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Unmasked [The Melancholy of Koizumi Itsuki]

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"Clowns will only let you know where you let your senses go..."


It wasn't a sight to behold: stratus clouds pillowing the red sky to sensationalize one's eyeshot of the sunset.

It didn't charm him.

'Not when rain could give my melancholy a better rinsing...' Koizumi Itsuki tapped the edge of his token against the table, having long neglected his Mage Knight board game to feed on the mango light that warmed the windowpane. Even though he favored cat-and-dog weather over sunshine, he was usually able to at least smile at the latter with a sense of nostalgia for those soggier days. Today, a feeling of emptiness honeycombed him. This desolation was compounded with the silence gassing the S.O.S. Brigade's club room.

A few exceptions to the inactivity were the clicking of a computer mouse, the fluttering sound of "Inherit the Stars" being paged through, the purling echo of tea being poured, and―of course―the coquetry between Asahina and Kyon. As for himself, the reliable deputy chief, such inertia dilated the inner void he felt as he played Mage Knight alone. Koizumi Itsuki stared blankly at the board game's cardboard valleys with a smile that was as hollow as his heart, letting his mind fall under the ticking spell of the clock. His eyelids drifted shut like window blinds...

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Koizumi Itsuki raised his head and opened his eyes to the clock, smiling with the patience of a pope. "Miss Suzumiya and Kyon are certainly taking their time," he commented while  polishing the crown on his white queen.

"A-Ahh~...Koi...z-zumi?"

Itsuki's rag stopped wiping his chess piece"Hm?" He blinked before looking up.

Standing there in a vision of purple and white was Asahina Mikuru. She held her wrists against her stomach to squelch her  anxiety while her knees wobbled. Her trembling  lips were buttoned down by her baby teeth to muffle a chorus of  whimpers. This obnoxious behavior was her modus operandi, but such exaggeration of it was usually reserved for Kyon and Haruhi.

Circumspect by nature, Itsuki rotated his head halfway, double blinked, and then gave her a winsome smile. The tilting of his head perfected the effect.  "Yes, Miss Asahina?" His organs contracted at his own voice—the voice of a saint who had no soul.

"Ehhmm..." Asahina's knocking knees continued to make the sound of maracas. "H-Here's...your~...ah..." She spotted the set of tea cups sitting nearby. "...Tea!" she gushed. "Y...Yes! Your tea! Ah, just a minute—!"

Itsuki observed her actions.

Shoeing feet that were too tiny for them, Asahina's heels chattered across the room as she hurried over to Itsuki with a cup perched on a silver salver. She tripped on her toe —" UWAH !"

Itsuki rocketed to his feet, causing his chair's groaning hooves to scoot backwards. Nimble fingers caught Asahina's elbows in the nick of time. "Oh, my!  Are you alright?" He  glacéd  his question with solicitude.

"Um..." Two red spots bloomed on Asahina's cheeks. "Y―Yes, thank you. I'm...fine..."  The time traveler readjusted herself into an agreeable position after he released her. She removed a tea cup from the salver and extended it to her savior, smiling weakly at her wrist. "The tea―it's not as hot anymore, b-but... I...hope that you like it."

Itsuki thanked her before cradling the bottom of the cup and giving it a sip. Having ca refully invented his next reaction, he hummed his compliments to the tea maiden, "Although it may have more of a tang than yesterday's, it holds the same excellence. Is this a new brand, Miss Asahina?"

Asahina stared at her apron so hard that he thought she hadn't heard him until he saw her head sprout up ten seconds later. "H-Huh?" She blinked, clueless as to what had been asked. After rewinding his inquiry in her head, she turned pink and waved her hand. "A-Ah...y...yes!" Her queasy smile and shifty eyes made him queasy in turn.  "S-Someth-thing like that."

Itsuki paid critical attention to the substance steaming in his cup. He be gan to weigh out the possibilities of poison being the new tang.

"Koi―z-zumi..."

Itsuki' s mouth stopped smiling. He looked up stoically.

Asahina's head dropped. Her pupils were dappled with sadness as she spoke in an airy whimper, "According to―...within an axiomatic transgression...you are...―ah no, this isn't right." Although she kept her head still, she blinked off to the side like she was trying to remember what she had rehearsed.  "U-Um...one's responsibility as beta reader...―ahh, this isn't right, either! Uwah!" Asahina held her cheeks, tossing her head from side to side. She stopped to shiver from where she stood, hyperventilating. "U-Um, th―...there is a message...something that I...! I have been assigned to pass on an important message...!"

Itsuki absorbed her bibble-babble without speaking. The unsmiling esper closed his eyelids and seated his cup on the table. He crossed his legs and hatted his knee with both hands, reopening his eyes to smile at her. The half-moon on his lips was steely before it transformed into a timid grin. "What kind of message, if you don't mind my asking?"

Asahina cracked her eyes open. Her nose reddened into a purple hue. As if a player had just powered her up, she suddenly snapped her eyebrows into a frown and balled her hands into fists, nodding to herself in determination. The time traveler lifted her head and looked him straight in the eyes. "Please  do not underestimate your role in this temporal plane."

Itsuki's immortal smile didn't die.

Asahina's confidence lopped over. "U-Um..." Sweat glazed her forehead. "Ahm ..." She frowned at her fists for self-encouragement. "The event is...unpreventable, because it is a predetermined event, but...―it would be b-better if...'you figured out what you wanted to do with your present and future, because your past has nothing to do with Suzumiya Haruhi or the SOS Brigade.' Only then will you―... Asahina's breath snagged on her own saliva. Her eyes enlarged as she clapped her hand over her ear.

Nagato, who commonly turned a blind eye from her colleagues during club time, had now looked their way.

Itsuki looked from the frozen Asahina to the stolid Nagato with the preying eye of a Siamese. At the end of his  scrutiny, h e shut his eyelids and dropped his shoulders, smiling helplessly. The same two fingers that were used to press against his third eye were latterly used to brush his fringe away from his brow. "So I see now..." He let the hair fall back into place. " Then, I presume, that that must've been an omen of some kind..." He met Asahina's gaze with a strange smile. "Do I have that right?"

Tick―tock.

His blinked calmly.

Tick―tock.

Asahina whimpered despite the glare she wore.

Tick―tock.

Nagato moved up her glasses with her finger.

Tick―tock.

"I understand." Itsuki turned and drank his tea, pinning his deputy chief smile back onto his face.

Tick―tock.

"I understand it all perfectly."

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Tick―tock.

Koizumi Itsuki surfaced from the memory by lifting his heavy eyelids. 'I don't understand any of it at all...' He sighed mentally.

"Deputy Chief!"

Itsuki's sightline panned horizontally until it paused on his pissed off commander. To the average viewer, her cynical grimace and childish pout, coupled with her arms akimbo, would've been no more threatening than a toddler's in her terrible two stage, but to Koizumi Itsuki, they were the harbingers of perdition.

"Oh," he coolly responded, "Miss Suzumiya!" Itsuki exhumed the grin of her ex-transfer student despite the look on her muzzle telling him that he was on the brink of extinction. "Would you like to join me for a round of Mage Knight? It's quite―"

Suzumiya stuck her face into Itsuki's to inspect it, which made his smile stiffen. His shameless sovereign was so close that he could smell last period's chewing gum, along with the mounds of deodorant coating the musk she had accumulated during gym class. "What cloud do you have your head in?!"

Itsuki's eyebrows curled as his closed eyes remained uplifted to hide his discomfort, but the sweat on his cheek gave him away.

Suzumiya squinted. "You've been super-glued to this window all after-noon, and your performances haven't been top-of-the-line lately, either!" The heteroclite searched him―head rolling up and down as she examined his condition―before staring him square in the face again.

Sighing theatrically, the court jester held his palms out in defeat. "As guilty as charged, Miss Suzumiya." His head rocked from side to side. "Fortunately, the crime isn't as felonious as it appears. I've simply been preoccupied with my test results. After I receive them on Thursday, I should be back to my normal self before you know it."

"Test results...? Hmph! Don't lie to me, Deputy."

His face almost turned a deathlike shade of blue.

"Vice Commanders can't have their nuts and bolts unscrewed no matter what's going in their personal lives!" She wagged her finger at him, completely oblivious to the distress she had stirred in him. "He always has to be on his toes! If he can't keep up with the requirements his position demands, then he should turn in his badge! So unless you want out, start acting like you want to be here! Is that understood, Deputy?"

Itsuki returned to the present with a little piece of his mask missing. "Understood, Miss Suzumiya."

Tapering her eyes at the feline one last time, Suzumiya Haruhi stomped off without a second look back. "You better have if you know what's good for you!"

Itsuki's grin eroded into a smile. Contradictory to his relaxed appearance, he was troubled.

His brigade leader cradled her chin with her palm as she tapped her computer mouse fumingly.

Had he really been so butter-fingered with trying to hide his fatigue that she was able to read his moods now? 'Or is she becoming more receptive towards our moods because she's changing with us...?'

The new year had shown its changes in mostly Suzumiya Haruhi, and as the saying goes, change does not always equal improvement. In the physical range, the short haircut that once personified the length of her attention span grew back into wild streamers. While it didn't spill down her calves like it did in her first year, it was long enough to middle her back. He projected his speculations onto Kyon by telling the cynic that she must have specifically grown it out to wear ponytails. Ducking and dodging such adventurous topics in their persiflage became a ritual for Kyon, so the nonbeliever deflected with wisecracks.

In the mental range, the year had trifled with Suzumiya's emotional altitude. Housing a type of raw longing in place of last year's eccentricity, repressed libido and fantasies were now locking horns with her conscience.

"I am an energetic girl after all, plus my body has its needs, but I'm not dumb enough to take on this troublesome stuff...!"(*)

Of course, subliminal drives have always "operated below the threshold of her consciousness" before then. They were too far under the bridge to be distinct, but they were always intense enough to "influence her mental processing." She then decided to determine a diagnosis by combining existing statements:

"A mental illness," she guessed. "All feelings are white noise."

She'd whisper that so-called "All A are B" syllogism over and over on her mattress as she twisted the sheets, using denial to narcotize her "hormonal imbalance." The only imbalance he detected was her guilt. It was human nature to daydream about authoring one's own steamy romance, but lust was a villain in red to her. With Kyon's attention still rollicking around Asahina and passionate pairs exploiting themselves in bathrooms, it was no wonder she aimed her pistol at the human heart itself. She was alone.

Craving physical intimacy behind the back doors of her mind caused moodiness. She could be sitting quietly, twirling her hair with that Suzumiya glare of hers, and he would still sense her state of daze and unsorted melancholy. It was as if she couldn't make sense of her feelings and opted for depositing the hairiest ones into a trash bag. Closed Space reacted like a cancer cell, draining Itsuki of his own health for months. He was concerned about the outbreaks, but he felt likewise when, "Miss Suzumiya was not herself."(*)

Itsuki's grin dimmed by three watts as he watched her yammer on about how a boneyard had more life than their club room.

"The event is...unpreventable, because it is a predetermined event, but...―it would be b-better if...you ' figured out what you wanted to do with your present and future,  because your past has nothing to do with Suzumiya Haruhi or the SOS Brigade. '"

Asahina's two week old forecast had added to his blue funk, and now bunny eyes with the adorable butterball face of a grade schooler would haunt him in his nightmares for a week more.

"I almost completely forgot...—Kyon! Help Koizumi find his nuts and bolts while I swing by the computer room!"

"What happened to those blackmail photos?" Kyon complained from the entrance, having been fairly happy with the lax atmosphere he was walking back into. "And how many more payolas do you need to milk their president, Emperor Showa [Hirohito]?"

The voice of reason was automatically ignored by the voice of impulse. "Seventh sense tells me they're planning on pulling some shenanigans on our firewall, and eighth sense"—'There is no eighth sense!' Kyon's head ululated—"tells me they thought I wouldn't be able to sniff 'em out beforehand, so our goal is to colonize them, enslave their leader, and then force them to pay off their debts with elbow-grease!"

'So Adolf Hitler is now donning sailor uniforms,' Kyon thought. 'Go figure.'

"PLUS, we could use a few extra hands on those mops over there!"

Kyon pinched the pleat between his eyebrows. 'I'm guessing Toyotomi Hideyoshi forgot to tell Haruhi that the idea of banning slavery was quite popular in the late 1500s...'

"And since Mikuru's behavior has been subtracting half of her points, too, it's time to earn back those tally marks, Mikuru~!" The computer chair Haruhi kicked aside went wheeling past Nagato in a whirlwind that took the chapters of her book with it.

Eyes chasing the flying pages, Nagato moved her hand up to hold them down, but the back shelf's sudden earthquake caused her to turn and blink at the pyramid of books on the floor. If Kyon had to guess, it might've even made her eyesore.

"Kya!" Asahina walked backwards as Haruhi stalked forward like a bloodthirsty hunter with a rifle. "H―Hah, M-Miss Suzumiya...! Can't we consider an―nother way to negotiate with the president...?"

Asahina's voice planed into a squeak when Haruhi's shadow covered her face. Kyon's compassion for the victim cranked up five dials as he spectated the drama. Seeing such a bitsy, lily-white beauty decide to use his back for shelter motivated him to believe it was his duty as a man to protect the Cherubim from the Apollyon, but his heroic deed resulted in Haruhi mistiming her step and crashing into his chest. That hadn't been part of his strategy at all, so when he suddenly felt his nipples being burned off through his blazer by the girl's glare, he wondered if it was too late to throw courage back into the sea. He compared Haruhi's face to Kiyo's because her eyes were wildly similar to the dragoness in Japanese myth who'd been said to have sought revenge on a priest who'd fallen out of love with her.

Evidently reenacting the fate of that very priest, Kyon felt his soul bid farewell to his body. 'Honestly, why me?' He was still determined to get his spine back, so he tried to give her tooth and nail, "Look, Your Excellency." Kyon folded his arms, sounding braver than he actually felt. "If you plan on navigating in this world, then why don't you hear Miss Asahina out and negotiate diplomatically for once? You'd get what you wanted at a faster rate, Miss Asahina wouldn't have to play God's sacrificial lamb, and we'd all be happy for a change." '...No "irony" intended on the God-metaphor.'

The weight of Haruhi's scowl was still sitting on his blazer, and unless his eyes were playing optical illusions on him, he thought he saw a grain of melancholy in it.

"Mikuru!"

The mascot's head popped up. "A-Ah! Y―Yes?"

"Get over here!"

"Wha―?! Hey―! Haruhi―"

Haruhi elbowed Kyon out of her way and snatched Asahina's wrist. The fire was everywhere―in her temper, in her snarl, and in her breath, but to make matters worse, she spat not one insult Kyon's way. If she had, this could've been passed off as a "normal event."

"Yuki! You're coming with us, so borrow my bookmark!"

"Uwah! W-Wait! Pl...please, slow down~!" Asahina's breathless sobs didn't stop Haruhi from dragging her past the door frame.

Nagato decamped with them, and the room was left with Kyon and Haruhi's deputy chief.

Slouching, Kyon closed his eyes and held the side of his hand against the center of his forehead in prayer. 'Sorry, Miss Asahina.' 

"...Couldn't you have executed that with better...'craftsmanship'?" asked Koizumi.

This guy―was he complaining already? "I was never good at arts and crafts." Kyon glared at the tall figure judging him from his end of the table.

There was nothing too dangerous about this person's smile, but the message in his eyes was transmitting very unpleasant signals.

"I understand that I didn't have much tact with it, but it's not like it was done to make her..." —Kyon tried to find a synonym for the word he pictured—"...sourpussed." 'Okay, so I didn't want to say angry, but didn't that sound too goofy just now?' He accidentally let his thoughts escape into the current conversation: "Then again, there couldn't have been a better way of phrasing that with Haruhi as the subject..."

It would have been more sensible not to reply to his self-talk, but Koizumi invited himself to Kyon's reflections anyway: "You needn't worry about phraseology. Everything you said prior may be true, but that truth doesn't necessarily repair the situation. Instead of making excuses for the outcome, we should try to come up with a solution."

Making a point of that kind sounded like this sphinx of a person was scolding him. His approach was seriously polite as could be, enough to make the Red Queen curtsy for him even, but it didn't change the accusatory subtext. Nothing was more two-faced than Koizumi's Charles Grandison act because it was often used as a pipeline to splurt out careless opinions and indirect arrogance. He wasn't the only one with a tongue on him, though. 

Armed to the teeth, Kyon sassed him right back, "There's nothing wrong with my gray matter, so you don't have to be a broken record. Don't you think I experienced some trauma from that whole thing myself?" He was positive that he was far more unsettled by Haruhi's actions than this slippery eel.

Because Suzumiya was in the same class as a flammable liquid with high volatility, it was screwy for such a detonative girl to keep her feelings boxed in without eventually blowing up on him. The situation could be compared to lighting a gas can on fire and finding the gas station completely intact.

"I do have a theory in mind―"

'It's for the  birds!'

"Relying on pure hindsight, it's possible that your words were not the cause of Miss Suzumiya's change in mood. Perhaps the sight of you rescuing Miss Asahina and condemning her as the villain did trigger it, but the root must lie elsewhere."

"Is it even more possible to call this another example of her brain simply being a madhouse?"

"Is it? I would classify this as a matter of the heart." Itsuki chuckled inappropriately, "I'm sorry, but I was under the impression that you might've understood the way this worked after all of our discussions concerning Miss Suzumiya's subconscious mind."

'That smile on his face is really starting to get on my nerves...' "Your so-called scientific psychoanalyses for the anatomy of Haruhi's brain have always detonated mine, so naturally, I might not be in sync with you."

"The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking."

Kyon's sarcastic look spoke volumes. 'No, you are not Albert Einstein, and I wouldn't call your beliefs science until Haruhi-tology has been printed in the text books.' "Your belief system about Haruhi being God and recreating this world four years ago 'was aided by invention,' wasn't it? It's a hair away from Thales's, "the Earth is flat and floats in water like a log," so commercializing beliefs like that would be an insult to people with common sense. I'd also like to throw Einstein's quote right back at you:

In so far as the statements of your geometry speak about reality, they are not certain, and in so far as they are certain, they do not speak about reality. You should take care not to make that intellect your god."

"Are you implying that the Agency's theory about this reality is false?"

"I'm implying that beliefs of this nature have some personality, but they butt heads with the just-as-justifiable beliefs of Miss Asahina and Nagato, and unfortunately, this god does play dice with the world."

"But can we deny that Miss Suzumiya is a person with a sun and crown of twelve stars upon her head, while the Earth lies beneath her feet?"

'What sappy Greek novel did you plagiarize?' "What you call "God" is an eccentric girl who makes a mess."

"Unlike the Agency, I don't believe in singular gods or deities obliviously living in a world that they themselves have created. I've expressed these plot holes with you. The subconscious power of Miss Suzumiya has changed everything except mankind's need to rationalize the paranormal, and thus we, the Agency, lean towards paralleled explanations to rationalize the phenomenon that is Miss Suzumiya. There is faith in the possibility that our way of interpreting this reality could turn out to be malarkey, but as I've said once before, Miss Suzumiya is the source of our powers. This universal fact is irrefutable.

The belief that she can either reconstruct or accidentally destroy this world is something each faction has agreed upon. If we were made to think otherwise, we would be troubled by our existence. This is the side I am with, and that can not be changed."

"From a subjective point of view, I think Western films like Inception and The Matrix had better roots for their axiological approaches on reality. Speaking of which, haven't you yourself referred to ours as a possible dream or virtual world? (*)"

Koizumi flashed an elusive grin. "So you remember, then. I hate to disappoint you, but that was my third eye speaking out. Please don't think much of that type of imagination. After all, there is no evidence to support a feeling in the bones. I have the talent of making incredibly useless things sound premonitory."

"I pledge "agreeance" with both hands, but I'm not as troubled by it as you are. Though as Thomas Jefferson might've said, "speeches measured by the hour, die by the hour," and I'll admit that I've been looking at the clock every once in a while for the past eight minutes."

With a penitent smile, Koizumi freed Kyon from the debate and returned to the window. No one said a thing for the remaining ten minutes, but Kyon was perceptive enough to key into his counterpart's plight. As Koizumi sat in brown study, a sinister look sat on his face that should've never been sitting there to begin with. It could be guessed that the expression was symptomatic of his mood towards the destruction Haruhi's Celestials were bound to create, but...

Kyon sighed. He didn't want to do it, but he did it anyway, and while he was doing what he didn't want to do, he sooner than later discovered that nothing could save him from another hour of rambling now:

"Are you sure you're not just being too paranoid?" Kyon squinted. "Your interpretation of it is already negative, and calling Miss Asahina's message an omen is over the top. There isn't enough evidence to throw it into the apocalypse-cubbyhole just because the undertone sounded scary."

"I suppose I should be grateful for your concern," Koizumi lilted half-heartedly as he tapped his marble queen against their chessboard.

If Kyon hadn't known any better, he would've called this unusual show of impatience a sign of a hurricane. He began to wonder whether or not the serious person who might've been Koizumi's potential self would ever materialize in front of him. It couldn't still be hibernating at a time like this! "I wouldn't call the feeling concern compared to actual nausea, but I'm not as heartless as you think I am."

"I never had such impressions of you. It's been said in the past, but you are a very kindhearted person by my standards."

"You know, I honestly don't feel my ego being fed when you try serving it glib compliments."

"As expected of you." Koizumi laughed, but not enough to distract Kyon from his melancholy.

The assistant leader wouldn't share any eye contact with him―a nuisance that triggered the emergency alarm in Kyon's brain―and now the cynic felt himself struggle to pick a feeling to be ill with. Nonchalance didn't suit the situation, sarcasm would be like serving Koizumi cold fish, and apprehension might've made the atmosphere heavier than what was necessary. Although Koizumi's mood was like an open vein, he highly doubted that he could ask the esper to lie horizontally on a couch and unleash his dormant feelings. Something like that required a crowbar over friendly chatter and rhetorical questions. Similar to many actors, Koizumi wanted to keep his private self private.

Koizumi had changed his entire personality for Haruhi to fit the way her conscience imagined him to be, but to counterbalance her mysterious-transfer-student stereotype, he had to act like the exact opposite of one to parallel with her more rational thinking. It was in Koizumi's best interests to stabilize Haruhi's mentality, so even if she'd get bored with him in the future and carelessly toss him aside like a paper ball hitting the rim of a waste basket, the outcome of her mental stability was more important to him.

'...But Koizumi's eyes aren't matching his act, and Haruhi noticednot too happily, I'll add,' Kyon thought.

Koizumi's lap-dog behavior and Colgate smiles weren't costuming the new exhaustion he felt. He was obviously malnourished to some extent as well, and if it had Haruhi paying any kind of, "Ehh?" attention to it, then it was certainly more than him just having an off-week.

Kyon glared at Koizumi's dimples. 'I also can't write off Haruhi's behavior...'

Opening slowly, Koizumi's catlike eyes sliced into Kyon's face for longer than what was comfortable. Without warning―and really, there should've been a warning for this―he exploded into the type of laughter that would make a trick-or-treater skip his house on purpose. Muffling this shuddersome racket with his fist, Koizumi went on to giggle, "For whatever reason, all of this has been causing my usual brain pattern to fluctuate; my withdrawal from reality is really quite phenomenal."

'Don't you mean troublesome? A normal person would be troubled by that, I think.'

"As an overseer of Miss Suzumiya's status quo, I would not encourage obstacles for either of you, and this goes without saying."

"I figured that much." 'I mean, you're a Kyon x Haruhi shipper or something creepy like that, even if you know your wishful thinking will never happen.'

Koizumi folded his hands on the table and smiled like a devout Catholic boy. "Then, you can see why I don't understand Miss Asahina's perspective."

"...To be frank with you, this almost reminds me of the time when the adult Miss Asahina from the future told me not to get too friendly with the Miss Asahina in this temporal plane..."

"Is that so?"

"...Gch!" The odd noise that came out of Kyon's mouth when he came to another realization made them both jump.

"...Hm?" Koizumi blinked. "Oh! Were you considering what I think you were?" He leaned across the table to taunt Kyon. "If you don't mind me saying, these are very bold thoughts for you."

"Tch! Don't try n' act like you weren't thinking the same thing just now! You read my mind by coincidence, so that must mean you were assuming something similar to me!"

"What you're assuming is something that is not in my role to play. As I've said before, that role was given to someone else, wasn't it? I wish for the story to carry on the way it was written. Miss Suzumiya and I..." Koizumi giggled against his balled hand again. "Yes, since this is coming from you, I should feel honored by that kind of assumption, but such an assumption would be false."

"You aren't giving my psychic skills enough credit here. After a year of this, you should know when I can tell you're talking backwards to convince yourself of the very same half-lie you're telling me in that moment."

"Oh? Can you also sense a few demons residing in me?"

"That's Lorraine Warren-psychic, you bastard."

Toying with his bangs as he grinned at him, Koizumi began to ramble, "Then taking your earlier hypotheses out of the picture, I still can't quite put my finger on Miss Asahina's meaning. Cryptograms and Da Vinci Codes of this nature are really not my specialties, you see. Perhaps you can help me with this?"

"That's the language you speak in all the time!"

"Let's change the angle, then. Why do you believe her superior decided to toss me such a prophecy in sophomore year? I've proven myself to have more than enough self-control after over four years of the same business, don't you agree? This recommendation from her could either be a predetermined event or a lie to elude me. If the former, it may mean that I somehow rewrite what was meant to occur in the future and lapse reality single-handedly. Or maybe you have some affiliation with this omen?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"What could possibly happen, I wonder? It's beyond absurd, isn't it? I put you and Miss Suzumiya before myself; I have no interest in my own affairs."

"I don't feel like that last sentence was relevant unless you were pleading your case for something else, but do you want my honest opinion?"

"I'm not too sure. I feel an anchor of sarcasm dropping in."

Kyon's eyebrow trembled. "Buy yourself a sense of humor before you leave here."

"Just kidding...sorry about that. As you were saying?"

"I would discuss this again with Miss Asahina herself. Running around in circles with questions, unless you're asking questions you already know the answers to, won't take you anywhere other than a dead end. It really can't be so predetermined, but maybe you are inviting your own destruction. After all, "any man who insists on faking an innocence that isn't there turns himself into a monster." At the same time, I have a hard time believing this isn't something deeper than own your loose screws."

Koizumi propped his chin up on his fingers like a solemn detective exchanging secret information under a lamplight. "Then you too believe this involves Miss Suzumiya's psychological state." He closed his eyes and smiled coolly. "I am a being who is an embodiment of Miss Suzumiya's unconsciousness(*). Therefore, our psychological states intersect. In this way, we are...linked."

A flashback of scattered phrases from another conversation hit Kyon's mind:

"...I'm envious of the deep level of trust between you and [Miss] Suzumiya. [She] always seems to count on you a lot, while you place a great deal of trust in her as well. Now do you understand why I'm envious of you?"(*)

Curiosity gleamed in Kyon's eyes. "...Do you find that unlucky or honorable, Koizumi?"

Melancholy gleamed in Koizumi's. Kyon correlated the look of half-cloaked feebleness with the same look the other world's Koizumi gave him after he revealed his feelings for Haruhi (*).

"I suppose somewhere in between," Koizumi answered lightheartedly.

"Then maybe this is why Miss Asahina predicts you'll be the one to alter something without even being conscious of it. If there's something you're building up or putting off, your breakdown might be similar to Nagato's overload (*), so maybe something has to change, and maybe it'll end up being necessary."

"I have to reject this theory. You see, I have more faith in myself than in Miss Asahina's premonition."

"If that were true, then why would you let it eat you up for so long?"

...A tickled esper sat back in his chair and folded his arms. "How is it that you can see through my own smokescreen better than I can?"

"You're not exactly the Morse Code, and if this does involve Haruhi...what's so funny? Do you always have to be giggling like that?"

"Sorry, I just couldn't help but...espy an onslaught of jealousy when you came to that name."

"Don't get poetic about your hallucinations and just use grammar normally!" Kyon tried to keep his cool on a reasonable temperature. "That whole sentence combination was grammatically incorrect because of its subject alone!"

"Listen,"―Koizumi's lightheartedness evaporated at a frightening speed―"I don't want you to misunderstand my earlier bias."

"What exactly are you trying to get across to me by making a statement like that?" Kyon's monotonousness didn't switch like Koizumi's mood. "This conversation was more or less about why Miss Asahina—"

"What about 'Miss Asahina'?"

Kyon and Koizumi both found themselves facing the wrath of their brigade leader as a duo. It was a quiet type of wrath, one that was bottled up in the stance of her hands on her hips, the bonfire in her eyes, and her sickly-sweet chirp.

"Dah―I…" Kyon felt like flapping his arms. 'Wait, why the hell should I be so nervous about this? I don't even know what I did wrong!'

"Did everything go as planned, Miss Suzumiya?" It was a good thing Koizum was there to save the day. "Kyon and I were just debating over if we should check upon on you, Miss Nagato, and Miss Asahina."

"..." Her eyes tightened into slits before whooshing back to Kyon.

Inside of Haruhi's pupil, Kyon could see the reflection of himself being burned alive as his fists banged on her cornea."...W―Wait, where's...Miss Asahina?" Kyon's vision scooted to the left―'I mean, Nagato's standing by the computer with Haruhi's manga, but...―wait, why IS Nagato looking at Haruhi's things?' Kyon watched the interface flip through Haruhi's possession conscientiously. 'It's almost as if she's scanning for something...'

"Idiot! You're so predictable. Your face looks more retarded than what's normal for you when it squinches up like that." Haruhi threw a thumb over her shoulder to point at the sniffling Asahina.

Although he was watching the silver-haired second year return to her chair, Kyon rebuked Haruhi, "You didn't use Miss Asahina as your sacrificial lamb again, did you?"

Koizumi stepped back into the repartee with a rescue mission, "We were patiently waiting for all three of you, Miss Suzumiya―"

"Just be quiet already!" Snapping her eyes shut, Suzumiya threw her nose in the air and gave them her cheek. She dragged her office chair away from the pile of books Nagato was collecting and plunked into it, angrily whirling around to face her computer. The hot blue flames could almost been seen engulfing her body and the chair as one.

Kyon sighed. 'Is that smoke piping out of her nostrils or is that my unshakable hallucinations at work again?'

"All of you, clear out in the next five minutes! I'm locking the club room early today."

Koizumi facepalmed. Kyon was Haruhi's ripcord; he released gas from the hot air balloon during emergencies, but this year he seemed to be inflating Haruhi with even more hot air, which meant more work for an esper or ten.

"I'm sorry! This is all my fault...!" Asahina sniveled into her palms.

Kyon doled out half a smile for her. "There's no reason for you to blame this on yourself, Miss Asahina."

Two minutes passed, and already Haruhi was kicking everyone out of the club room. Her barking combined with Kyon's, "It hasn't even been five minutes yet!" was loud enough to make listeners in the corridor hug their books and blink pityingly.

As each member lined up in the hallway, Itsuki began to wonder whether Kyon was simply unaware of the danger when he accepted Asahina's afterschool invitation or downright soft in the head. Worse still, their dialogue took place in front of Suzumiya. Asahina whispered the location into Kyon's ear with a few stammers and forefinger-twirls before the chowderhead finally nodded in agreement. Itsuki studied the languor movements of Asahina and Kyon as their backs became specks.

The esper checked his LCD screen for a signal, heaving his book bag's strap a little higher onto his shoulder, and then glanced at Suzumiya Haruhi's route. She was power-walking at top speed. He scanned the halls like he'd done earlier, appreciating the white walls and tall ceiling. It was not hard to picture that very hallway being showered in avalanches of cement as a cytoplasmic fist bulldozed the school house. Tonight, there was no doubt the world as they knew it would be altered. Itsuki had been blamed for allowing the world to be sucked into a black hole the first time, and then testified against for insufficiently guiding Kyon the second.

He too questioned his value and if "Miss Suzumiya" had actually chosen him. The three factions orbiting Suzumiya Haruhi questioned it as well. Three strikes, fifty votes, and someone else would replace him. The esper watched the bottom of her swaying hair. Tonight will be his third strike.

"...Mm?" Because Itsuki had been too busy eating his own heart, he really hadn't heard the soft steps of the taciturn bibliophile approaching him―if there had been any to begin with. "...Miss Nagato," he acknowledged with a half-in-character and half-himself nod, reacting to her presence with a guarded attitude.

Holding out a stack of notepads to him like a monk egging a foreigner to look into their future, Nagato's orbs held Itsuki's with purpose. She looked at the book bag under his arm, which carried his communicator, and then looked at him.

Giving her the expression of someone who was amused by the exchange, the smiling sycophant took the materials she offered to get a closer look. "...Miss Suzumiya's homework." He frowned. "Did she leave this in the club room?"

In truth, he'd concluded that last. What stood out to him first was the Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle manga sandwiched between two textbooks, and according to his observation in the club room, it caught the diligent android's fancy as well. When he looked back to her face, her pupils were directed at someone other than himself. He quickly found that point of attraction to be their Walter Mitty brigade leader, who was watching the sunset.

Suzumiya's glumness wasn't odd, but the sight of her inanimate face in this tranquil moment left Itsuki reflecting on the disasters that would come out of it. Hardening at the heart, he turned back to his company. "...Miss―...Nagato?"

She was gone.

Itsuki stood alone in the hall with Suzumiya Haruhi's homework in hand. He closed his eyes and smiled emptily to himself. The esper pressed his finger against his forehead, and...―with the trembling pause of his left foot―...changed course.


[Source]

Chapter Text

 

[Source]


"Can you help me? With your understanding, take my worries from me."


Koizumi Itsuki beamed with an artificial sugariness that sickened his stomach as he tweeted like a songbird, "Miss Suzumiya!"

Suzumiya Haruhi halted in her tracks. She tilted her head back just enough to identify her shouter. "...Koizumi?" A confused frown replaced her curious blinks. "...What'd you want?" Her voice deliberately lacked the effort to sound polite. It cartoned more of a salty aftertaste that dropped into a bored mutter by the time it got to the "you" part of her inquiry.

Itsuki shut his eyelids into bridge shapes to consummate an apologetic smile. "I apologize for my bad timing, but it appears that you've left your belongings behind." He presented them to her with a hand behind his head.

Suzumiya's blinks multiplied. "My homework..." She took the books and batted beads of grime off her manga cover, pausing in mid-swipe. "I guess I must've forgotten it..." Based on her inaudible supposition, she was put off by her own absentmindedness.

He wasn't any less. Perhaps his brigade chief had reached a point where her ennui now included brownouts. Suzumiya opened her manga. A bookmark flew out and floated downwards, sailing to and fro like a feather before landing on the floor.

"Let me to get that for you." Itsuki knelt down. When he looked up, she was staring at him with a nauseated expression. He thought that maybe she had felt violated by his male gaze position (which he didn't exploit), but the opinion was retracted after she held the look far longer than what was proper when he was back on his feet. "There we are." Itsuki handed her the bookmark.

She incredulously accepted it. Instinct urged him to glance at the panel in her manga. To his bemusement, the character under her thumbnail had been drawn in his likeness. He was clothed from the chest up in nothing except sleepy eyes, wispy bangs, and a kind smile. The next panel's illustration showed him smiling gaily with closed eyes and upturned lips to offset its predecessor.

Itsuki's trajectory shifted to Haruhi's scowl. Percolating tension between himself and his chief implied that they would soon run out of things to say if either one spoke again, so he patched up the conversation. "Well, I'd better get going, then." He stepped back. "I don't want to take up any more of your time. Please have a wonderful evening, Miss Suzumiya." With that, he bowed gracefully and left just as.

"Hold it."

Koizumi Itsuki froze. He looked behind his shoulder. "Is there...something on your mind, Miss Suzumiya?"

Suzumiya's arms were crossed . She looked down her snout at him with one eye narrowed into the shape of an isosceles triangle. "Did you ever come up with any ideas for Spring Break like I told you to, or did you slack off again?"

Itsuki had no recollection of her asking him to complete such assignments, but he went along with her revisionism. "Certainly." He rotated until his feet were parallel with hers across the hallway. "I have a few ideas that I've been meaning to speak with you about, but we never had the chance to discuss them." He smiled cheerfully. "Would you like to go over them tomorrow?"

"Let's get it over with right now," she ordered. "I want to see how much thought you've put into them."

On a normal basis, she wouldn't have been so hard on the reliable deputy because he didn't matter, but today, he was becoming uncomfortably aware of her bitterness towards him, like a foreigner tasting Natto beans for the first time.

Itsuki chuckled and scratched the back of his noggin. "Well, it might take me some time to remember all of them now, but I'll do my best..." He nodded.

She closed her eyes and headed for the exit, giving him a backwards wave. "You'll remember it faster once your legs start walking."

He opened his to blink widely and outstretch his hand, jerking forward in one step. "Ah — Miss Suzumiya..." His muscles ossified when she paused to blink over her shoulder.

"Hm?" The curiosity she expressed made her oval face adorably childlike, a charm which had been increased by the tiny "o" her lips were settled into. The charm was erased by her signature scowl. "What is it now?" she groaned, her hands finding her hips. "Are you coming or not, Koi-zumi?"

Itsuki decided that there was nothing to be gained by beating around the bush or rebelling against the empress's decree. He let his arm fall to his sides and bestowed a stellar smile upon her in hopes of overwriting the impression his precedent reaction had left. "It would be an honor to walk you home, Miss Suzumiya." Another bow was executed to bring it full circle.

Peach splinters from the afternoon highlighted an unsettling feature on his face. Even though it was a flicker of a second, she swore to herself that she had seen it. Sadness simmered in his warm smile and drowsy eyes — an insomniac lassitude that made him look ten dynasties older. This aura he projected felt in part due to a visible shortage of sleep and Vitamin D. She was in fear of his bones collapsing into clouds of powder.

As if to telepathically tell her not to worry, his smile lengthened a full centimeter wider. His eyelids became upward U's, and in doing so, swapped his persona back over to her ex-transfer student's. "So! Does the lieutenant have permission to escort his commander, after all?" He cocked his head, forelocks swaying accordingly.

Haruhi's mouth underwent a series of aerobics. She flipped her long hair with the back of her hand and walked off. "Permission granted."

Itsuki shoved his hands into his pockets and tagged along. The walk turned out to be a headache. The hill itself could be called an easy downwards hike, but Miss Suzumiya was a nuclear minefield. Ill-rehearsed for such a mission, he quickly developed a phobia of being alone with her apathy. She had the habit of either ignoring or henpecking him. He couldn't disobey her by turning loose, so he renewed his smile and pitched his free-styled ideas for Spring Break, asking her to check-mark bulletin points such as googling a resort town for hot spots, contacting one of his wealthy "relatives" in Los Angeles for a Hollywood tour, and bringing the brigade to a campsite rife with paranormal activity.

The deputy personally preferred the mountain trip because he'd be able to assemble his telescope for stargazing. Alas, Suzumiya Haruhi didn't bite his line. She contributed little except blunt, monosyllable answers before looking back to the street. All he could do was smile sympathetically at her profile. He wondered if this was the dynamic Kyon had seen between them in "that other world," or if they had ever, at any point, been closer than what they were in this one.

After a few more starts and finishes, Itsuki gave his commander's ears a break. He was more than content with looking at the panorama of metropolitan life. The color on the skyscrapers was always vertically divided between a brown shadow and an amber light at sundown. It may have made the city look tired and yawning, but he found it as beautiful as the rain. Thirty seconds into his reverie, Suzumiya chose to hotwire the conversation:

"Koizumi?"

Itsuki looked back at his caller. Her shadow, strolling alongside his on the sepia pavement, looked small, lonesome, and humpbacked. "Yes, Miss Suzumiya?"

Suzumiya's side locks bounced beside her cheeks with her steps. "What was with your face today?"

He studied her intently. Smiled. "Why?" He looked back at the road. "Was there a bug on my face?" he joked.

"Don't say something so stupid," Suzumiya warned. "I meant that it looked different."

He curved her again, "Unfortunately, Miss Suzumiya, I regret to say that I didn't have a mirror on me."

Suzumiya wasn't detoured by his blissful ignorance. "Was that some kind of joke?"

"A very bad one," he apologized. "I've been trying to work on my humor lately, but I'm starting to think that I should just throw in the towel."

"Anyway," she resumed irately, "like I was saying...your expressions — they weren't exactly different, but whenever you smiled, it didn't feel right."

Itsuki's immortal grin died. It was resurrected in the form of a sheepish smile. "...Miss Suzumiya, am I the cause of your distress?"

Her glower made brief contact with him from the corner of her eye. She then wrinkled her nose at her feet and poked her lips out like a bird's beak. "If you were Kyon saying that, I'd be telling you not to flatter yourself, but…" She hesitated. The hand holding onto the strap of her book bag tightened their grip.

Itsuki waited for her to continue.

Suzumiya never did.

His heart thumped unnaturally. He stared into the blue beyond, ignoring the girls who whispered behind their palms as they eyeballed the couple. A change of subject was contrived to cheer her up: "I've been meaning to tell you how happy we all are to be a part of your adventures in the SOS Brigade, Miss Suzumiya." His voice and words were softer than Scottish cashmere, matching the tender smile that had sown them together. "I think we can all agree that the brigade has given us a place to belong."

Suzumiya's shadow lagged until it stopped completely. Itsuki's shadow stopped in front of hers. With open palms, he turned so that his shoulder faced her. Suzumiya stood there behind him. He frowned solemnly.

The sunset crimsoned the outline of Itsuki's body, but the side of his face was crosshatched by a shadow. He added four more degrees to his rotation. "Miss Suzumiya?"

The fringe that hid her forehead was also hiding her eyes from him. "...Then why aren't any of you acting like it?" The dumbfounded, almost airy murmur was full of sorrow and corked rage.

Itsuki flinched. His eyebrows created a parenthesis of bunny lines on his forehead.

"You all think I don't use my eyes anymore..."—her fists drained the blood from her knuckles as her voice hardened into aluminium—"but I saw the way all of you acted when I walked into the club room last week. Every time I looked up, Yuki was staring at me, you were smiling at your hands on the table, and Mikuru wouldn't look at anything except her own feet." Her flushed face jerked up to glare daggers into his, forelocks flying airborne. "If your SOS Brigade leader is that much of a flea bite on your neck, then I command you to just quit the brigade before I throw you out myself!" 

Itsuki's heart imploded. What he saw glistening in her eyes was a whirlpool of frustration, uncertainty, and chronic depression as though she had lost something valuable to her and couldn't understand when or why. He instantly knew that the words in her last outburst belonged to someone else. If one had opened her skull and written them on her brain, then only one had the power to engrave it.

The esper moved his gaze to the sidewalk, expelling a sigh that only showed in the slumping of his shoulders. He smiled sadly at the ant parade marching between his shoes. The light in his pupils danced. "Would it be alright if I asked if Kyon was the one who told you that, Miss Suzumiya?"

Suzumiya jumped. Itsuki slowly turned on his heel to approach her. Suzumiya's fist came up to her chest as she leaned back.

When he stopped, he kept a foot between them. His gentle, half-lidded gaze and unaccusing smile juxtaposed her defensive expression. "You have never been a flea bite to us, Miss Suzumiya," he guaranteed. "There's nothing keeping us from resigning if that was the case."

Her brow went smooth from his words, but only for a nanosecond.

Itsuki placed a hand on his sternum and nodded. "You are a very important person to each one of us." He knew that he was not an important person to her, but in his heart, he was a member of the S.O.S. Brigade before he was a member of the Organization(*), and Miss Suzumiya was his lovable brigade chief (*) before she was "God."

Like she had been photosynthesized by the sun rays in his eyes, her fists lost their curl as her iciness thawed entirely, and embarrassment supplanted it. She frowned at the ladybug on the cement as her eyebrow twitched.

"Kyon included," he appended. "He may not realize it,"—he winked—"but you're just as important to him as you are to us."

Suzumiya petrified. "Bah!" She huffed and crossed her arms, yanking her head into the opposite direction with a blush. "Whoever said his feelings were all that 'important' to begin with? Don't make him sound so special."

Itsuki chuckled between syllables. "As you wish, Miss Suzumiya." He stepped aside and extended his palm to the road. "Shall we carry on?"

Suzumiya blinked at the hand gesturing for her to lead the way. She glanced at him before taking the offer with her nose aimed at the sky. Itsuki stared at her for a while before aiming his smile at the sun. The reek of Closed Space was becoming less and less of a stench.

"There's something else I noticed."

"And what might that be, Miss Suzumiya?"

She nibbled on her ribbon's tail. "You're the one who actually showed it to me."

"Is that so?"

Suzumiya slipped into an untranslatable silence. He wished his ESP had been packaged with mind-reading equipment.

Eventually, Suzumiya looked at the stars peeking out. She unknotted her thoughts to allow one to touch his ear, but her whisper sounded like it was part of a soliloquy he hadn't been meant to overhear: "I mean, how can anyone smile like that all the time, anyway...?"

He nearly stopped walking.

"Everyone has a full range of emotions, right?" Suzumiya crossed her arms again, staring at her toes. "I never really thought about it until today after I finished Tsubasa,"—she turned her head to him, rocking forward with her arms still crossed to see his perspiring face—"but there must be something bad about your personality." She rerouted her focus to the forefront. "I ruled out a long time ago that you weren't an extraterrestrial or some type of android from outer space."

Both students hung back as the railroad's crossing bell clanged.

Suzumiya looked the other way — away from him. "Besides..."—she clutched her elbow pits and brought her shoulders closer to her ears, the crossed arms squashing her breasts inwards—"what's there to smile about on this boring, disappointing planet, anyway?" she mumbled gently. Her body language didn't make her look so much like a closed message as it did a girl trying to console herself just then.

Their hair danced on the zephyr sweeping past them. Itsuki didn't allow her to see his face. He kept it turned the other way. When, how, or why she came to these conclusions was unknown, but the speed of Suzumiya's maturation was happening faster than the esper could swallow. Would he have to change his personality again now that her perspectives on the world and its people were changing?

After almost two years of the same manuscript, Itsuki could not transition so easily. "...Actually," he bravely began, after the sound of beaten train tracks had melted into the distance, "there are a variety of things to smile about in spite of one's internal state at any given time, Miss Suzumiya." Itsuki finally twisted his face back around to her, warming the ambiance with his transfer student smile.

"Like what?" Her interest was genuine.

"Well..." Itsuki traced the slope of his nose to pretend like he was in deep thought. After he secured his answer, he smiled ahead with an, 'I've got it' nod and then raised a finger to help articulate his philosophy. "The opportunity to share this 'boring, disappointing' planet with the people you love, for instance. The opportunity to be alive and have the freedom to explore that planet with those people. The overall opportunity to be happy, and to be yourself."

"…So then...today, that last opportunity was missing?"

Itsuki's finger sagged.

She looked ahead. The railroad's boom barrier was hoisted. They didn't walk.

"I guess you never realized that if you're not being Koizumi, then the whole club is out of whack. Koizumi is the always-smiling reliable one who's never down even if everyone else is."

"...I see." Koizumi Itsuki smiled tightly. Inside, he was telling himself to breathe. "Then I deeply apologize for not acting like myself to you lately, Miss Suzumiya. To let you down was never my intention."

"...Don't be so dramatic," she countered. She knew how to make the phrase sound as though it was coming from a place of chastisement instead of encouragement. "It's not like you're a humanoid interface from Mars."

He was only mildly humored by her irony. On impulse, he changed the topic by caroling, "Speaking of androids and extraterrestrials, what exactly do you plan on doing once you find what it is you're looking for?" A biplane captivated him. He looked up at it. "Asking them what life is like in their world compared to ours, perhaps?" His eyes shut into their upturned angles again. "I actually think that would make a very interesting interrogation."

Suzumiya examined his grinning profile with one of her unconscious scowls. The linen-like creases in her forehead started to ride back.

"I myself have always been interested in stars and planets for that very reason." Chuckles dinned in Itsuki's throat. He lifted his palm to shade his eyelids, the cupid mouth relaxing into a lazy smile. Flakes of gold radiated from his iris. "I used to imagine other worlds on the planets I couldn't see with my telescope, ones with societies that were completely different from our own."

"Like what?" she plumbed.

Itsuki supplied a cloudy answer, "Well, I didn't have a particular picture in mind back then." He went back to his embarrassed emoji smile. "It was just a pastime of mine. I grew out of it eventually."

The conversion stood out to her. Koizumi Itsuki wasn't bursting with the charisma of a gentleman who had the mien of a rose in this moment. Beneath the flitting shadows of cumulus clouds that were passing over his face, the disposition of an ordinary, yet lonely stargazer with inconsolable anguish enveloped him. A breeze played on Itsuki's hair before becoming a violent gust that forced her to clap her hands over her ears. Itsuki held his fist to his eye level and glared at the wind, pressing his book bag against his blazer like a stoical superhero getting ready for a face-off with his archenemy.

When he noticed her stare, he smiled the smile of her ex-transfer student, but the draft made him drop his book bag and fight to keep his blazer buttoned as it tried to undress him. Haruhi cackled, arm circled around her tummy while she slapped her shin. He held his bangs and shrugged back at her with a sweat drop next to his smile, saying something about persistent weather. After the gust vanished, Itsuki wiped off a cherry blossom that had been sticking to his shoulder. Both of them, for some reason, paused to see where its journey would take it.

A drop of water suddenly hit the blossom and pasted it flat against the concrete. Haruhi gasped. Rain thwacked her nose. She moaned at the clouds circling the sky. Before anyone knew it, the city was covered in rain.

Wet and shocked, Haruhi growled at the situation. "Oh, great! This is just GREAT!" She used her book bag as an umbrella. "I'm getting all wet!" Body-warmed fabric jacketed her head, keeping the rainfall from melting her.

She hesitantly elevated her chin. The person she found was a drenched Koizumi without his uniform blazer. A river of rain trickled down between his eyebrows as he smiled that same tired smile from the hallway. His dripping hair clung to his cheeks.

"...Why're you standing there like you're actually enjoying it?" she said with some uneasiness, noticing the serenity pearling his aura now.

He smiled shamefacedly. "This may sound strange, but..." Wet strands framed her vice commander's jaw as he hiked his tired eyes up to the sky with a loving gaze. He raised his chin an inch or three higher, making the bowing length of his eyelashes seem longer. "I honestly do enjoy it." Water leaped off his bang and squiggled down his smile.

"…What are you doing? Trying to catch a cold on purpose? Stop smiling at the clouds in ecstasy and come on!" Haruhi pulled him down the sidewalk, causing bicyclers to swerve out of her way. 

The unlikely duo's shoes splashed in puddles and mud for two blocks straight until they reached Haruhi's front door. Her porch light flickered on. They bent over and gasped for breath. Koizumi panted something about how that had been an adventure, and something else about his astonishment over the way she almost outran the rain, but she was too far gone to be giving a damn. Haruhi regarded the jacket straddling her head and opened her mouth to speak—

"Oh, it's no problem, really." He saved her the embarrassment.

Haruhi felt a wave of guilt crash against her all the same. As a result of getting the brunt of the downpour, Koizumi was so thoroughly soaked that his wrinkled white shirt was sticking to his body.

"And before I forget, I wanted to let you know that today honestly was just an off-day for me. There's no real need to be concerned. It happens to the best of us."

Haruhi involuntarily hugged his damp jacket against her nape. "You know..."—she pushed his jacket against his stomach with a thrust that made him go, "Oof!"—"even though it was really bugging me, you showed me something different today just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about you."

He had to fight against the temptation to hang himself with a cable cord when he got home.

"And for an ordinary human,"—she flung her head up to blind him with a supernova smile—"that type of enigma surprisingly makes you a hundred times more interesting than you were before! How totally wacky is that? You really are a mysterious transfer student!"

Itsuki could only gaze at the girl's shimmering face with private agony and discomfort. He had told Kyon last year that "Itsuki" was less pleasing to those who knew him past the sparkling molars of "Koizumi," (*) but never did he expect the aftereffects of two weeks of sleepless nights, burdensome nightmares, and dogmatic factions to twitch her antennas. Either he had underestimated how kindred they were in the field of depression, or her new manga was to blame.

With the dazzle that labeled Suzumiya as the Suzumiya here to stay, she pirouetted on her toe and marched off to jam her key in her door. She grinned over her shoulder and said, "You were sort of starting to become a real bore, anyway. Looks like you saved yourself!"

His eyebrows scrunched back against his forehead.

"Oh, and before I forget!" Suzumiya chimed before dangerously sharpening her pitch: "Just because I said Itsuki isn't all that bad doesn't mean I want you acting like a Johnny Rain Cloud all the time. I don't mind Itsuki, but Koizumi is the reliable one. Got it?"

He bowed. His shins felt weak. "Whatever you say, Miss Suzumiya."

She opened the door and stood in the rectangle of gold light. "Haruhi," she blurted.

He recoiled. He looked up and readied himself to question her, but she was already announcing, "See you tomorrow!" from behind the door before slamming it in his face.

Itsuki's countenance darkened with the emotions he had been holding back. The esper backed away from her door and wrung out his jacket. He swung it over his shoulder, letting the arms slap his thigh as he turned a quarter of an inch back to the house. "Me, then. Just Itsuki. Is that really all it took to improve your mood, Miss Suzumiya, or are you still reimagining me, as well as yourself, as someone else?"

A raindrop slipped down his eyelash and leaked off the curled edge. Itsuki, with his palm turned up in a shrug and a defeated smile, aboutfaced to disappear into the rain.

Chapter Text

[Source]


"I have secrets I won't share."


"Hey, Koizumi."

The addressee's gaze panned up from the Tsubasa volume in his palm. Before him stood Kyon, whose body was emitting rather unfriendly vibrations.

Koizumi placed the manga down on its face and leaned back to fold his hands on the walnut table. "What's the matter?" He crossed his legs. "You appear to be more irritated than usual."

"What's up with you and sending Haruhi and Miss Asahina weird looks all afternoon?"

Koizumi chuckled under his breath. He broke visual contact with his collocutor to smile at the door. "Speaking of Miss Suzumiya, she's been gone for quite a while now, hasn't she?"

"Yeah, she has," Kyon droned. "Now are you going to answer my question or are you going to dodge it?"

Koizumi giggled. His eyebrows curled sheepishly. "Well, this is discouraging."

Kyon shifted the position of his own and removed his hand from his pocket to drag out the adjacent chair. "And just what is so discouraging?"

"It's just that I would expect a blow of relief in your tone at this time. Miss Suzumiya is, after all, in much better spirits than she was yesterday."

The mirth in his reply nettled Kyon.

"However, if I've done something to offend you, then I sincerely apologize."

Koizumi's frame of mind remained inaccessible to his forayer. It was safe to say that his energy was still on the wayside, but he discharged more UV radiation today than he did last time.

"Why do you make it sound like it's the one thing you've never done before? And don't chirp like that; it's gross. I'm just surprised that you recovered from two weeks of exhaustion after one afternoon. Yesterday you were so run down that it could've been 'classified' under—"

"Here's your tea!" Asahina's cheep brought a sparkle to Kyon's eyes. She gave him his tea cup.

"Thank you, Miss Asahina."

She nodded and blushed happily. Fingers clasped to the bottom of the tray that she was holding against her stomach, she glided away with the smile of an angel.

Koizumi tracked her retreating body the way an indoor tabby would track a sparrow. "Yesterday afternoon was a bit troublesome for me, but the rainy night rinsed my mood. It was actually very therapeutic."

Kyon rolled his eyes at his purple prose, oblivious to the esper's momentary fixation. "Did this 'yesterday afternoon' have something to do with Haruhi by any chance?"

"Ah, Miss Suzumiya..." Koizumi rested his forefinger between the part in his eyebrows before flipping up his bangs with that same finger. "Now whatever could've given you that idea?"

"You act like you just want to be caught feigning ignorance."

"I'm simply asking. Nothing more, nothing less."

"Look, don't think you're some Phantom of the Opera who goes unnoticed," Kyon spoke behind the lip of his tea cup. His narrowed eyes were thinner than quarter slots. "You've had your eyes open a lot more when you smile in response to whatever ridiculous request Haruhi is giving you. You look bitter when it's Miss Asahina passing by and 'sweeter' when it's Haruhi talking to you. Mind explaining that?"

Koizumi's smile held no warmth or placidity. It came off as more of an unhappy leer.

"Even Haruhi's mood has been up the ladder, but Miss Asahina's is still at the bottom rung—"

—Singing interrupted Kyon's episode recap.

"This should be interesting." Koizumi uncrossed his legs to get up and stand by the window. He ducked his head down a bit with his arms still folded. "Well, if it isn't Her Excellency herself."

"Are you serious?" Kyon joined Koizumi. "What is she up to now?" He leaned out of the window since his ears didn't do him enough justice.

Their impromptu performer was indisputably that Haruhi. She warbled from underneath the awning of an oak tree with a redheaded acoustic guitarist. If Kyon's memory served him correctly, the cameo character was a member of the Enoez band. Between them sat Nagato, who scrutinized the band mate's plucking fingers with sincere interest.

"That Haruhi." Kyon sighed while folding his arms on top of the windowsill. "Who gave her the a-okay to leave the rest of us stranded here while she rehearses for live concerts?"

"I don't know about you, but I couldn't be happier."

"Yeah? And why's that?" Kyon mumbled, not really wanting to know.

The esper closed his eyes and smiled tranquilly. "If you were an esper, you'd be relieved as well."

"Then it's a good thing my relief doesn't depend on her happiness."

"And yet hers depends on you."

"Give drama class a break."

"Four years ago—"

"Pass." Kyon put his hand up. "I may have pretended to want an explanation, but I don't remember ordering an unnecessary lecture from that option menu, so can we just skip this part already?"

Although he didn't look at Kyon, Koizumi's smile grew considerably. He perched his elbow on the windowsill to place his chin in his palm and study Haruhi. "Four years ago, Miss Suzumiya was an inconsolable person. I explained to you before how she was back in Junior High, which made her lonelier than what she could tolerate. Ever since meeting you, however, she's always looking forward to something with a mischievous glint in her eye. It's a whole different side to her that both my colleagues and myself have never seen before." His eyelids lowered, giving his gaze a peaceful look as the breeze drifted under his bangs.

Kyon blinked at his face with an unimpressed scowl.

Koizumi closed his eyelids, smirking. "That is, not until you came, of course." When he reopened them, he turned his listless smirk to Kyon, who reacted by glaring more. "Lately, however, she's been having some trouble with disorganized thoughts. I'm glad to report today that she's trouble free as far as I can tell."

Kyon looked back down at Haruhi. "So in a simplified answer that won't confuse the average teenager, singing is something that calms her mood and 'relieves' you of work because that way you have fewer night shifts."

"Partially."

Kyon cranked up an eyebrow at his response, but voted to watch Haruhi's empty concert instead of entertaining the raconteur further. His club leader looked much cuter than what he was used to seeing on the regular. The circus monkeys that were always cartwheeling in her eyes were on a lunch break, and the attitude from yesterday had thankfully expired. All that remained in their unmissed place was quietude and bliss while she swayed her body to the music. Kyon would've smiled had Koizumi not been optically recording his reaction without his permission.

"Now do you understand my perspective?" the esper said out of nowhere.

"Huh?" Kyon blinked. Then he frowned. "Now what're you on about?" 

Koizumi set his chin on his knuckles to smile at Haruhi's faraway figure. "Miss Suzumiya is incredibly charming when she's in her happiest state. It is a state to be celebrated and commemorated."

Kyon sneered at him. 'I have no idea what understanding you're referring to, but saying this moment should be commemorated is a bit much.' He slumped over the windowsill. "Well, I think I've had enough so-called charm for one day. There's no way I'm spending my entire evening waiting for Haruhi to finish sound check so she can order us to leave whenever she's ready, but I don't want to be the one to ruffle her feathers." Dandruff snowed from his hairline as he scratched it. "What'd you say to making yourself more useful by summoning your commander from her station? I'd go down there myself if I wasn't so against arguing with her right now. "

"I'm guessing you'd prefer to stay here with Miss Asahina, then." Koizumi looked at the tea maiden, who cringed under his gaze before brooming the floors with more enthusiasm. "Tell me, am I warm or am I cold?"

'You're frigid, you bastard! Don't go giving Miss Asahina such funny looks!' "Just because Miss Asahina made you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean you have the right to do the same thing." Kyon was positive that Koizumi could hear the anger steaming off his scalp like a singing tea kettle.

"Of course not." After chuckling, Koizumi smiled frighteningly wider. He waved off his criticism to walk towards the clubroom's exit. "I should return with Miss Suzumiya in no time."

Kyon glared arrows into his back. "Take your time while you're at."

"But you do realize, Kyon,"—Koizumi's hand lingered on the doorknob—"that Miss Suzumiya would probably be more satisfied if it was you coming after her and not me?"

"Why are you bringing me into it again? You're the deputy chief; it's only normal for you to fetch your superior."

"While that may be the case, I am second in command whereas you are her right hand man." Koizumi tipped his head back so that Kyon could see the width of his smirk from a sidelong angle. "That's the way the cast list was written, wasn't it?" He ended his useless speech with another mouth-to-fist chuckle before exiting stylishly.

The ending scene, however, didn't affect Kyon the way it normally would after his mind rebroadcasted it. He gaped at the door as he played it back a fifth time. He had known, on some level, that the esper was jaded by the lack of trust and appreciation Haruhi showed him when he was the one who'd been getting up at ungodly hours to clean her messes since middle school. What Kyon didn't linger on — or maybe just didn't want to linger on — was the grayer area of it:

'Does the Koizumi in this world actually —'

"...Kyon?" Asahina tapped his shoulder. "Your tea is getting cold."

Kyon looked at her, still drunk off his thoughts. He gulped and grinned in answer. "Right. Sorry about that." 'I'm overthinking it. He's always making jokes like that.' He postponed his inner monologue when he heard faint words being exchanged outside.

"Forgive me for my intrusion,"—Koizumi tootled as he appeared behind the two girls. He bowed to the blushing band member before panning his smile to Haruhi—"but we were all missing you and Miss Nagato back at the club room, Miss Suzumiya."

"Teh! Did Kyon tell you to come get me?" she tutted.

'Don't say yes, don't say yes, don't say yes.'

"No, not at all." Itsuki's clarinet voice stayed cleverly polished. "As a matter of fact, I sent myself. But if I'm disrupting anything, I'll respectfully take my leave—"

"No, no!" The guitarist sprouted up like a tulip. "Um...! Please, stay! Miss Nagato and I were just gonna go over a few guitar notes, anyway! See you in twenty! Kay, Haruhi?"

Haruhi blinked twice. "Well...I guess—"

"Take careee~, mm-hmph!" Having said all of her lines, the cameo character snatched Nagato's hand and beckoned her to follow her into the hall where other band mates loitered.

Each of them (minus Nagato) looked back at Haruhi and Koizumi before covering their giggles behind their palms. Even from where Kyon slouched, Nagato looked out of place on the sidelines of this schoolgirl activity. She moved her head to peer at Haruhi and Koizumi for a few moments before eyeing the guitarist's instrument. This was the most infatuation he had ever seen Nagato show another object. Kyon deduced that she wanted to have the chordophone all to herself.

"What's with them?" Haruhi asked the open field. "So strange..."

Koizumi's smile dulled. Haruhi turned her head to peer at him. He brightened it promptly.

"Hey."

He flinched.

"Sit down already," she badgered. "You're making my legs hurt just by watching you stand there."

Koizumi blinked, shut his eyes like a kipper chap, and then sat down. Kyon snorted at the spectacle. Haruhi was scowling at the scenery with her legs spread out from point A to point B, while the ass-kisser that was Koizumi sat there with his hands on his lap like a geisha.

"What's so interesting outside, Kyon?"

Kyon confronted Asahina's scintillant smile. "Um..." He scratched his cheek nervously. "Just...'bird watching.'"

"Really?" she exclaimed. "What kinds of birds?" Asahina proceeded to take a gander by touching his shoulder and pressing her breasts against his back. "Let me see!" She hopped playfully.

Kyon squeezed his eyes shut to push down the anvil sitting in his throat, praying to the heavens above that the bulge down South wouldn't increase in size. 'Oh BOY...I don't know whether to leap for joy or to make a beeline for the bathroom!' his conscience blubbered.

"Do you remember last night?" Haruhi said in a bored tone from down below.

"A-Ah?!" Horror rouged Asahina's cheeks. "L-L-Last n-night?!"

'Now hold ON!' Kyon gagged, forgetting all about Asahina's mammaries. 'What the hell happened last NIGHT?! I knew Koizumi was her yes man, but not behind closed doors, too!'

Koizumi slid his hand down his neck, feinting embarrassment. "Are you talking about when I walked you home?"

"No, no, no!" Haruhi's flapping arm spun in circles with the rapidness of a spoon being stirred. "Not that!" Her finger pointed at his nose like a sword, causing the esper to flinch and look cross-eyed as he tried to blink at it. "When you talked to me about your new ideas for our break!" the energetic girl all but sang to the trees.

Koizumi's eyes closed into their classic parabola shapes as a sweatdrop skidded down his temple. "How could I have been so forgetful? My apologies, Miss Suzumiya." He briefly bowed from the neck with his palms still planted on his knees before showing her his emoji smile once again. "Have you decided which one you'd like for me to put together?"

Haruhi reinstalled her cat expression, folding her arms and crisscrossing her legs to get into her evil mastermind pose. "I'm thinking about camping out in a paranormal location, maybe even bringing some EMF equipment and telescopes for UFO sightings! Let's see if we can get our hands on some spirit photography, too!"

"An excellent choice, Miss Suzumiya." Koizumi nodded earnestly. "I'll get right on it."

"Perfect! Oh, the cleverness of me!"

Kyon massaged his temples. 'Hey Haruhi, did you tell Peter Pan that you're not only stealing his inability to grow up, but also his lines, too?'

The dictator dropped her back onto the grass with her arms spread out. "You know, you sure are a lot more useful than Kyon. If I asked him to contribute even one yen, he'd cannonball me with a million in one questions.—Hey, loosen up. A posture like that will give me cramps just from looking at it." She was kvetching about the way Koizumi was sitting, and after many tryouts, he finally chose a position that she approved.

'You know, I never noticed how sadistic their relationship was until now.'

Koizumi turned back to the yard. Rhombuses of sunlight breaking in through the leaves danced across his unmoving smile. "There's a strong possibility that you may not believe me when I say this, but the truth is that I've fantasized about this type of school life for a while now. Please don't take this out of context, but you've fulfilled that fantasy of mine, Miss Suzumiya. For that, I am eternally grateful."

Haruhi kept her pensive stare glued on the clouds peeking out from the tree's hair. Koizumi smiled at her without turning his head her way. She adjusted hers on the grass to frown at him from where she laid. Kyon found her museful silence to be disturbingly out of character.

Reasonably unnerved, Koizumi endeavored to spark up another discussion. "Do you plan on performing for the Spring Festival this year, Miss Suzumiya?"

"No way!" Haruhi swung her legs heavenward to spring onto her feet with her hands on her hips. She struck the pose of an explorer. "I wanna get a head start on our paranormal expedition and eke out whatever's waiting for us over that horizon!"

Koizumi gazed at her with the type of hopeless smile that said, "It can't be helped," but soon it melted into an affectionate one.

Haruhi glanced at him, still high on life. "I'm surprised you didn't realize that sooner, Deputy Chief! A vice commander's mind is always supposed to be in sync with his commander's!"

"You're absolutely right, Miss Suzumiya."

'The irony is that it kind of is in a way,' Kyon thought.

"By the way, I was going to ask you about this way sooner, but do you still have that telescope you brought on summer vacation? Because I wanna borrow it for some personal activities of my own at home."

"Why, yes. I do, actually. I have a few."

"...Really? How many?!" Haruhi shoved her sunny face into his. "Are you selling any of them?!"

Koizumi's emoji grin impressively stayed tacked on. "I have three in total. They were all birthday gifts from family members who didn't know what to get me, but I never returned them. If you'd like to pick one for permanent use, I would be more than happy to provide it for you."

"Great! What's your address?"

Koizumi's equanimity teetered. "My address, Miss Suzumiya...?"

"Of course! How else am I supposed to come check them out? I'll go down the assembly line and pick which one I want!"

"Miss Suzumiya, I'm not exactly sure if—"

"Hey! What's with that tone again?" Haruhi stood upright to cross her arms and glare down at him like a cranky Metapod. "I thought I already told you to call me Haruhi." She whipped out her notebook and uncapped a marker with her teeth. "Here! I'll write it down to make it easier for your Alzheimer's."

'She can't be serious.'

With her tongue curled against the corner of her smile, she spat the cap out and pressed the notebook flush against the grass. Her shadow covered the phonetic characters as the marker wagged to her hand's swoops and dips. "See?" Haruhi sat up and blocked her face with the notebook to tap the kanji with her marker. "Ha-ru-hi!" She poked her head out from the side. "Got it?"

Koizumi stroked his nape and sweated, for once not caricaturing his awkwardness. "Understood."

'Can someone witnessing this comedy please explain to me how friendly they actually got in order to make this remotely okay?' Kyon looked at Asahina, who just so happened to be recovering from what looked like post-asphyxia. 'But, then again...is this the 'change' Miss Asahina was talking about?'


Once Haruhi had charged back into the club room with the zest of a cartoon firefighter kicking the door open, the remainder of the evening was spent with the 'brigade chief' jabbering to her 'deputy' while Asahina broke tea cups. When he wasn't helping the nymph sweep the floor, Kyon was keeping an eye on the secluded pair. He couldn't say he survived playing a human surveillance system without catching a migraine. Leaning across the table with her keister not even on the seat, Haruhi explained to Koizumi in long, breathless rants what type of trip she wanted, where she wanted it, and how she wanted it. All Kyon really heard was, "I want, I want, oh and by the way, I want!"

Her second commander, on the other hand, continued to nod with that empty-headed smile of his. The smitten look he wore, which was augmented by his chin being perched on the middle of his laced fingers, really laid the whole "besotted" thing on thick. Now that Kyon was watching him interact with Haruhi, he thought Koizumi's expression overlapped scientific curiosity with genuine affection for his specimen. It was actually kind of gross to look at. For an esper who was "born" to oversee the life of his supposed 'god,' it would probably be impossible for him to not gain some sort of affection for his deity.

Koizumi monitored Haruhi's heart and worked as the gatekeeper who fought off her monsters, a role that only existed in Disney movies and pop songs. If Koizumi had another woman in his life, Haruhi would still top her in importance. Kyon didn't know if Koizumi saw it this way, but in his reformed opinion, the esper had a highly personal role in Haruhi's life because his belonged to her and vice versa. Dissecting them from this perspective, almighty god and doting angel almost seemed destined to have a closer union at some point in time.

'...But where would that leave me?' Kyon pondered, revisiting the concern he felt in that "other" world where Koizumi had replaced him. 'I can't help but be curious about what would happen if Koizumi took my place in this world. Unlike the other Koizumi, this one is actually an esper.'

"Hey, Kyon!" Haruhi waved to him like she was miles away. "Should we camp out this year or what?"

"How about neither—"

"Exactly what I was thinking! You heard 'im, Vice Commander! Camping out is on the map!"

"Then a camping trip it'll be," Koizumi reassured.

Haruhi hurrayed with her fist in the air.

Kyon dropped his head on a bookcase. 'Nevermind. I'll mail you my 'shoes' in a gift-wrapped box, Koizumi.'

Chapter Text

[Source]


"I will sacrifice all I have in life to clear my conscience."


Koizumi Itsuki opened his shower door and stepped onto the vinyl mat with water raining from his thighs. Droplets pearled his scalp as he toweled his hair expressionlessly. His feet squelched across the wet floor in their progression towards his medicine cabinet. After wrenching it open, he perused the prescription bottles grinning back at him.

Eszopiclone.

Zoloft.

Bufferin.

Itsuki removed them from their balcony and searched for a foxhole no guest would find them in, particularly one with the G protein-coupled receptors of a bloodhound's genome. His mission to compose an air of normalcy was completed by staging his condominium for entertainment. Pictures framing the jolly faces of Agency associates were used to replace nonexistent family photos. Certificates and middle school awards were tacked onto the foyer's walls to exhibit an energetic childhood. The lacquered Buddha he disliked was carried from the closet and seated beside his indoor Bonsai tree to pepper the living room with a cultured touch.

Koizumi Itsuki spent all evening trying to make his crash pad look like the home of a boy who lived a quiet, carefree life furnished with loved ones. He was in the middle of spraying the crown of his head when his phone vibrated on the chinoiserie armoire in his bedroom. His palm skated the device down to his end of the oak shelf and flipped the lid open. "You're late," he barked into the mouthpiece.

"What a greeting," the recipient hammed. "I had some trouble getting service from the hospital, Your Excellency. Miss Mori just gave me an update on the meeting you had with everyone about an hour ago. The vagaries of Miss Suzumiya's mind are truly intractable, aren't they? Is she changing that quickly?"

Itsuki crowned the armoire with his hairspray bottle to hold his elbow. "I was told by Arakawa that Miss Suzumiya's anterior insular cortex is maturing at a healthy rate. In this case, gaining empathy isn't necessarily a bad thing, but things could become problematic if she starts suspecting that the S.O.S. Brigade members around her are all leading double lives."

"Well, what has she been expecting from you in particular?"

"Myself, apparently..."—he looked at the wasp headbutting his windowpane—"though something tells me that isn't exactly the case."

"Care to explain?"

Itsuki nonchalantly unsealed the window. The wasp zigzagged in the air before flying out. "Miss Suzumiya has been reading a manga called Tsubasa, which has most likely been influencing her perception of me ever since Asahina's prognosis came into the picture." He locked the bolts and dropped the blinds. "To make a long story short, she's comparing me to a fictional mage."

"And from that claustrophobic plot, of all things. Fai, right? The similarities between your lives are too big of a coincidence to even be called a coincidence. What would happen if she found out about your family tree? You know, she'll probably start to think you're a slider since Fai jumps through dimensions, too. Hell, maybe your powers will change and a hot vampire will bite you."

Itsuki squeezed the phone's spine. "This isn't some kind of joke, Tamaru. I could very well find myself waking up in a nightmare that isn't too different from the one you just described."

"Then what are you gonna do to reprogram her?"

"Miss Mori, Arakawa, Keiichi, and everyone else asked me to maintain the status quo until further notice. If Miss Suzumiya probes tonight, then I'll let her in."

"Into your staged life?"

"That's right."

"So you'll lie about everything after all, including your memories of the past..."

"Everything except the parts of my childhood that don't need editing."

"I hope this is a good idea at this stage, Koizumi. If you're actually honest about your emotions like she wants you to be, she might become bored enough to lose interest in you because it'll be the new norm. Don't forget that the facade you have now was also a product of her expectations."

Itsuki's stance seesawed. "...That was one possibility we had discussed, yes. We just haven't discussed it in detail yet."

"So then what about that sonsy Asahina? Why shouldn't the Agency be worried about her?"

"You and I both know that the older Asahina is a fabricator. Since she's the one who's been guiding her younger self in this time plane, it's safe to say that neither one of them can be trusted."

"...If that's the story the whole Agency is going with, then I guess I have no choice but to go with it, too. Listen, the nurse is coming in. I'll call you tonight at nine."

"Don't be an hour late this time. It'll interfere with my dosage schedule."

"Got it. Au revoir."

The call ended without Itsuki saying, "Goodbye" or "I hope things get better for you." He stared into the eye of his LCD screen before laying the phone down on its stomach. 'It can't be helped...' The esper padded over to his kitchen and tied the tails of an apron into a bow behind his back. Afterwards, he fetched a whisk from his drawer and held it up, smiling like a friendly chef on a pancake mix box. "Time to finally put Miss Mori's instructions to use."


Well into the gloaming hours, Suzumiya's voice funneled through the foyer's intercom: "Koizumi, it's Haruhi."

Itsuki exited the kitchen to titivate his appearance in the living room mirror. He walked away from his somber reflection and perched his palms on his knees as he spoke his twinkly greeting into the intercom's base, "Ahoy, there. Come on up." His thumb punched the gate button.

In a little under five minutes, the doorbell gonged. Itsuki unbolted his door chain and received his guest with smiling eyes. "Miss Suzumiya...!"

Like a runner who had just won the Olympic medal, Suzumiya Haruhi stood knock-kneed on his bamboo mat with her chest puffed out and her wrists against her hips. Her grin reminded him of a cat's mouth just as much as her vibrant, blinking eyes reminded him of an actual cat.

"Welcome to my home." Itsuki performed a thirteen second bow without removing his hand from the knob. "I'm happy to finally have you here. Please, come on in." He sidestepped the slippers that were parked by the door's jamb to introduce his unnatural habitat to her.

Her nod comprised of the full lowering and lifting of her chin. Without delay, she snatched her oxfords off her feet and wiggled her toes into the house shoes he provided.

Itsuki watched her stroll into his vestibule like a giddy pioneer entering an undiscovered jungle. "I was making Daifuku just in case you had gotten a little hungry on your way here."

"No thanks," she rejected. "I'm on a time limit." Her coat hit his sectional sofa and slumped into its lap, followed by a tumbling pink purse. "Your place is pretty expensive, isn't it?" Suzumiya's hands mounted her hips again. "That loaded uncle of yours must've paid a ton for the whole thing upfront!"

"Yes. He can certainly be generous with his blessings," he prevaricated.

Suzumiya Haruhi looked left and right, appreciating sparkly garniture such as the Meiji vases, wall-hanging fountains, and Shoji lamps in his living room. Her smile faded the more she toured. "...Wow," she mildly exclaimed. "It sure feels lonely in here..."

Her description made him open both eyes and blink. He rebooted his deputy chief firewall by smiling self-consciously instead of shutting down his system. "Lonely?"

"It doesn't look lonely," she illuminated, "but the vibe feels...strange." Suzumiya held her chin between her finger and her thumb as she scanned the tea room. Out of nowhere, she snapped her fingers. Her head swiveled around to him, making his back snap straighter than a telephone pole. "You should add more ink paintings and look up fengshui while you're at it," she preached, enthusiastically twirling her finger in a circle. "That'll lighten up the vibe in here."

"I'll make sure to take it into consideration," he acquiesced, snuffing out his trepidation.

She caught a glimpse of the picture frames peopling his otherwise naked sideboard. Her fascination lingered on the snapshot of him standing alone with his telescope at the age of six. Itsuki could see Suzumiya's chest swelling up with glee in response to the image. Her head spun around to him again, unleashing the solar power from her eyes onto his mortal being. "Where are they?!"

Itsuki scratched the dimple in his cheek. "I beg your pardon?"

"The tellascopes, of course! Are they outside?!"

"—Oh! That's right." Itsuki closed his hand into a fist and nodded animatedly. "They're right this way!" He guided her to his spacious balcony, a refuge he was actually quite fond of. The three telescopes on the patio had been coincidental birthday presents from Miss Mori, Tamaru, and Arakawa. Even though they took up elbowroom, he never returned them to their senders because he didn't mind the company.

Itsuki asked his visitor to meet the smallest telescope in the family. He followed up with describing the personality of large, moderate, and small refractors to help her adopt one relative out of the litter. Suzumiya seemed more than happy to be told what to look for in the best stargazing companion.

"If you'd like to see celestial objects such as stars, planets, and our own natural satellite, then it's better to have the 80mm refractor than the 150mm telescope." Itsuki petted the nose of his Stellarvue SV80 Access. "If you want to see surface details like craters, mountains, rings, and natural satellites of other planets, then the Orion StarSeeker IV 150mm will outflank the Stellarvue." He bent over to increase the telescope's magnification before smiling up at Suzumiya's intrigued face. "Would you like to take a look?"

Her eager nod was so childlike that witnessing it made his affection for her burgeon. She took his place and peered into the refractor's eyeball with her hips still supporting her wrists. "Huh, you're right...this one's different from that other one you brought on summer vacation." She clamped her tongue between her lips and toyed with the adjuster. The bows in her ribbon shook as she chattered excitedly, "Wow! I can totally see the moon's mountains in this thing! So cool!"

The chuckle Itsuki produced was genuine. "Our moon will look approximately the same through any refractor," he added, "but a larger one like this will allow you to get a more intimate look into its world."

Suzumiya giggled in her throat as she optically dined on the moon's landscape for three minutes straight. Itsuki listened to the cicadas in the meantime.

"So, how many planets can you see through these things, anyway?" Suzumiya breathlessly asked, wiggling her hips.

He lightly bopped himself on the head to illustrate that he had to jump-start his memory. "Eight, if I'm remembering that correctly. However,"—he waved his finger—"only Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars tend to reveal their true natures in a telescope."

She peeked at him before looking back to the eyepiece and mumbling, "True natures? What'd you mean by that?"

"I mean the most intricate details in their untouched terrains." Itsuki pointed his mellow eyes at the heavens. "Saturn's rings, for instance, look more like computer-generated sonic waves than halos in the Orion StarSeeker. That particular telescope can even show you all of the dust storms and cloud bands on these three planets. In a moderate telescope, Venus and Mercury will reveal their phases, but in comparison, Neptune and Uranus will only look like small disks."

"What about Pluto?"

"Pluto would very difficult to observe with these telescopes, and even if you did manage to see it, it'll only look like a dull star in the Kuiper belt. According to astronomers, he isn't much to look at, so very few people even bother."

The silence stuck around like gum on their soles.

"...I feel bad for him," Suzumiya intimated. "The way people don't acknowledge his existence. It's like he's not even a member of the same solar system as all the other planets. He's practically invisible in everyone's minds."

He smiled at the back of her head with curved eyebrows, and then closed his eyes. 'Of course she does...'

Tired from bending her knees for so long, the little astronomer stood up and slapped her hamstrings. She quirked an eyebrow at the constellations and groaned, "I wish they'd hurry up and get down here already! It shouldn't take this long to find us."

Itsuki knew whom she was referring to. "Well, some do say they're already observing us," he jested.

She answered him with an oblique glance, blinking.

"And if that's true, then I can understand why they have no intentions of visiting us. It's hard to say what kind of impression we've made as earthlings, but the perpetuity of so much sanguinary and destruction on our planet would deeply discourage me if I was an extraterrestrial being. Whoever's out there probably lives a peaceful life in a more intelligent society, which would most likely cause them to think that the entire human race is too immature to be spoken to."

Her expression was indecipherable. The intensity he felt from it diminished when she closed her eyes and folded her arms to contemplate his logic with a pout. Twelve seconds later, she peeled them open, resistant to embracing her own agreement. "I guess that would make some sense, but..." The uncompleted sentence stood between her and his theory.

"But," Itsuki plugged in, "I can't say I don't understand the overall desire to meet someone who's not from our world. When I was in elementary, I used to blink my flashlight off and on towards the planets I had charted in hopes of another being recognizing my Morse Code. I even wrote a message on the beach late at night after the first sky telegraph failed."

Suzumiya yanked her head up. "Huh?!" She was as awed by his causal confession as she was blindsided. "I didn't know that..." The undercurrent of guilt in her tone implied that she felt bad about never asking, but frustration and exhilaration overwrote it in nothing flat. "Why did you keep your mouth shut this whole time, then?!" She squeezed her fingers into fists and increased her height by standing on her toes. "Did the sand message work? Did anyone ever respond?! Spit it out already!"

Itsuki surrendered his palms. He surprised himself by not falling over the handrail despite the fact that she was only an eyelash away from his nose. "No, not at all! Unfortunately, nothing that phenomenal ever happened, so I gave up the following year."

His mood deflator pulled the ripcord from her elation. The face she made as a result mirrored a child who had unwrapped a Christmas present that they didn't want. She lowered her feet back onto the cement and folded her arms again, throwing her disappointed glare to the iris flowers in the balcony's garden.

Itsuki smiled wishfully at her. He ventured to explain the commonness of their positions, "Humans have been trying to make contact with extraterrestrials for thousands of years, Miss Suzumiya. So far, all the telegraphs we've sent have gone unanswered in that same amount of time. Considering what I mentioned earlier, it's probably better that way. Mankind should focus on improving its own world before trying to seek out others. We as humans still have a lot of—"

"If you knew that, then why did you try to reach out to them in the first place?" she boomeranged.

Itsuki took a long, hard look at his commander. Her blinking eye was partly hooded by her eyelid, signaling her melancholy to his built-in detector. He smiled with compassion. "That's a very good question." The esper heaved a sigh from the canyon of his bosom and returned to the scenery, holding one hip with his right hand. The left cradled his chin as he pretended to reflect on his childhood. "Well...I guess you could say I was looking to cure my feelings of insignificance back then."

Starlight shuddered in Suzumiya's pupil. She eyed him peripherally. Itsuki's pupil darted down to hers. His head followed suit to deliver a timeless Koizumi Itsuki smile. Her shoulders sank with her tension, and a rare glimmer of vulnerability seeped up from the constellations multiplying in her eyes, but she quickly demoted her gaze to her knees with a flinch, masking her introspection behind another grimace.

"Now, then," Itsuki chuckled, resetting the conversation. He left her sulking side to train the Orion SpaceProbe on the Pegasus constellation he'd memorized from his star chart. "Have you figured out which one you want?"

She looked up at him, irritated by her own confusion.

"A telescope, that is."

Her understanding resurged. She silently reevaluated the clan of refractors. Itsuki felt like seasons had passed before she finally said in a snooty voice, "I'll have an easier time deciding on a full stomach."

For a second, he was at a loss for words. After a short recovery period, he was on board with her plan. "Right." He nodded.


"Uh-oh, I think we used too much olive oil in this one..."

Daifuku hadn't been enough to sate Suzumiya Haruhi's appetite. Like an expert event planner, she'd talked him into building castles of food. She would occasionally join him on the stove when she wasn't trumpeting, "Coming through~!" with a steaming pot in hand, but he was much happier to be sitting across from her on Zabuton cushions as they nudged brown rice into their mouths. He'd been quite famished after overdrawing so much energy for that cardiovascular exercise called cooking.

"Did you at least enjoy my Futomaki, Miss Suzumiya?"

"Too dry. I almost thought it was—..." Her twiddling chopsticks refrained from pinching a sliced ribbon of salmon. "...Hang on a second..." Incredulity changed her expression into that of a parent's after they just finished reading a bad report card. "Have you been calling me that the whole night...?" Astonishingly, she laid her chopsticks on her napkin and lectured him with the granitelike hardness of a strict mother, "How many times do I have to tell you to call me Haruhi? We went over this after school with an entire PowerPoint presentation, didn't we?"

"Right..." Itsuki relaxed his wrists on the Chabudai table and nodded remorsefully at his persecutor. "Sorry about that. It'll just take some getting used to on my part."

"Hmmm..." Her eyes found the ceiling fan as she held her chin with one finger pressed against her jowl. "I guess it's like that for me, too." She looked at him. "Then how about only using my surname during your brigade duties? It'll make more sense that way, anyway."

"Sounds fair enough."

Suzumiya grinned like a cute imp with her thumb still pressed into the indentation of her jowl. A text message alert chimed in the room. The source was Suzumiya's back pocket, but she ignored it. "So just to stonewall more surprises, I think it's high time that I interrogated you about this super mysterious childhood of yours."

"Alright." He told himself that her sparkling face didn't make him nervous. "What is it that you'd like to know?"

"For starters, where are your parents?" Suzumiya's chopsticks walked across a plate of glazed carrots. "I've never heard you talk about them before, and there're only two photos of them on the sideboard."

"Well, my father lives in the U.S." It was a half-lie.

"And your mother? Is she overseas, too?"

"Actually, she passed away a while back." It was a fact.

"Really...? And your father just spends his rent money in America while your uncle pays yours...?" Her chopsticks clinked harder against her bowl as she wadded up her ramen into a steaming ball of noodles. "What a piece of work this guy is, leaving his son here all alone like that," she muttered into her bowl. "Tragedies are supposed to bring family members closer together, not boat them out to foreign countries." Her 180 degree maneuver was suspicious to Itsuki.

"I wouldn't necessarily put it like that—"

Suzumiya's phone chimed again. "Now what?" Her hand dove behind her back to dig into her pocket and whip out the noisemaker.

Itsuki watched her face go pale. "Miss...Suzumiya?"

Her expression changed into a glare.

On the opposite end, Itsuki's hair felt like a carpet that was damp from trapped heat. "Is everything—"

She rocketed up to her feet, glossy eyes still glaring at the LCD screen. Before he could process the situation, Suzumiya collected her purse, shoehorned her heels into her oxfords with her thumb, and then headed for the vestibule.

"Miss Suzumiya...?"

She tugged the door open and slammed it behind her. The dizzy spell Itsuki underwent came with stomach-sickness. One blurry object in his peripheral vision took the solid shape of Suzumiya's beige coat.

Gasping, Itsuki seized the frock and went after her. "Miss Suzumiya!" Out in the hallway, he could hear her shoes thunking on the metal stairs that would lead her to the parking lot. His feet thundered down the stairwell as he catapulted her name at her back. He couldn't tell whether she didn't hear him or if she was just hellbent on going where she needed to go, but it was clear to him that anger piloted her now.

By the third landing, Itsuki lost her shadow. He exploded out of the emergency exit and jogged onto the flagstone pavement, where Suzumiya Haruhi was standing limply under a sodium lamp.

"Miss Suzumiya!" Itsuki called, short of breath. "You forgot your coat!"

She was distracted. Although he was panting behind her, Itsuki managed to follow her unbroken sightline. There in the sky flashed needles of light.

"...A meteor storm," Itsuki commentated, audibly stunned.

They watched the speeding flickers light the darkness, showering the planet in what could've been compared to rain falling horizontally.

Suzumiya squeezed her phone against her heart. She was the first to break the spell with, "...We'll always be insignificant on this planet, won't we...?"

The whisper sank inside Itsuki's heart like a tiny snowflake melting on his tongue. "Even butterflies are important to the ecosystem, Miss Suzumiya." He came towards her, hoping she would awaken from her mind long enough to notice his shadow and turn around. "I would like to think that we're all significant, including myself...but as far as you're concerned, there isn't any doubt in my mind that you're an irreplaceable person." He paused. "I think even Pluto can see that," he lightheartedly finished.

Inch by inch, his arms stretched out to cover her back with her coat.

Her chin declined. She turned her head and lowered it a little, looking at her shoulder. The uncurled fingers dangling by her thigh clenched into a fist before she walked away.

Koizumi Itsuki's stomach dropped. He stood there, abandoned under the lamplight with her coat held out. In an alternate universe, Suzumiya Haruhi would still be standing in front of him. He would touch the back of her oxfords with the toes of his socks and shelter her with the warmth of her coat. Her shoulders would shake under his hands until she shielded her eyes from him with her wrists, using one after the other to slide her tears away.

He would then kiss her scalp and hold her against his heartbeat

―BUH-LING―

Itsuki's knees almost buckled at the sound. He shakily pulled his phone out of his pocket and read the text message banner on the screen:

Miss Mori

Suzumiya's parents texted her after they were already in Paris. They never told her they weren't coming home tomorrow. Again.

Chapter Text

[Source]


"In other words, she does hope for the existence of aliens, time travelers, and espers. 
Her common sense, however, is telling her that these things don't exist, and this creates cognitive
dissonance."

Koizumi Itsuki


—Thluck—

—Thlock—

—Thluck—

( "There has to be someone who's living an extraordinary, exciting life." )

—Thlock—

( "But why isn't that person me?" )

—Thluck—

"Mmph!" Haruhi's eyes jumped open. Her grey ceiling was staring back at her.

—Thlock—

—Thluck—

Shock simmered into irritation. She grunted and bent her elbows, dragging her body up into a sitting position so that she could wipe her eye properly. "What on Earth is that awful noise?"

—Thluck—

—Thlock—

—Thluck—

—Thlock—

—Thl—

Haruhi's hand turned the knob of her leaking bathroom faucet. "Mmm," she growled under her breath, eyebrow twitching. "Stupid faucet. He never got this stupid thing fixed." Her grip on the knob weakened. "...But," she softly began, "this isn't what woke me up, is it...?" Feeling melancholy, she touched her lip in contemplation. "I could've sworn that I heard..." The gleam in her pupils quivered as her frown deepened. '...Me...'

Something red and fuzzy darted past the window in the corner of her eye.

Haruhi jerked her head around to her window in record time. The sweat beads tiaraing her forehead rolled down her eyebrows. Her fist came up to her heart as she blinked gingerly. "What was that...?" Excitement didn't color her astonishment—only ambivalence.

—Click—

Haruhi unlocked her front door and threw it open. She jogged outside, hoping to find a red beam zigzagging between the stars. Her pajamaed legs felt like algae once her feet got them to the middle of her residential neighborhood's cul-de-sac. "Wh…What is this?"

The entire district was grey. Stars and moonlight were nowhere to be seen, yet a pale blue light umbrellaed the dark sky like daylight feeding on smoggy air pollution. The underside of Pluto's body was bulging through that smog.

"...Nuh!" The back of Haruhi's risen foot trembled as she repositioned herself to step back. "What's going on?!" A memory struck her. "Wait. This is...just like that dream I had when Kyon—"

The sound of flowing lava stopped her words dead in their tracks. She was too petrified to turn around, but she could feel whatever it was taking shape as it grew taller behind her. Her hands gripped the pajama blouse shirting her sternum. A smile curled on her face. Then—

"Suzumiya!"

She didn't have time to look at her caller because her body was snatched off the ground like a hamster being lifted by a falcon the second after she'd been called. This body-snatcher came with firm arms that held her tightly against a thumping heart. The ear-popping pressure inside her dome was more deafening than both of their pulses combined, and she was already too dazed from her own whistling blood pressure to open her eyes. Everything except her heart rate slowed down when her feet touched a solid surface. Her moist eyes finally opened against a yellow dress shirt, but she didn't move because she was processing her body-snatcher's scent.

His cologne, peppered with his body's warm sweat, smelled familiar, and his embrace was as gentle as it was sorry—

"So it's you, after all..." What a grave and disappointed way of confirming her safety.

Haruhi's confused glare jumped up to her body-snatcher's face after she'd pulled him back by his forearms. Her pupils shrank into dots. "Koi...zumi?!"

Yet in so many ways he wasn't Koizumi. The skin fleshing his face was clenched with anger, sadness, exhaustion, and disturbance. His hands shook like he was a volcano due for eruption.

"Koizumi," she hesitated, gripping his sleeves to pull him closer as she leaned forward, "how did—"

Koizumi's eyes flicked to the side before narrowing. "There's no time."

Haruhi looked and felt queasy. "Huh?! — WAAAAAAH-OH!"

They rocketed into the stratosphere without warning. This time, Haruhi opened her eyes. Koizumi's body had transformed into a red silhouette that glowed with mosaic light from the inside. That body was transporting them across the sky in a red orb.

'I can't believe all this is really happening!' Haruhi's eyes were watering from the adrenaline rush. 'This isn't a dream; this is real! And he's been right in front of me all along!' She wanted to bear-hug him, strangle him, dissect him, interrogate him, slap the stew out of him, cry on his shirt, and then beat his chest until her fists made bruises all because he was finally here. She had found one of them. An esper.

Below their feet waddled a blue giant with extraterrestrial plasma cells glittering inside its own translucent body. A few glowing red dots that weren't around before flew around it. Compared to the giant, the red dots were like sesame seeds. There were five of them in total, but because they were flying so fast, her eyes couldn't catch up with them. Like satellites, the red dots orbited around the giant as though trying to stop it from moving further ahead.

No matter how the red dots attacked, the giant didn't seem to be stopping. Red laser-like beams now penetrated the giant's body nonstop, but as she was too far away, she couldn't make out the extent of damage it had sustained. One thing was for certain: the red beams didn't create any holes in the giant's body.

Fear and excitement intoxicated Haruhi's lungs as she shouted, "Koizumi, do you know what's happening?! This weird world — your powers — and that giant! Look, there's more!"

But more meant trouble for them because they were blocking Koizumi's flight path. These specific amoebas were taller and burlier than the one Koizumi's red counterparts were attacking. Determined to do the impossible, Koizumi flew through a narrow exit between their swinging arms without grazing them.

Haruhi laughed manically — "Aw'right, Koi-zumi!" — until a blue arm batted them out of the sky.

The impact caused little more than a dent in Koizumi's orb, but the deflection had bounced back against their bodies and jolted them like electricity. Another giant caught them in its palm and swung them to the ground. Haruhi's lungs were pushing out a genuine cry of fear. Koizumi's glowing red body managed to wrap its arms around her and change the angle of their fall so that he would suffer the repercussions. The orb that protected them as they corkscrewed earthwards became staticky. Dust and concrete exploded under and around it upon collision with the street.

Haruhi heard a piercing ring in her head as darkness consumed her vision. Her body felt like an egg that had been cracked open on the edge of a tiled kitchen counter. Consciousness danced back to her in a blurry fog of monochromatic colors. "M-Mmph..." Trembling, she weakly peeled herself off the orb's base with her hands and knees. Her dizzy eyes searched for Koizumi.

Lying flat in the chasm of the cratered street, Koizumi's body blinked like a red traffic light beside her.

Horror replaced Haruhi's pain. "Koi...z-zumi?"

Koizumi didn't budge or respond.

"KOIZUMI!" Haruhi touched his back and shook him with all the strength she had left. "Get up, Koizumi!" Her tears browned his yellow shirt as she rocked his body. "You have to get up right now!"

Koizumi didn't budge or respond.

Whimpering, Haruhi paused to soak in the reality of the situation. When she couldn't accept it, she went from crying to growling. "I said get UP!" she sobbed angrily, shaking him harder. "Get UP, I said! You're not supposed to die!" Her voice was getting stuffier. "You can't!"

Koizumi didn't budge or respond.

Haruhi bent over his face and wailed, "Please, Koizumi!"

The orb around them faded. Haruhi noticed this and immediately looked up to see if the giants had noticed, too. They did, and in reaction, lifted their blue feet above the two humans.

Haruhi froze in terror as she watched them bring their soles down. She fisted Koizumi's shirt and roared to the top of her lungs, "Stop it! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!"

Silence.

She flinched. The blue giants, who were frozen stiff, started crumbling from the head down. When their upper torsos fell off, their remaining body also began to disintegrate, finally dissolving into beads smaller than dust and spreading over the debris.

"Th...They're gone..."

Her neighborhood was quieter than her chronically empty house now. The red dots that had been fighting the first giant scattered after their enemy decomposed. They shot over to Haruhi and Koizumi, tripling in size as they got closer.

If it had been any other time, Haruhi would've invested every ounce of her attention into them, but this wasn't the time for that. She was reminded by their red orbs of Koizumi's unconsciousness and went back to him without a second thought. "Koizumi! They're gone now, Koizumi," she spoke with the sweet-toned desperation of a child who knew Koizumi would awaken at any moment. "You can wake up now...! It's safe...!"

"..."

"..." Haruhi's shoulders sagged.

Koizumi's body shuddered.

Haruhi gasped. "Koizumi!"

Like her, Koizumi used his hands and knees to lift himself off the ground, but he could only lift halfway. The faint glow sheathing him dimmed until it was his normal body that she saw. His face was drained of all health, but in spite of its sickliness, he still mustered a feeble frown as he looked at her through the narrow gaps of his vision. "Are you alright?" he said tightly, resisting a cough.

Haruhi whimpered in happiness at his ability to speak. With shining eyes, she nodded. Koizumi smiled weakly. A rill of light fell between them.

"What?" Haruhi looked up and saw a break in the sky, like someone had punched a hole into a plastic wrap with a pencil.

The hole multiplied into five, and soon the whole sky was cracking like an eggshell.

"What's happening?!" Haruhi asked, expecting Koizumi to answer. Instead, she heard a tearful—

"I'm sorry about all this, Miss Suzumiya."

—and felt Koizumi's hand caress her hand. Then something sharp knifed through her brain. Suddenly, she lost her balance and fell downwards. Everything cartwheeled. A hard impact came out of nowhere and rammed against her left side.

When Haruhi tried to sit up and open her eyes, she saw a familiar ceiling above her head and was stunned. She was in her room, and turning around, she realized she had fallen out of bed with half of her blanket tangled around her waist.

—Thlock—

—Thluck—

—Thlock—

Revulsion blued Haruhi's face as her eyebrow ticked. It was some time before she could think or breathe again. Under a half dreamlike state, she wobbled off the ground, flung herself against her window, and looked outside. She saw a few twinkling stars and the shining street lamps. Lights were coming from other people's windows and occasional silhouettes moving behind them.

Overwhelmed, Haruhi stumbled backwards and sat wearily on the floor, thinking that if all this had been a dream, then why did it feel so real? The giants slamming her down, the salty taste of her tears, and the warmth of Koizumi's glowing red body...

Usurped by the emotions and sensations it remembered from that event, Haruhi's body ordered her hand to snatch her cellphone off her lamp table and dial Koizumi's number between her legs. She held her breath as the ringer purred, blinking only to keep her eyes dry. Koizumi's voicemail answered in place of him. Haruhi's shoulders slumped as real dread washed over her wide eyes. She dropped her back against the side of her mattress, trying to make sense of her conclusions.

What on Earth was her subconscious thinking? Even Sigmund Freud would laugh out loud.

One hundred eighty seconds later, a text message bannered her screen:

Deputy Chief

I hope you'll forgive me for missing your call earlier, Miss Suzumiya. Given the time, I wasn't sure if I should call you back or if you had called me by mistake. Is everything alright?

Relief melted Haruhi so thoroughly that she almost cried.

Koizumi was still Koizumi.