"Don't worry, I won't let them."


...

'Sink or swim,' thought Kyon triumphantly to himself. He inwardly cringed when the thoughts came to him unwillingly. What had gotten into him?

Kunikida merely shrugged like he didn't care that he just got the beat-down of a lifetime. Kyon glanced at the plastic board in front of him where a smug line of four connected pieces shined in all their glory. It had been easy. His trap move worked perfectly this time, once he learned to pay attention to the rest of the pieces being placed around him. Swift.

Once Kyon realized his concentration on the board could finally loosen, he swiveled his head in the only direction that mattered.

"Nagato, how's it go-" Kyon began but the words faltered in his mouth when he saw the utter defeat of her opponent.

Taniguchi was rubbing the back of his head in what Kyon assumed to be a sheepish gesture. Well, he ought to be ashamed with what challenge he brought against Nagato. Which is to say, none at all.

The board in front of the stoic brigade member was barely filled in the slightest. She must have defeated him in the four turns it would take to place four pieces in the first place. Nagato stood, in that polite way of hers, and pushed her chair in. If Kyon could read body language, she was 'dropping the mic' on what he assumed was the easiest win of her life.

Before Kyon could enjoy the sight much further and offer Nagato his own congratulatory grin, Haruhi was screeching nearby, adopting the role of a pterodactyl turned referee.

"AND TANIGUCHI WITH A STAGGERING DEFEAT! YUKI MAKES A TRIUMPHANT AND GLORIOUS RETURN!"

Haruhi quickly turned to the board and marked in the results with all the energy of a canary on speed. Taniguchi and Kunikida's names crossed out with an unnecessarily large 'X.' Kyon and Nagato would be moving on to the next round within the Loser's bracket.

Kyon frowned. He couldn't recall hearing the results of his own triumphant win. His frown deepened when he realized how childish he was being. 'This is the Haruhi-effect in full-force,' he reasoned.

As Haruhi finished re-writing in the names for the next round ("Checkers!"), Kyon took this time to take in his surroundings, having already settled into the mood of the tournament.

The rest of the room was buzzing with a light energy that Kyon could almost find pleasant. Without the risk of the world being at stake, Kyon thought for a second that they just might be a normal club engaging in the world's least interesting tournament ever conceived. And though it went beyond his excitement towards a normal life, it was abuzz with some other feeling he couldn't exactly put a name to.

Tsuruya and Mikuru were chatting as usual, with Tsuruya glancing over in his direction every once in a while. Kunikida and Taniguchi stood off to the side, attempting to intercept their conversation and become relevant again. 'Losers must exit through the door that way.'

And last but not least, Kyon was beyond words to be witnessing Nagato and Koizumi, once again, engaged in what he could only assume was a heated exchange. Nagato wasn't even looking at the taller man and though Koizumi's face was calm, his mouth moved in a flurry of indistinct scoldings. Or so Kyon thought. He didn't like it in the slightest, whatever it was.

He briefly wondered if their frequent conversing had anything to do with the 'false alarm' they both felt yesterday. Or if Koizumi and Nagato's factions really were beginning to work closely together. Either thought made Kyon a little nervous.

But nothing was worse than seeing the way Koizumi spoke to Nagato and how she just took it.

But before Kyon could intercede, or even stand up from his chair, Haruhi was already slamming new boards down on the table. The tell-tale square pattern of a Checkers board. Another easy to play, slightly more difficult to win, type of board game.

"Everyone! Take your seats!" Haruhi said, grabbing the attention of the room. "We had an exciting first round… not without its upsets," she glanced at Kyon in that moment and he pretended not to notice. "But with this next round, we grow closer to the much deserved victor!" She smiled wide.

'I'm sure you mean yourself,' Kyon thought, almost unnecessarily. He was sure everyone was thinking the exact same thing.

The tournament was updated:

Round 2-

Koizumi vs. Mikuru

Tsuruya vs. Haruhi

With Nagato and Kyon squaring off with the loser of each.

Kyon didn't like the looks of this, especially concerning the innocent Mikuru. Knowing Koizumi, Kyon doubted his charming good-looks would ever transfer over into forfeiting a win for the sake of a pretty girl. 'No,' thought Kyon, 'Asahina-san will surely be destroyed.'

Grimacing at his own doubtful thoughts towards Asahina's abilities once again, he turned his mind over to the other pair.

Tsuruya and Haruhi were already staring each other down, a smirk donning either face. Kyon could just see the electricity burning between the two of them. He didn't know what to make of it, and though there was no doubt in Kyon's mind that Haruhi wouldn't lose, he couldn't help but think that Tsuruya was exactly the type of challenge that Haruhi was looking for.

'Whatever it's worth, I'm glad to see them face off.' Kyon silently appreciated the situation. Not even questioning why he was happy for Haruhi in this regard. He hoped this tournament would open the doors for Tsuruya joining the Brigade on more of their whacky antics.

Competitiveness taking hold over the room, the SOS Brigade and guests silently gathered around the table. Even Kyon couldn't deny this time around that everyone was suddenly taking this silly situation at least a little seriously. Even with literally nothing at stake (and no, he wasn't counting the so-called 'wall of fame' as a prize.)

Asahina was biting her nails in anticipation as she took her seat with Kunikida and Taniguchi offering her words of encouragement nearby. Koizumi, stone-faced as always, sat confidently in his seat. He smiled close-eyed at Asahina and Kyon couldn't stifle a chill down his neck. That was the smile of a killer… at board games, at least.

Tsuruya and Haruhi sat down at an equal pace, not once taking their eyes off of the other as if looking away would open themselves up for attack. Kyon resisted the urge to roll his eyes but did so anyway. Still, he found himself grinning, in what he feared to be genuine excitement.

Nagato came up to stand beside him, and were he anybody else, he wouldn't have noticed her statue-like presence.

Without prompting, she spoke, catching Kyon off-guard.

"I did my best," she said in barely a whisper. It was a message just for him.

Once her words and demeanor of the game sunk in, Kyon cracked a smile. One word of encouragement and Nagato shot towards her easy victory. She went from being 'down' in her seat and losing to Asahina, to obliterating her opponent.

"You sure did," he replied before turning his attention back to the table. As glad as he was that she perked up, he also hoped this wasn't another example of Nagato 'obeying him.' Koizumi's smug face once more popped unwillingly into his mind and Kyon glared at the physical version of the esper sitting mere feet in front of him.

He could return to those thoughts later and offer his own interpretation, but for now Kyon wanted nothing more than to imagine Nagato was instilled with competitiveness and a desire to see Taniguchi defeated just as much as he did.

It was all he could do at the moment.

"Are you ready?" Haruhi announced to the room from her seated position. "Round 2… START!"

The timer ticked down. It was difficult for Kyon to keep up. On one hand, Asahina made decisions with a deliberate slowness that implied she was thinking very carefully about her next moves. While Koizumi, his ever-present smile never faltering, made quick work of whatever pieces Asahina placed down.

He quickly jumped his piece over three of her tiles, rendering her last few moves to make it to the other side of the board ineffective. Asahina reared back in surprise and a low gasp escaped the crowd. 'Just kidding.'

Asahina took on a surprisingly offensive approach, trying to 'king' as many of her pieces as possible while Koizumi chose to negate any and all attempts at her advance. It was painful to say the least. But Kyon was happy to note that maybe Asahina wasn't as bad at games as he originally assumed.

Kyon took this moment to look at Haruhi and Tsuruya's game and how it was progressing, which is to say, it wasn't really at all. Both Haruhi and Tsuruya were highly aggressive, and in doing so, made it impossible for the opposite team to either capture pieces or move across the board.

Every time Tsuruya captured one of Haruhi's pieces, the SOS Brigade club president let out a steamy huff of air; her shoulders rising like a cat's in pure hostility. While Tsuruya was as calm and confident as ever. Her fang-toothed smile mocking Haruhi into making a mistake, or so Haruhi probably assumed.

'Why am I analyzing this,' Kyon wondered, rubbing his scalp. He was starting to become worried. As simple and innocent as the games appeared, he always tended to underestimate the craziness that accompanied Haruhi wherever she went.

And judging by Haruhi's current expression, things would not go well if Tsuruya were to win one against their capricious god.

Kyon turned to Nagato, hoping for some sort of reassurance that he still had nothing to worry about.

"Nagato," he whispered behind his palm.

She looked at him, broad-eyed and calculating. "Yes?"

"Is everything okay? I mean—" he gestured to the room. A.K.A. the world.

Nagato's following silence unnerved him, like she was trying to find the best way to put this. But she merely turned her attention back to the games at hand.

"Perhaps."

'Perhaps? Perhaps? That is NOT the word I was hoping for, Nagato!' Kyon sighed.

"These are the longest games of checkers I have ever seen," commented Taniguchi. Haruhi angrily shushed him.

After a moment, Asahina's quiet voice rose up. "Ah…" Koizumi had filled the board and she no longer had any more viable moves. "Good game, Koizumi-kun."

He nodded his head. "You were a worthy opponent, Asahina-san."

Kyon scoffed. He idly wondered if this was some metaphor for their factions warring with one another. But relief filled him to see one game was finally over with a predictable conclusion.

The other game on the other hand… their game was nearing to a close, but both neck and neck in terms of pieces or moves. Their boards nearly wiped clean. Kyon wanted to just sweep the board off the table and end this nonsense.

But he didn't have to do anything… since suddenly Asahina came and placed a soft hand against Tsuruya's shoulder. To anyone else, it might have looked like a meaningless gesture, and perhaps it was, but soon after…

"Haru-nyan! I can't go on! You win this round!" And Tsuruya threw her hands up in a dramatic motion.

Even Haruhi looked confused. She stared at Tsuruya, open-mouthed, looked down at the board, then back at the grinning green-haired girl, and then closed her mouth into a confident grin of her own. Just as planned.

Haruhi crossed her arms and 'harumph'd.' Her cockiness never left her in a minute. Kyon resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. 'Glad that's over.'

"Nice try, Tsuruya-san. And good game!" Haruhi slammed her palms down on the table and surveyed the room. "Another successful round!" She pointed at Kyon specifically. "Losers! You know the drill."

'I'm sure an unsuccessful round is the one where you lose,' Kyon thought. But still immediately took his seat. 'If Haruhi stills needs to be kept in check when it came to checkers…' he couldn't imagine the world in which Haruhi lost. It just couldn't come to pass.

Asahina sat down across from him and he offered her an encouraging smile. She looked like she was still having fun in some form. This must be where she truly shines. "Great job, Asahina-san. I'm sure you could have had him."

She giggled in that endearing way of hers and merely shrugged. "I just got a little lucky. Please don't hold back on me, Kyon-kun!" Her plea seemed genuine, and though Kyon had originally planned on going easy on the time-traveler, he now felt that holding back was more insulting than not.

"Yeah, Asahina-san, put Kyon in his place!" Taniguchi piped up out of nowhere, pumping his fist. Kunikida smiled pleasantly next to him in agreement.

'Go away, I wasn't talking to you,' Kyon glared.

Nagato was already waiting patiently when Tsuruya finally decided to take her seat. Apparently losing to Haruhi was not a bother to her in the slightest since her fang tooth was on prominent display when she smiled. 'At least someone is having fun.'

"LOSERS ROUND 2! PREPARE YOURSELVES!"

Haruhi was back to yelling. And wanting to stop unnecessarily worrying about some imaginary problem, Kyon turned to the board and got to playing. Knowing Asahina's play style from the previous round would give him a great advantage. As well as having played checkers on numerous occasions (including several variations like Chinese Checkers, Go, and even mancala) with Koizumi, Kyon figured he had a decent strategy under his belt.

Kyon knew he had nothing to worry about with Nagato. He felt her presence next to him, her arm moving upwards to grab her first piece.

"Good luck, Nagato," he said, knowing she wouldn't need it.

"Thank you, Kyon-kun! It was a lot of fun being able to play against you. I still have a lot to learn!" Mikuru bowed in her seat as if checkers was some sort of formal event.

"Ah, Asahina-san, that's really not necessary…" Kyon rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. "You did very well." Suddenly he was wondering if he ought to have just let the bumbling mascot win. He had nothing to gain from defeating her…

And yet when he looked up at the updated tournament board, he saw that he would be squaring up against Nagato in the next round.

Nagato took point against Tsuruya, who must have given an honest fight. Her toothy grin not once wavering, even in the face of elimination. "Nyoro~! Lost my groove! Yuki is a sharp one."

"Wow Kyon, maybe you won't be a complete disappointment after all!" Haruhi commented as she stepped back from the bracket, admiring her work.

"Maybe I'll be facing you in the final round," he replied with joking disdain.

"HAH!" The brigade president let out a loud snorting laugh that Kyon found decidedly unladylike. He grimaced when her laugh continued on for far longer than necessary. "You'd need all the help in the world for that to happen!" She circled around the room, once more gathering the attention of the room. "Especially once you see the final game of the tournament. Pure skill needed, Kyon!"

She ducked under a desk, and pulled out just another tattered board game. It was chess. A soft gasp escaped the mouths of Mikuru and Tsuruya. The only two with any real investment left in this game.

"Both the regular and loser's bracket will be facing off at the same time. The winners of each will then continue on to the ultimate finisher!" Haruhi immediately busied herself with setting up the pieces on the table.

Kyon took that moment to turn to his alien opponent. For some reason, it never occurred to him that the two might verse each other. He didn't think he would even make it this far. He figured he had no chance against her anyway but hoped she was at least having fun. He voiced these thoughts.

Nagato sat, hands folded in her lap as she took in his words. In some split dimension, Kyon thought he could almost imagine a quirk of her lips, something akin to a smile, but it was surely just some trick of the light. He quelled his odd hope.

Her head tilted slightly to him. "Do your best," was all she said.

Kyon grinned and nodded. He certainly would.


AN: I love you guys. I am the worst at updating my stories and yet some of you still stick around and read. This is my favorite story and I just don't want to give up on it. I keep getting distracted by other stories and just life in general.

But here it is! Another update! I promise this Tournament arc is coming to a close soon and it has a point, I swear lol. I have this problem of sometimes being a little too subtle about what I'm trying to say. It's something I struggle with as a screenwriter as well (did I mention I study film?) And I did say this story was slow-burn. And boy did I mean slow. I just can't possibly write Nagato as being more emotional than she is. It just completely takes me out of a story. Subtle... subtle... Nagato is very subtle. So forgive me if things aren't progressing in a way you might prefer! It's coming... something is...

Anyway, more SOS Brigade shenanigans. I love just writing them messing around. When I look back at my old chapters, my writing sure has changed a lot. I'm really trying to keep it consistent but it gets more and more difficult instead. I feel like I'm losing it sometimes.

Please review! And thanks for reading.