The bleak glow of a new dawn found me slumped in a chair. My muscles ached and I had a damp spot of drool on my shirt. Then the realization went through my mind like a jolt of electricity and I was suddenly wide awake. I had fallen asleep by accident but I woke up in the same reality as before! The nightmare was over!

If I was temporarily experiencing a sense of exhilaration it was cut short by what I saw next. It was rather evident that the only bed in the room was untouched. I rummaged through the bedsheets just to be certain and the only possible conclusion was so clear that anybody could see it. Nobody had slept in that bed during the night. A cursory examination of the room failed to produce any evidence of Haruhi's presence, even the towels in the bathroom were in a neat undisturbed pile on the rack. The solitary oni mask kept grimacing at me from the table as if mocking my futile efforts.

Haruhi had disappeared as if she had never been here in the first place. But if I was to be completely honest, hadn't I known it from the beginning? It had indeed been the terminal station, the fever dream to end all dreams. I had met a ghost for the last Bon dance and now I would never see her again. The truth was just as harsh as I had feared but for some reason there wasn't any grief left in me, only hollowness. Maybe that was how it was meant to be when one realizes that they cannot find a heaven or hell willing to receive their stricken soul, only the limbo.

My current predicament made it obvious enough that in the end I had indeed accomplished something. However, I might never find out whether that something was positive or negative. Did it matter? I couldn't say. I had done my best.

I sat down in the chair again. Regardless of what I did next it wouldn't matter any more because the train had left the station for the last time. So, I could just as well not even bother trying.

I don't know how long I sat there just watching the empty room and letting my mind wander. It would have been merciful if I could have stopped thinking as well but that was easier said than done. The human mind is a fickle thing and at some point I found out that mine was chewing a particular memory from the past. I didn't like the look of it and tried to throw the memory away but like a dog playing fetch my mind picked it up again until I gave up and examined it more closely.

The time was last December, the place that alternate reality just after Nagato had summoned it into existence. On my first encounter I had been stabbed by Asakura but the memory that I couldn't put out of my mind was related to the second encounter during which I saw what happened after the first me had passed out from blood loss. Nagato prevented Asakura from finishing me off and then disintegrated her, and there was something in that scene that bothered me but I wasn't sure what it was. It couldn't be sympathy for the devil because the poorly concealed bloodlust behind Asakura's cheerful and agreeable facade made her utterly despicable in my mind. It wasn't even the fact that she was specifically summoned there by Nagato to protect her alternate self from harm, something that Asakura was arguably trying to do by stabbing me. No, her distressed confusion when she was put down for actually doing what she was supposed to do, by the same person who had programmed her, couldn't make me raise a single finger to interfere. She had done her duty and I had now done mine but other than that we were totally different. If it was up to me, she should stay eternally banished out of all realities I could dream of.

But still, there was something in it. I had seen Asakura getting disintegrated earlier as well so why didn't that bother me? Where was the difference? On that time she had been chatting nonchalantly despite the fact that her body was turning to dust. They were humanoid interfaces so getting one interface destroyed was probably just a minor inconvenience to them, like breaking my cell phone might be for me ...

... and then I understood. On the second time it happened in the alternate reality where data entities didn't exist, Nagato had even confirmed it. It meant that the Asakura who had stabbed me had to be ... a human? And for a human, I dare to say that getting disintegrated is more than just a minor inconvenience.

In the end, it wasn't specifically Asakura's fate that had been bothering me but that of everybody else. Once an alternate reality was terminated, didn't every living being of that reality meet the same fate? Or was everything just like a dream, a random distraction that felt important only while it was there but was easily forgotten at the dawn of a new day?

I might find out soon, there was a tangible sense of foreboding in the atmosphere of this reality.

...

And then somebody knocked on the door. Had the nightmare returned once again, still not sated by the havoc it had managed to inflict? Who was it going to be this time? Kyouko Tachibana and that creepy alien Kuyou as a tag team? Miss Mori from the Organization as a chamber maid? Or perhaps something even worse? Please save me from a knife-crazy Asakura, that would be so incredibly lame! I opened the door with great apprehension. I probably shouldn't have done that but old habits die hard.

Oh boy!

This was really the bottom of the bottom. Please don't tell me that we are a couple!

"That is a most bizarre thing to say!"

Koizumi faked an expression of surprise but I could clearly see that he was also intrigued by it. Just to be completely clear, any romantic plot is absolutely out of question. I flat out refuse to play along so if that's what's in your mind then you can give up and exit the same way you just came in.

The official mysterious transfer student scratched his chin, looked at my attire and took a glance around the room. For some reason he didn't seem to have aged at all. He was even wearing the same clothes as usual. Had I met another ghost?

"You don't have to worry because I don't have any confessions to make, at least of the kind that you seem to be expecting. Anyway, this is highly unusual. Would you mind letting me know what is it that has happened here?"

I considered that for a moment and decided that it was a fair enough request.

If I was you I would take a seat because this is a long story, and I'm not quite sure where to start.

So, we sat down and I gave him a more or less direct account of events that had passed since last Saturday or whenever that was. There were some things that I omitted intentionally because they were none of Koizumi's business anyway. He made a couple of questions here and there but didn't otherwise interfere with any remarks of his own, and I was grateful for that. It might have taken closer to an hour until I was done.

And this is where I am now. That is what happened and I'll be damned if I can make head or tails of it.

...

Koizumi remained silent for a considerable time, keeping his eyes closed and tapping his temple with one finger. I must admit that there was quite a lot to be digested in it but I could also see that he was just mulling it over to come up with some outlandish new theory for his own entertainment. I wasn't disappointed.

"This is quite extraordinary! The potential implications are sweeping."

You may see it just as an intellectual exercise but for me it has been a living hell.

"Well, you are right on at least one detail. This place is not real."

Do you mean that the real world still exists somewhere else?

"I saw it a while ago which makes me fairly certain of the fact that it still does."

What about Haruhi and Nagato, are they ... ?

"They are fine, as is everybody else. The events that you experienced are constrained to this reality, without direct consequences to the real world. I believe that if you want you can actually call Nagato right now."

Koizumi picked a cell phone from his pocket and offered it to me.

No thanks, after everything that I've experienced the probative value of a mere phone call is so small that I'd need a microscope to see it! So, this is after all just a dream?

"One could say so, yes. It is certainly one way to put it. Do you have any idea what time it is in the real world?"

You got me there. If everything was just one illusion after another then something like a week might have passed since the field trip, give or take a day.

"I can tell you that right now the actual time is half past five on Monday morning, the second day after the trip."

Well, I guess that it wouldn't be impossible. Anyway, are you saying that in a short while my alarm clock will go off and I'll wake up to a normal world where everything is the way I remember it?

"Unfortunately, it is more complicated than that. I am not sure how to explain it in terms that you will actually understand and accept."

Koizumi paused and sighed. What was that? Did I have to do even more work just to wake up?

"Let me put it this way. In this whole story there are only two persons from the real world and everybody else is a part of this reality, or in other words a figment of imagination that will vanish when the dream ends. Understanding this is the key to the entire mystery. Would you be able to say who are the real ones?"

Why do you have to resort to using riddles instead of just spitting it out?

I considered everybody whom I had met in those nightmares but none of them seemed to fit the description. Sasaki and Tsuruya might have been quite close to their real personalities but even they were different enough that I could see it now. I was just about to give up when I realized that there was one person that I had forgotten.

Well, I'm not claiming that it brings me any particular joy to say this but you look pretty genuine to me.

"Excellent! That is a correct answer. I am indeed a real person and I am glad that you could come to that conclusion because it greatly helps my task of explaining the issue to you."

That's it? I can wake up now?

"Not so fast. You have found a key but it is not enough on its own. One must also use the key to unlock the door before walking through."

I don't see where you are going with this.

"Very well, I will make it easier for you. What about Suzumiya-san?"

What what about Haruhi? Didn't I just tell you that despite some superficial similarities the Haruhi whom I met was quite unlike the real one?

"Is that really so?"

Don't even try to claim otherwise. We both know Haruhi well enough to see the difference. Aren't you the self-confessed expert on her mental state?

"I don't have a private line to Suzumiya-san's mind if you mean that. However, I am rather knowledgeable on the issue of people presenting a particular aspect of themselves to each other. As we both know, this smiling and agreeable me that you can see is just a mask that I am wearing daily because it is essential for my duties as a member of the Organization and of the SOS brigade. It may be less obvious in some other cases but each and every person actually does the same. It is only during the most intimate moments of absolute trust when people willingly remove their masks and reveal their inner self to each other, and even then some people are unable to do so because they are too afraid of getting hurt if they don't carry a mask to deflect potential threats."

Wonderful. A lecture in psychology is exactly what I've been missing all along. What's the point, anyway?

"What I am trying to say is that the way people appear and the way they truly are can be two very different things, to the extent that it may look unlikely that it is the same person we are talking about. Can you accept that idea?"

So, you are claiming that the real Haruhi and the Haruhi in my dream could be the same person, just seen in a different light? That's really stretching it, and what about it even if it was true?

"You are remarkably resilient to certain facts that you don't want to acknowledge for whatever reason. Might that be a part of your mask?"

I don't know anything about your so called "facts". Let me ask you again, what is it that you're insinuating?

"Do you remember the discussion that we had at school on Thursday, the day when clubs were showcasing their activity and recruiting new members?"

Now that you mention it I do remember that it was almost as long-winded as it was pointless. What about it?

"I would like to disagree on the issue of pointlessness because it appears to me that the topic of that conversation is extremely pertinent to this case. I told you how the frequency of closed spaces has risen to a level that is comparable to the situation from one year ago because Suzumiya-san and Sasaki-san met each other."

You keep talking but the topic isn't getting any more relevant.

"May I remind you of the specific time when that happened. We were gathered at the usual SOS meeting point. You arrived late which was to be expected, and in the company of an unfamiliar girl which was very much not expected. Can you imagine what went through Suzumiya-san's mind when she demanded an explanation and Sasaki-san cheerfully introduced herself as a really close friend of yours?"

We've discussed this already. So, that's what happened and Haruhi didn't like it but there isn't much that can be done about it.

"Now, if we were talking about a normal person here, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that their subconsciousness would try to process a disturbing issue in some way. Say, if you suddenly found out that Asahina-san had a very close male friend that you had not heard about before, would it be too improbable a suggestion that you might then have a nightmare where you saw Asahina-san and her friend walking hand in hand on the street and she would introduce him to you as her boyfriend?"

Asahina-san wouldn't have any such friends ... but I concede on the principle, it doesn't sound too far-fetched.

"Anyway, because we both know that Suzumiya-san is not a normal person, that is not what happened. Instead, the scene got staged for real and thus Suzumiya-san found you two at your home, with Sasaki-san saying exactly what she had been fearing."

That ... actually makes sense, in a freaky way. What about the other dreams?

"If we take jealousy as the common factor then it appears to me that each of the various scenarios put you into a relationship with a person Suzumiya-san has at some point been jealous of. Sasaki-san is self-evident as the initial trigger for the whole sequence. Then, I will hardly have to remind you of the time when Suzumiya-san's jealousy of Asahina-san almost caused the entire world to be recreated. You made her jealous of Yoshimura-san with that literature club assignment of yours, and of Nagato-san with that ill-advised love letter."

I don't think that Haruhi has ever been jealous of Tsuruya.

"Who can know for sure? But no, I don't think so either. That may have been the turning point of the entire play if Suzumiya-san found a person she couldn't possibly be jealous of, to the extent that even her subconsciousness accepted that on an emotional level. Which then led directly to the most crucial phase of them all."

What was so crucial about that last dream?

"Think about it. In the end the thing that made her get over the jealousy was simply an assurance of the fact that you were there for her when needed. Furthermore, do you remember what I just said about masks? It appears to me that you got to see the true self of Suzumiya-san without any pretense or deception. I must say that I feel envious of you."

There's nothing to be envious of. Didn't I already tell that this has been the worst experience of my entire life?

So, it wasn't enough that Haruhi was making me do pointless things during the daytime, now she had to mess with my dreams, too? Even if it wasn't a conscious effort, it still went a bit too far!

"You must not accuse Suzumiya-san of what her subconsciousness does! It is a primal thing, the nest of our deepest fears and desires. The conscious mind can only restrain it but cannot make it do the bidding of the mind. Most of us can live through our lives content with the knowledge that our subconsciousness is being kept safely sealed away but that is not the case with Suzumiya-san. She might even have started to suspect something herself. This is a great tragedy and I am terrified of the possibility of her finding out the truth. How could a mind not break down under such a burden?"

Well, I was not abducted by that other alien faction then?

"No. They may be plotting something against us in the background but you can be assured that they are not involved in this incident in any way. I am quite confident when I say that these are the kind of nightmares with which Suzumiya-san has been torturing herself since the beginning of the new school year."

I get the jealousy angle but even then, why would she do something like that?

"You are still pretending that you don't know?"

How could I know what goes around in her intractable mind? I could as well try to predict next week's lottery numbers as guess why Haruhi does what she does.

"Because she loves you, you clueless simpleton! Do I have to tattoo it to your forehead before you get it?"

Oh my. I didn't know that I had it in me to make Koizumi lose his cool. He paused, took a deep breath and rubbed his temple before continuing.

"Please forgive me. That was out of character. I have been growing increasingly exhausted since the beginning of the school year and this latest incident is taking its toll as well ... especially this latest incident."

Look who's speaking. You're not the one who's gone through hell recently. But if the real Haruhi was involved, didn't she just learn several things that we have been trying to keep secret from her? Don't tell me that she'll hold me responsible for all these misadventures when we see each other in the morning!

"Don't worry, it is called subconsciousness for a reason. At most, she might retrieve some general feeling or the odd unconnected detail, not unlike a normal dream. And even then ... there is something else that will keep you clear of any confrontations."

The tone in which Koizumi said the last sentence was surprisingly grim. At that point something that he had mentioned a while ago caught my attention.

Wait a second, something doesn't add up. You said that there are two real people involved but if Haruhi was real, too, then there are three of us.

"Well, that is the complicated part. Let me ask you, how often do I visit you in your dreams?"

Never. I've got better things to do than dream of you!

"I suspected as much. As you know, my powers are of a very special kind."

What is it that you are trying to say?

"If I am real as you admit, and currently in an unreal world as we also know, then it directly follows from the limits of my powers that the world in question is created by a certain person. You know the name of those dreams and what kind of creatures are found in them."

That can't be ...

"I am sorry."

...

Could it be? I feel real and that's the most fundamental thing there is. Wasn't it some philosophical statement that you must necessarily exist if you can think about existing?

"Indeed, you do exist here, in this dimension. Your memories were copied from the real Kyon when this world was created. Based on what you told me, it was probably on Saturday. This has been an anomalous incident, randomly flickering in and out of existence. It might even be the case that you were destroyed and recreated between each episode until the closed space finally stabilized in this particular form. That is why it took us until now to locate and engage it. I can assure you that the real Kyon is currently sleeping soundly in his own bed and doesn't know anything about this whole ordeal."

Well, it could be, couldn't it? I had seen it too many times already, all those alternate persons who faded into the night with their fears and desires while I moved on, but this time the tables were turned and it was me standing on the platform, looking at the rapidly receding train that didn't have a place for me. I couldn't say that I liked the fact but there seemed to be some deep symmetry in it.

Sucks to be me then, huh?

"You are taking this in a remarkably composed fashion. By any chance, do you feel an urge to start smashing buildings?"

Actually, I don't. I'm not even sure how I could manage to do that, and I'm beyond anger, anyway. This is so like Haruhi. Even her jealousy becomes a tragedy of cosmic proportions where the rest of us are her unwitting pawns.

"I find it a charming thought that you spent your time with Suzumiya-san by trying to accommodate her wishes on your own volition since you believed that she was about to disappear, while unbeknownst to you she tried to do the same for you. At least in this case, it doesn't look like all love is unrequited."

I resent that remark.

"But certainly, you told me as much! Let me ask you, was it not the only thing that prevented you from taking advantage of so many perfect opportunities in other realities?"

There's a gaping hole in your logic since I didn't try to use my last opportunity either.

"Which only goes to show that you are a true gentleman, just as I thought."

I'm not interested in talking about this topic, at least not with you. You make for a lousy shinigami. I never liked that phony smile of yours, and it irritates me to think that it'll be the last thing that I ever see.

"I ask for forgiveness. You are not making this easy for me. And yet, we both know what must be done to prevent the destabilization of the real world by this temporary one, and there is only one way to do it. This is possibly the hardest thing I have ever been forced to do, and it became even harder after I had heard your story."

As if it was easy for me to just kneel down and bare my neck for the final strike! Maybe you should contemplate the possibility that I'll come back to haunt you in your own dreams?

However, as soon as I said that I knew that it was an empty boast. Didn't I, well, a whole crowd of me, vanish into nothingness during the last summer break, and none of them came back to demand justice for their untimely demise?

"It is exactly as you say. If unique memories are what makes us individuals, then the entire population of the world died over fifteen thousand times, and yet we continue to exist. If anything, it fills me with deep humility to be in the presence of such an incomprehensible power. Who knows, maybe we all are mere memories in the dream of a sleeping deity, and once that deity wakes up everything will be remembered again and finally brought together in harmony. I would like to believe that it is a comforting thought. Also, who am I to say what is real and what is not, surely such a being could defy all logic and reason while creating new worlds to dream of. The question thus remains, why would a deity want to have dreams like this?"

Well, you lost me there. I can't see any benefits in thinking about such far-fetched things.

"I am also deeply impressed by you. Has it not been said that the true nature of an individual is only revealed in the greatest adversity? As it would be, this whole ordeal paints you in a most positive light because it was precisely your compassion for other people that made you suffer as you shared their burden. Therefore it is a great honor that I can call you my friend. I will certainly treat everything that you say with even greater respect in the future."

Kissing ass to the very last moment, eh?

Koizumi seemed to hesitate for a while before continuing.

"You told me that Suzumiya-san talked about a surprise and based on your other remarks I have come to the understanding that you are intentionally withholding some information. Considering the current situation, would you be able to tell me more about it?"

No, I don't think so.

"Surely you must understand that if there is some essential piece of information that affects the brigade then the only way to put it to use is to relay it through me."

I bet that you'd love to be the messenger of good news but no, I don't have anything to add to my story. It might even be the case that I don't know any such things but at the moment I'm actually deriving a minor amount of pleasure from the fact that my memories disappear with me.

"Very well. In that case, please let me express my deepest regrets that it had to come to this."

Koizumi paused and bowed. That was a cue. If I had any parting words, the time to say them was now. But I had said everything there is to say, at least concerning the present audience, and I most certainly didn't feel like reciting some poetry. Asking Koizumi to give my regards to my friends and family, or indeed to the real me, wouldn't have made any sense because I didn't even exist to them.

A collection of memories? That was what everything that I called "me" was all about? In that case, the real me would be happier without these particular memories anyway. Indeed, I couldn't find any redeemable quality in them so it didn't matter if I took them with me into the oblivion. They were just as fake as this paper-thin reality that was deceiving my senses. In the end there never was a real world to begin with, it was all a dream on top of a dream for me.

Well, that was it then, wasn't it? I was as ready to face my fate as I would ever be since death didn't hold any mysteries for me. To think that it took me all the way until the final moment of the play to learn what was my part in the script so that I could act accordingly! I took a deep breath and bowed, closing my eyes. The silence was deafening.

Random images were crossing through my mind, of places and people. I tried to remember her face but everything was fading into darkness. Too fast. Forgive me.

Then, suddenly, there was a smell of fresh soil and cut grass of an early morning in spring and with that she was there in a long red dress, standing under a tree with sunlight dancing in her hair like an angel's halo. She turned around and smiled to me in a cloud of falling white petals, as beautiful as she had ever been. An expression between happiness and melancholy, finally in balance. I couldn't hear any sound but there was no mistaking the words forming on her lips.

"Thank you for everything ..."

It was done. There was a flash of red light bright enough to shine through my closed eyelids, and I finally knew it without a shadow of doubt.

This was the end.


Author's Notes

While the story has technically ended after the narrator made his exit from the stage there is a clear and present danger of coming up with a wrong interpretation based on what has been revealed so far and therefore I have taken the liberty to prepare a special omake for your perusal. I implore you to stay on your seat and continue directly to the next chapter for the final twist! I apologize for this drastic turn of events.