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I know that you do the research and the final writing part…," she said, hoping against all odds that she had simply misread the cues, and simultaneously chiding herself for making such an unwarranted assumption.

Kyon looked quizzically at her for a moment before spotting the unvoiced question.

"You're talking about Haruhi, aren't you? You can remember Haruhi?"

"How could I not remember her?" Sasaki asked, pushed off balance by the unexpected response.

He lowered his chopsticks and paused for a moment, as if trying to set his words carefully.

"Haruhi … is not with us any more."

Sasaki had to put her hand over her mouth to avoid making an audible gasp. Whatever she had expected, this wasn't it. There was an acute sense of pain, at the same time sympathy for him and regret for her own inadvertent broaching of the topic, and she could only manage a weak, "I am sorry…."

Seeing her reaction, he hastily continued, "Eh, it's not like that. I meant quite literally that she's not here, in this world. I'm certain that she's still somewhere — I just don't know where … or when."

"And … she won't be coming back?" Sasaki asked hesitantly, still perplexed but deriving a tiny bit of reassurance from Kyon's apparent calmness.

He reflected on the question for a moment before answering, "No, I don't think that she'll be coming back — at least in a form that we would recognize." His words had an air of finality in them; not one of grief but of conviction.

"It was inconsiderate of me to think — ah, I really ruined the mood, didn't I? I am genuinely sorry for this," she said, deeply dissatisfied with herself.

"Again, there isn't any need to apologize. You couldn't have known — and I made a false assumption as well. Actually, it was already the second in a row, so I'm at least as culpable as you."

He sighed and looked at the half-finished sashimi on the table.

"Oh well … I guess that it was something that was bound to come up sooner or later. I don't think that you ruined the mood as such, but there is a real danger of the meal getting ruined unless we keep eating. If you find it acceptable, I can try to explain myself at the same time. Please don't get me wrong, in a sense it's a relief for me to be able to talk about it — especially with you, of all people."

There was another moment of silence, one that Sasaki did not dare to break when she noticed that he was contemplating some inner vision, a memory from a different time.

"Well, 'explain' was probably too strong a word," he said after a while. "I can tell you what happened, but of the reasons behind it I have only a vague hunch. To a large extent it's still a mystery to me … and I think that just now it became even more mysterious.

"Now, where to start— You probably know already that I was indeed admitted to Toudai despite my initial reservations. My general achievement score was only barely good enough to qualify for the actual entrance exam, and even my parents thought that I'd have better chances with some other place, but Haruhi had decided that I'd pass the exams — and after she had set her mind on that goal the entire general examination committee couldn't have prevented her from getting her way.

"I think that I've never studied harder than at that time," he said, chuckling, "but in the end it was probably for the best, considering that I did indeed get into the most prestigious university in Japan — and quite probably by the smallest possible margin, too. Of course, she herself passed the exams with flying colors after all the tutoring she had given to me.

"So, we both went to Toudai … as did Nagato, as well, although she soon got so absorbed in her studies that we seldom saw each other during those years. Concerning the rest of us … I believe that Koizumi took up a job in family business after his graduation, or at least that's what he claimed when we had anniversary gatherings of the SOS Brigade.

"Then, Asahina-san had already graduated a year before the rest of us. She kept visiting us on occasion, but I suspect that she was doing that on borrowed time — there were small things like having wrong clothes for the season or being uncertain about the day of the week. I … kind of knew about her situation, but we never talked about it openly. Somehow, it felt easier that way.

"Although the Brigade was never officially disbanded, in the end it was mostly just Haruhi and me doing all the ordinary things that university students everywhere do — and it appeared to be good enough for both of us.

"I think that Haruhi calmed down a lot during those years, genuinely enjoying a life that was seemingly devoid of anything supernatural. It bothered me a bit that I knew things that she didn't, but whenever I tried to speak about it with her, she was extremely good at not hearing what I said. So … after a while I just let it be. It didn't feel that important any more — compared to all the other things that happened.

He paused for a moment, as a waiter discreetly switched the empty sashimi plates to bowls of nimono.

"Looks like zucchini is in season again," Kyon observed after raising the lid, gesturing her to start with the dish. "Now, where was I? By 'calming down' I don't mean that Haruhi would've lost either her seemingly endless energy or outlandish ideas. If anything, her enthusiasm for experiencing everything possible under the sun only grew as time went by.

"I … can't exactly say that I didn't enjoy being involved in it all. However, there was always a part of her that felt somehow distant. It's hard to put in words … a sudden pause in conversation, a faraway look in her eyes even if only for a fleeting moment … and when the spell was over she again behaved as if nothing had happened.

"It became more noticeable during the last semester before graduation. She might pause and tune out in the middle of other activities, as if listening to distant sounds that only she could hear. I was slightly worried, but when confronted about it she always claimed that she was as happy as it was possible to be, and other than those moments when she was somewhere far away her actions proved without doubt that she was telling the truth.

"Then, one day near the end of October she went missing during a break between morning lectures. I didn't initially pay much attention to that since diligent studying had never been her first priority, but when she wasn't present in the afternoon either I started to get worried.

"When I got back to the apartment after the classes I found her there, vigorously preparing a dinner that would've been fit for an emperor. Apparently, she had taken the day off to find all the required ingredients and to prepare them properly. When I tried to find out the reason for such a feast, she said that she just felt like doing it. I had learned that when it came to Haruhi, that was often the most detailed answer one was going to get, so I let it be.

"After we had eaten the dinner and washed the dishes she sat on the couch and said that she wanted to talk, and I didn't have anything against the idea. We spent the evening talking about all kinds of things, but most of all about the experiences we had shared, about family and friends … and eventually about the supernatural as well.

"While she didn't admit it directly, that night I got the impression that she knew about those things that we weren't supposed to tell her about — aliens, espers, time travelers, the whole lot. Quite possibly, she had known all along and just didn't want to acknowledge it for her own reasons.

"My memories about the latter parts of the conversation are a bit hazy. I think that I had lost my sense of time and was starting to feel really tired, when something that she said suddenly grabbed my attention. At first I didn't quite understand what she was trying to explain, and after I realized what her words meant I was too stunned to think straight.

"She was bidding me farewell."

He fell silent for a moment, absorbed in his thoughts. Sasaki could barely breathe while it lasted.

"Of course, I couldn't understand why it was happening," he continued. "First I thought that I might've done something wrong, but she furiously denied that was the case. She talked something about an obligation and her having promised to fulfill it … that we all had agreed to it. That everything happened for a reason.

"She thanked me for the time I had given her, and for the shared memories that she would cherish forever. She said that I would understand one day — that I just had to keep searching. Her final words were that she had faith in me, and then … she turned into light in my arms."

He paused to clear his throat. "I don't know if I can describe it properly. It didn't feel as much like her vanishing as it felt like I was myself fading from one reality to another where she wasn't present any more, and the light that I had seen was that of the rising sun, just breaching the horizon. Whatever it was, it didn't change the fact that she was gone."

Despite her best efforts to avoid getting agitated, a storm of conflicting feelings was raging in Sasaki's mind. She was at the same time profoundly startled by the story, so sorry for his loss that she could have cried, and then … something else that she couldn't quite grasp. There was something significant in what he had just told her — she just couldn't spot it at the moment. She hoped fervently that she could look just as calm and composed as he.

"You have my sympathies … if that means anything," she eventually managed, inhaling deeply in an attempt to calm down.

"Thank you — it certainly does," he said affably.

They barely noticed when the next dish, grilled mackerel, was brought in.

"Of course, I'd lie if I claimed that I wasn't upset back then," Kyon said after a moment of reflection. "It didn't seem to make any sense, and considering all the other things I had experienced….

"One of the first things that I found out was that Haruhi wasn't the only one who had disappeared. Nagato wasn't anywhere to be found either, and Koizumi's phone number wasn't in use any more. I didn't even know how to contact Asahina-san, but there was little reason to believe that she would've been an exception. Whatever plane of existence it was that called them back … they went there together."

Sasaki had a small epiphany. "I think that you might add Tachibana-san to that list. We used to write to each other even after high school, but at some point she stopped replying. Back then I didn't think so much about it, but I think that it coincided with the events that you described."

"Well, that would make sense — or at least as much sense as anything else," he said.

"Furthermore, all those people didn't just disappear — it was as if they had never been there in the first place. Haruhi and Nagato weren't on the student list any more, and as I kept asking around I realized that I was the only person who could remember them. Nothing had taken their place, either — there was just a conspicuous void in the official records and in the memories of people who had been in contact with them.

"It would've been easy to start thinking that I had lost my mind, but I guess that the craziness of my high school years kind of inoculated me against that. And … after a while I learned to cope with the new situation — since there wasn't anything else I could do.

"The only proof that I hadn't dreamed up everything I got shortly after graduation, when I found the old Brigade chief armband while sorting out my belongings. I think that it was also the moment when I finally accepted that Haruhi wouldn't be coming back. The armband was accompanied by a hand-written note by her, reminding me that it was now my responsibility to keep searching.

"And as you know already, that's what I've been doing."

"It may sound terribly trite for me to say this, but … I believe that she would heartily approve," Sasaki said respectfully, almost whispering.

"I'd like to think that way as well. We can only hope, right? Regardless of the amount of planning, life sometimes has its way of throwing you an unexpected curve ball."

He turned his attention to the dish for a moment, before continuing, "But, this bring us back to the current situation. I must regrettably admit that I thought that you might have disappeared as well, and never came around to actually checking that assumption. So, you can probably imagine my surprise when I saw you the other day."

"The surprise was something that I noticed, but I would never have guessed the reason behind it," she admitted. "In a way, that makes my inactivity look even worse, since I at least knew that you were still there."

"But you didn't know that I didn't know. Eh … if there are any more levels of recursion in this issue I'd better start making notes to not lose track.

"Anyway, that was something I could have handled better, and then I made another mistake by assuming that, like everybody else, you couldn't possibly remember the SOS Brigade. I thought that there might still be enough shared memories for us to have a pleasant conversation about good old times, and then … this happened." He made a sweeping gesture with his hand.

"I am really sorry that this reunion turned out to have a taste that neither of us could anticipate or appreciate," she said with a sigh, "but at the same time I cannot see how it could have been avoided, considering what each of us knew in advance. I just wish…."

She got distracted by the same feeling again, that there was something that she should have noticed, and sunk momentarily into introspection to spot the cause, but other than a mild craving for comfort to counterbalance the chagrin she had unleashed she couldn't find anything related to the situation — and that was not what she was looking for.

"I think that your attitude is admirable," she eventually said, trying to ignore the nagging feeling for a moment, "and I hope that something positive could come out of this as well. I am quite astonished to hear that I am the only person you have met who can remember your friends. On the outlook of it, this would appear to carry some significance even if we cannot tell what it is."

A set of rice, miso and pickles was served, indicating that the lunch was almost finished.

"That's exactly the thought I had in mind as well," he said. "There are always coincidences, but this looks far too conspicuous to be one. If you don't mind, I would really appreciate hearing your opinion on some of the theories I have been thinking."

"I would be glad to help any way I can, although my opinion cannot be worth much as I lack your detailed knowledge of the field."

"You're giving yourself less credit than is due. You can provide a fresh perspective, and if you have been following my work then you probably know more about paranormal phenomena than a minivan full of so-called 'experts'. And in any case" — he smiled for the first time in a long while — "expertise doesn't really matter one way or another. The important thing is that we were both there … and remember it."

She was impressed by his unflappable disposition. If he could remain sensible and positive on the face of such experiences, then she should certainly give herself the permission to do the same. That smile was … contagious.

"Very well then, I will try my best!"

"That's all I could hope for," he said, visibly pleased. "Now, to arrange my thoughts in a logical order…." He paused for a moment while they ate miso. "Are you familiar with the myths related to 'aos si'?"

"The name sounds familiar, but I don't remember the context. Which culture does it belong to?"

"Perhaps you'd recognize the name 'sidhe' better? In Gaelic folklore."

"Oh right, you wrote about them in that series on European mythology. They are Irish fairies, aren't they?"

"That's true, although the word 'fairy' might give a misleading impression about their nature. The sidhe are not cute little critters dancing hand in hand on top of flowers — while some of them might appear pleasant to the eye, others certainly wouldn't; when it comes to their overall demeanor, 'fearsome' would be a better description than 'cute'."

"Isn't that a rather common feature of supernatural beings? The same could be said of youkai in Japanese folklore," she observed.

"There are indeed many similarities between the sidhe and youkai. Considering their disparate roots, that's an interesting thing in itself.

"However, where youkai are based on an amalgamation of a number of traditions, giving rise to a rich, almost bewildering variety of entities, the myths on sidhe form a much more consistent, monolithic cycle about the 'people of the mounds'.

"There are a number of aspects that are worth mentioning, among them a belief that the sidhe live in an invisible parallel universe that coexists with our own, or a belief in the significance of particular times of day or the year. But, perhaps the most important thing is that the sidhe are bound by specific rules — although not necessarily ones that make much sense to us humans.

"Still, there's a common theme of reciprocity, the idea that in order to get something, you must give something in return. In essence, the relationship between humans and the sidhe is not one of open animosity but of a somewhat reserved cohabitation with a potential for mutual benefit."

"I remember that point from your article," she noted. "Your suggestion that it reflects the cultural changes in the transition from a nomadic to a primarily agricultural society with occupational specialization necessitating trade sounds entirely plausible."

The dessert — a sorbet — was served, and Sasaki caught herself wishing that she would have ordered the twelve dish course instead of the more reasonable six dish one. There were still so many things she wanted to discuss, so many unanswered question despite the reserved time running out as fast as the food in the bowls.

"That'd be a rather obvious rational explanation, and thus one that is safe to offer. When it comes to irrational explanations…." He made a vague gesture with his hand. "Well, although a literal interpretation is out of question, do you think that it's too far-fetched to suggest that these kinds of myths could contain a trace of truth in them?"

"There was a period in my life when I would have adamantly denied the possibility, but then I was … convinced otherwise. That was probably a valuable lesson in keeping the mind open to the unexpected," she admitted.

"We graduated from the same school concerning that issue. Well then, I don't remember whether I mentioned it in my article, but there's one myth that I found particularly interesting — that of 'leanan sidhe'. Basically, it means a woman of the sidhe who seeks out a human man for a relationship."

"In our own folklore, kitsune sometimes do that as well."

"That's true, but the covenant between leanan sidhe and a man comes with some peculiar rules. If the man accepts the proposal, she becomes his lover and a muse, offering inspiration in his life … which won't last long, because their relationship drives him into madness and to a premature death. And if he doesn't accept, she must become his slave."

"That sounds rather cruel. Regardless of what they do, there is no happy ending."

"Back when these myths were born, life used to be both casually cruel and on the short side compared to our more civilized world. But if we peel away the cultural influences, the basic idea … seems to fit. That there are rules that must be obeyed, one way or another. That it's an exchange, a trade — our time for theirs.

"What if," he said, tentatively, "a happy ending as we usually understand it were as unattainable to such a being as faster-than-light travel is to us, but there was a … creative way to go around the rules to avoid an altogether unhappy one. In that case, could the end result be considered at least moderately happy?"

"From a theoretical point of view, recent studies suggest that happiness as a subjective sense of well-being may not be the primary factor in—"

Sasaki's explanation was cut short by an insistent buzzing sound. It took her a moment to reorient herself from the world of myths and fairies back to the restaurant table and to notice that the sound was coming from her purse.

"Oh, I forgot to turn off my phone. Please excuse me…." She picked up the phone to silence it and noticed that the incoming message was marked as urgent. She couldn't just ignore it, regardless of how tempting that would have been.

"Work issues," she explained while reading the message. "Apparently, my boss is of the opinion that my continued absence is detrimental to the proper functioning of the department. I am really sorry for this."

"Well, I guess that it can't be helped." He looked just as disappointed as she was.

"In any case, that is probably a question only you yourself can answer," she continued.

"I … what?"

"You asked whether lack of unhappiness can be considered happiness. I believe that the only meaningful answer can be one a person finds on his own."

"Oh, right." He looked at the table for a moment, in contemplation, before concluding, "Anyway, thank you for the meal, it was a feast. Maybe we can continue the discussion some other time?"

"I would love to do that," she said, "and hopefully on a more leisurely occasion, if I can arrange one."

"Uh, what about the bill?" he asked, as Sasaki simply thanked the personnel on their way out.

"You don't have to worry about that. The invoice will be sent to my office and I will settle it later."

"I should pay at least my own part of it, but I don't even know how much that is," he protested, although without much vigor. "Well, it only means that the next one's on me, right?" he added, as they stepped out into bright sunlight.

"It is agreed, then. I will be looking forward to that!" she said, with a smile. "And … thank you for your time."

He looked surprised for a fleeting moment, before answering with a smile of his own. "Likewise. You've got my number now; please don't hesitate to call me whenever you feel like it."

"I will do that. See you later, Kyon!"

On her way back to work Sasaki was feeling almost dizzy by all the new thoughts that were whirling around in her head. It was not a bad feeling as such, just … unusual.

But she still didn't know what the nagging little voice in her mind tried to tell her.