Chapter 6:

The room was shockingly quiet when I knocked and entered to no reply, and closing the door behind me shut out the muffled sounds of people outside, and made it even more quiet. I found myself stretching a little in that welcome silence, smiling as I heaved a sigh and let my backpack drop onto the table with a soft thud. Guess no one's here yet. It's not often that I'm the first here. Usually Haruhi is in the act of forcing Asahina into yet another costume, or Koizumi is sitting at the table with the ever-present smile, or at the very least Yuki is silently reading in the corner with that presenceless feel about her.

Yet after a moment I realized I wasn't alone. I don't know if she shifted, or cleared her throat, but I suddenly became aware that Haruhi was also in the room, sitting in front of the computer with her "Brigade Leader" pyramid sternly pointing upward, and gazing intently at the screen—or through the screen? It didn't seem like she was looking at anything at all, but she was definitely focused, enough so that she hadn't even noticed me enter. Then I realized that she probably hadn't heard me because she had earbuds in her ears, blocking out all background noise.

I frowned as I paced my way around to her and stood next to her behind the desk. Still no response. What on earth could have her so enthralled? On the screen were swirling colored lights, the usual ambiance of an audio recording, but she wasn't really paying attention to them.

"Ne, Haruhi." Not even a blink. I cleared my throat and tapped her on the shoulder. "Ne, Haruhi."

This time she looked up, completely torn away from whatever world she was in, and looked at me. In that moment of startledness, I read a hundred expressions of anxiety, self-consciousness, and vulnerability, things I would usually never in a thousand years see on her face. After that initial moment, she relaxed and smiled at me, the usual cockiness presiding in her expression. "Oh, it's you, Kyon. What do you want?"

"Whatcha listening to?" I asked curiously.

She took out one of the earbuds and handed it to me. "Here." I hesitated before taking it, having to lean down with my face inches from hers in order to reach. I concentrated on the sound suddenly invading my sense of hearing in order to quell the feeling I got from our faces being in such close proximity to one another. I could detect what seemed to be voiceless screeching, humming, buzzing...all sorts of unearthly sounds, all with pitch, all without regard to any of the others, seemingly completely random.

She watched for my expression eagerly. "What do you think?"

I grimaced. "Sounds like a bunch of mindless screeching. What lunatic made this stuff?"

"Penderecki."

"He's crazy. What's the name of this crap?"

"'Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima'."

That made me stop still. "Oh," I said, sudden realization hitting me like the changes of sound, panicked, swirling, screaming, and then silence. "Wow."

"I know."

"Holy shit."

She snorted in laughter, though it was hushed, like one would upon remembering a joke of a deceased family member while standing before their grave.

"Shush, I'm listening."

"I know, I know."

We continued listening, completely still through the minute-long silences in the middle, in mindful awe during the times between. Wrapped up as I was in the music, I found myself studying the girl next to me, intent on the screen again. I watched the way she curled up her fist under the side of her chin, the fine lines of her jaw outlining the delicacy of her features. I loved her expression. I never got to see this side of her. Well, rarely, that is. Never saw her let down her guard. She was so translucent; it was like watching the sun rise through a 13th century stained glass window.

The music ended, like it had begun, suddenly, chaotically, and we both heaved a deep sigh and relaxed our tensed shoulders. I took the earbud out, handing it to her, and stretched, finding myself surprised at how stiff I was. We'd been sitting/standing like that for almost 10 minutes, after all. A gentle, understanding silence passed between the two of us. By now, I would've expected the rest to have come in, but Haruhi is Haruhi, after all. Likely she had wished that they wouldn't, so they hadn't. Likely that she'd wished I'd come in to listen with her, and I had. It's a little frightening, the implications of that.

At last she broke the silence. "What did you think?"

I thought. "Beautiful seems like the word...and yet..."

"I know." She nodded eagerly. "I've listened to it three times in a row, and I still don't have a word for it."

We smiled at each other. A moment had been shared, just between the two of us, and it was alien to anyone else, even to the real alien who quietly entered a few minutes later and took her seat by the window to read.

There are some things one can only do with Haruhi. Those are usually the moments when you realize you're alive.

.

I'll never know if that night was chance, or if Haruhi wished for me to be there. All I can say is, I pray to God it'll never happen again.

It was only slightly chilly, with the mocking mid-May hints of warmth that enticed almost every girl at school to shed their sweaters or jackets to reveal rolled-up sailor-top sleeves, and to fold up the waist-bands of their skirts to reveal as much leg as possible. I, for one, enjoyed it heartily, particularly on Asahina-san, whose legs were worth getting caught gawking at. Yuki, of course, never even considered such methods, and continued to wear her black cardigan without so much as breaking a sweat. For her part, Haruhi scoffed at the girls who did so, but before she left the rehearsal room that afternoon, I saw her sneakily hitch up her skirt an inch or two. It must be assumed that she did it purely because it actually was hot that afternoon, because, as I've noticed, Haruhi is absolutely clueless about her own sex-appeal. Despite the infamous bunny-girl incidents in the past; it was advertising her club, not her body.

She was uncommonly quiet as we walked down that hill together as usual, from habit, from hinted enjoyment at each other's company, and because the hill had to be descended, as usual. There was an unreadable look in her eyes, as though, despite her outward silence, inside her head several voices were yelling at each other and leaving imprinted echoes in the marble corridors of her mind. I got the feeling that there was probably nothing more real and tangible in this world than what went on in her brain. This world was ephemeral, after all; from Koizumi's point of view, the work of kings and emperors for millenia of wiser ages was a fiction based on a former reality. But Haruhi's emotions, her fears and desires and moments of inspiration: those were written on the stone tablets of eternal consequence.

The hill leveled and passed away, and still we said nothing to each other, her thinking and me wondering what she was thinking. What I wouldn't give for the Won Ring of Pawah right now. I concentrated on the people around us, passing by in flocks from work or school to home, who did not know, would never know, that they were all invention. I myself was merely an invention; but the knowledge of it made it seem more surreal and incomprehensible.

At the crosswalk where we usually parted, there was a child who had fallen from his bike and scraped his knee. His mother came running from her tiny lawn across the street and began to comfort him.

Haruhi watched the boy and his mother, and then looked at the crosswalk, and then to me. I waited patiently, attempting to hold her intense gaze and failing as my eyes finally drifted over her shoulder to the rows of crowded houses, laundry airing, ghostlike; miscellaneous objects taking up space on unused porches; busy kitchens of sizzling meat and steamy rice.

"Kyon." Her single word caught my attention, and I forced myself to meet her intense gaze. She took a step forward, closing the distance to less than a foot, and measured the top of her head to my chin. Then she stepped back, considering the pattern her shoe made in the pebble-studded dirt to the side of the sidewalk as she scuffed it gently. Finally, she sighed and cast her gaze on the failing hues of the post-sunset clouds, gathering in heaps on the horizon.

"Do you ever feel like this world is just an eidólon?"

"A...a what? Haruhi, you know I can't speak English."

"A phantom, an apparition, a mirrored reflection that gets closer as you get closer and fades away when you step back." She gave an enigmatic laugh. "It's this world that I want to know...and discover its mysteries...but when I do, how do I know that they are real?"

I couldn't answer.

"Maybe it's just in my head," she continued, shifting her gaze to the other side, still not looking at me. "Have you ever considered that, that maybe reality is just something you made up in your head, that you're living a dream, or maybe someone else's dream?"

Damn it, Haruhi, stop reading my thoughts as you please and ignoring them when you don't! Teenage girls are hard enough to understand, but you are the worst.

"I've considered it," I answered carefully, but she was no longer listening.

I offered to walk her all the way home, for reasons even I couldn't guess at, but she refused. She had entered a world of deep thoughts which I had no access to. I shrugged and let her have her way.

I arrived back at home, taking off my shoes at the familiar entry, hugging my sister with familiar affection, eating dishes I'd eaten maybe a hundred times before. At about 9 pm, my mother realized we were out of miso and sent me to the store to fetch some so we could have soup in the morning.

I was on my way home when I heard the unmistakable sound of Haruhi's "bossy" voice coming from across the street. It was too dark to see clearly, the moon being hidden behind a thick layer of clouds, especially as the corner I heard it coming from was an unlit playground, and though normally I'd just assume she'd found some kid to boss around and head the other direction lest I be caught up in the whirlwind, too, I heard a distinct undertone which made me pause, and walk in that direction.

It was fear.

It goes to show you how much time I've been forced to be around her that I was even able to pick up on that. Haruhi is very good at hiding any hint of vulnerability. But it was there, and hearing it frightened the bejeezes out of me. As I got closer, I heard a couple of low male voices, too, and picked up my pace. They were still a little ways away, but dimly I could see what was happening.

There were several of them, all in their mid-20s, and at least a few somewhat intoxicated. She was standing in front of the swingset, arms crossed, as though she'd been sitting on one of the swings and had gotten up to leave when they'd approached.

The conversation was pretty typical of such a situation, and went something like this:

"Hey hey hey, what's a pretty young lady like you doing out here at this time of night?"

"It's none of your business. Just leave me alone."

Sick laughter. "C'mon, don't you want a little fun?"

"I'm not interested in your definition of 'fun'. I'm leaving now. Don't follow me."

I was almost there as I watched her try to side step them, but one of them blocked her path with his arm, and she stepped quickly backwards to avoid him touching her.

"C'mon, you must be looking for some fun, dressed like that." All of them snickered, and I distinctly heard her gasp before I dropped the grocery bag I was carrying and broke out into a sprint.

"I said...leave me alone!" One of them seized her arm, and she kicked him in the shin. Two others grabbed her from behind, and she let out a sound that, were it anyone but Haruhi, tough, take-care-of-myself Haruhi, might have developed into a scream.

But it was too late. I cut into the scene ferociously, garnering startled looks from them all, along with a look of delight from Haruhi, and began pounding every ounce of flesh on those bastards that I could reach.

I didn't see the baseball bat. The already dark sky went completely black.

.

I woke an indeterminable amount of time later. It was likely that it was only a couple of minutes, though. The first sensations that I could detect through the extraordinary pain in my head were a warm weight on my chest, and the sound of weeping.

Wait. The sound of Haruhi weeping. Haruhi doesn't cry. I've never caught her at it, anyway. She gets disgruntled, angry, and bored, but never sad enough to cry. What was going on?

I remembered...hitting someone...and then an explosion in my head...

My eyes bolted open suddenly as I remembered everything. I sat up so suddenly that dizziness overcame me, and I was forced to lie back down, closing my eyes again. Vaguely, I could feel something wet and sticky on the back of my head.

But the warmth on my chest—that belonged to someone else. I cracked my eyes open to see the tear-streaked face of Haruhi peering down at me. When she saw that my eyes were open, she took a long, pained gasp of breath and collapsed face-down back onto my chest.

"Kyon...you're awake...I thought you'd never..."

Her hands clenched suddenly where they were grabbing my shirt.

I sat up again, more slowly this time, and pulled her chin up with my hand sharply to look up at me. "Haruhi...are you okay? They didn't...did they?"

She shook her head vigorously. God, I can't tell you how much that relieved me. "They left after one of them hit you...They hit you so hard, they were afraid they'd killed you, so they ran..."

I let out a little laugh, wincing and touching the back of my head as I did so. "Lucky for me my skull's so thick, I guess."

She snorted. "Sure, that not an overused line at all." She was still plastered to my chest.

"Hey, I did just get hit over the head, 'kay? What, you're expecting me to be creative at a time like this?"

She finally smiled, and it was a beautiful smile, even through the tears. "Baka," she said.

I gathered her into my arms and we sat there together, clinging to each other out of relief, pain, and exhaustion while the moon came out from behind the clouds at last and cast a silvery glow on her hair. Even though the evening had decided to suddenly turn very chilly, I felt a strange, welcome warmth, that had nothing to do with body heat, spread from my chest to my arms and legs and face. I tucked her head under my chin and listened to her calmer breathing.

I think, though it took me a long time afterward to admit it, that this is when I first fell in love with Haruhi Suzumiya.

Fine