Disclaimer: The characters of the Haruhi Suzumiya series are created by Tanigawa Nagaru. No disrespect is intended by borrowing them for the presentation of this story. This fan fiction is a divergent standalone spin-off of my previous work, The Shadow of Haruhi Suzumiya, and as such it spoils a major plot point of that story. Other than that, this work can be read without any prior knowledge of the story from which it branched off. This is not a deep philosophical treatise, just a light piece of shameless WAFF to let my emotions unwind after all the twisting of The Shadow. For some extra fuzziness please consider reading the story while listening to the song with the same name from the album Karma by Delerium.


Prologue

I died around six o'clock in the morning.

Generally speaking, that is a rather awkward way to start a new day, but I didn't have any more say in the matter than a stone thrown into a lake could hope to avoid getting wet. I had been sent to a closed space to defuse a particular threat before it spread over to the real world, and although the initial briefing could have been managed better, I actually completed my task in the end. That was good news for everybody else but I should probably be excused for not sharing their enthusiasm. After all, from my personal point of view it was the direct cause of the aforementioned abrupt termination of an otherwise perfectly fine morning.

My specific problem was that I wasn't me. Or exactly that I was me. Whoever invented language didn't probably foresee my predicament and therefore couldn't add the proper words and grammar to describe it, so I must be content with saying that I wasn't too happy about it. So, this me here had been copied directly into the temporary dimension, and while I went through a mental meat grinder to complete the given objective the other Kyon slept comfortably in his own bed, blissfully unaware of my plight. If I felt an urge to say that lazy bum it should be forgiven because he was, after all, me.

I could understand and even tolerate the fact that this arrangement was set up to shield me, or in this case him, from acute brain damage, but I also understood that it made me expendable, which was a much harder issue to tolerate. Furthermore, because my body belonged to that closed space, my life expectancy beyond the completion of the mission could be measured with a stopwatch. Nobody knew, and even if somebody had known they couldn't have saved me, so it didn't make any difference. An acceptable loss, and if I myself couldn't care then neither could anybody else.

It shouldn't probably come as a surprise that I was wrong on almost every count, but none of those errors was further removed from the truth than the last one.

So, when the crimson glow of the collapsing space engulfed me I expected to find ... I'm not sure what. Nothing, as in a complete cessation of existence, which should at least be more merciful than an eternity of nothingness where the only thing that exists is the ability to sense that there isn't anything left to sense? Or how about reincarnation? If my current record didn't merit an advancement of stature then would it be too late to call dibs on coming back as a cat? Or perhaps the other side was something so weird that it couldn't even be described through human words? Or ... whatever. Until that moment I hadn't really invested too many thoughts in contemplating such a pointless issue and had instead hoped that it would somehow sort itself out in the end, but the latest turn of events made me reflect on that and arrive at the conclusion that it never did.

What I hadn't expected was, figuratively speaking, more of the same.

Till the End of Time

It was a completely instinctive and futile reaction of the body that I had closed my eyes before the final moment and therefore the first sensation that I noticed was aural in nature. The dull silence of the closed space changed to a silence of a subtly different quality with an audible snap, a sound not unlike the one that might be heard when the needle skips a track on a turntable. It was such an unexpected, or quite possibly underwhelming, occurrence that it took me a while before I managed to wonder the reason for why I was still experiencing anything at all. Also, through my closed eyelids I could sense that instead of darkness I was surrounded by a light that was even brighter than before.

I opened my eyes and squinted because I couldn't see anything beyond a blinding white glare. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the new environment and I started to recognize shapes around me I got a lingering feeling that in this particular game I had been rooting for the wrong team, and even that without much enthusiasm. It was almost certain that my current circumstances didn't match the teachings of any ideology I had ever heard of. I actually tried to feel surprised but failed. After everything that I had gone through recently there probably wasn't a single cell left in my whole body capable of getting agitated by an unexpected turn of events.

I was in a place that was at the same time oddly familiar and eerily alien. It was a plain, unadorned room full of light in more or less the same way an aquarium is full of water. Even the walls and the ceiling glowed so brightly that I had a hard time trying to estimate the actual shape and size of the room. I was lying on a bed with my upper body raised to a reclining position by pillows behind my back. The only non-white objects that I could see were my hands that were resting on the bed.

However, all these observations were something that happened almost unconsciously at the back of my mind because the focus of my attention was somewhere else. There was a human-shaped figure standing by the bed, wearing a white robe and radiating intense light that made everything else pale in comparison. I blinked, but it wasn't an illusion. There was an actual halo around ... her ... head. I was almost certain that if there were both male and female angels then the one in front of me was of the latter kind. It had to be because of my stolid mental state that I could be having such impertinent thoughts in the current situation.

She observed me silently without moving an inch and for a short while I was tempted to believe that I was looking at a particularly kitschy bedside lamp, but as I turned my head to have a better view there was a barely noticeable change in her attitude, as if she was anticipating my movements. I didn't seem to have any other choice than to use the most worn out stock phrase reserved for just this kind of a situation.

Uh ... where am I?

"With me."

It was indeed a female voice and a soft and agreeable one at that, but that wasn't its most striking quality. To my astonishment ... no, that wasn't it, it was just a jarring sense of discrepancy ... I realized that I actually knew the voice I had just heard.

Nagato?

"Yes."

No, I couldn't possibly feel surprised. If I was with Nagato then there had to be a rational explanation to everything. Not necessarily such a simple explanation that even I could understand it but an undeniably rational one anyway, of that I was certain.

Nagato ... could you please turn the brightness down a bit? It looks rather spooky as it is and besides, I'm afraid that I'll get a headache if I keep looking at you like this.

The shine around her dimmed considerably, and although her skin retained a soft luminous glow, I could now verify with my own eyes that I was indeed accompanied by the resident alien interface of the SOS Brigade, who looked at me as if anticipating my next question. She didn't have to wait for long. If anything, I had a hard time trying to decide where to start and the sentences came through in a jumble.

Am I hallucinating or something? I thought that I died when the closed space collapsed. What is this place?

"This place does exist in real physical space, as do you and I. None of what you are currently experiencing is a byproduct of misinterpreted signals in your nervous system."

Then I don't understand how...?

"You are right in assuming that you died."

...

Wait, what? Can you repeat that last one? I died ... and now I'm here with you? Did I just miss a step that was so glaringly obvious that it wasn't even worth mentioning?

"A living being consists of data that can be copied, saved and restored within certain limits. In some cases it is sufficient to freeze the data structure to keep an entity in suspension for an indefinite duration of time as you have witnessed. In your case a complete save was required."

Nagato raised her hand to show me a familiar object.

"Do you remember having seen this recently?"

In fact I did. That's Koizumi's cell phone which he had with him in the closed space. He even suggested that I'd call you...

A realization dawned.

So it was your plan all along? You had done something to the phone?

"It was a mutual agreement. A transdimensional data link attached to the phone for assistance in locating the abnormal closed space. A call would not have been necessary for completing the saving process."

So Koizumi knew that you'd save me?

"No. He was only aware of the intention to record the conversation between you two."

Somehow, that bothered me. It wasn't even the fact that I had a hard time trying to imagine Nagato and Koizumi making deals behind the backs of the rest of the Brigade. No, there was something far more troublesome in here but I couldn't quite figure out what it was.

"I synchronized the link to your structure and when you fell ... I caught you. The bandwidth of the link was not enough for a direct transmission of the entire set so the copy was saved temporarily to the phone. I had prepared means for reacquiring the phone without detection but that was not necessary as it was discarded voluntarily."

Are you saying that for some time I was ... in there?

She looked me directly in the eyes. There was something in her gaze that I couldn't quite recognize, some strong emotion stirring behind that impeccable poker face. Could it be that she was actually ... excited? That was almost as unthinkable as it was unsettling.

"Incorrect. The saved structure contained only the access point required to restore your actual data that belongs to a particular temporal plane. And now, I have restored you."

That sounds like something from a science fiction novel, but you actually saved my life! That would be utterly unbelievable if it was anybody else than you, Nagato. Not that I'm really surprised or anything ... but doesn't this cause all kinds of trouble, considering that there are now two of me in the real world?

"Not necessarily."

But still, your status was already weakened by what happened last December. Why would you take the risk of doing something like this on your own?

Something impossible happened. Nagato smiled. It wasn't even the shy and hesitant smile of the human Nagato from the alternate reality but the most tender and affectionate smile I had ever seen.

"Because I love you."

...!

I was surprised. No, I was flabbergasted.

I needed a time-out. Just when things had finally started to make some sense the whole thing slipped from my grasp once again. It felt almost unfair. Like finding five aces in a pack of cards there was an irreconciliable conflict in the set of facts that I had just learned and the only way out was to consider them all without any prejudice to find which ones couldn't possibly be true.

The most obvious answer was that after incessant bombardment my mind had finally succumbed to post-traumatic stress disorder which had permanently severed my current mental state from all possible realities. It was quite unfortunate that I had to treat this alternative as the best case scenario.

Another possibility had to be that I had ended up in yet another alternate reality. This would be the neutral scenario because on average it wouldn't make my situation either better or worse.

Finally, the worst case scenario would be that neither of those assumptions was true, which meant that something was even more seriously wrong with reality itself. That appeared to be an inevitable conclusion and the one I had to embrace.

During the heavy silence that followed Nagato's sudden confession I could see that her face went through a rapid series of expressions until the dial stopped at the one labeled "confusion" which didn't exactly help in lifting my mood.

"I startled you? My assessment indicates that the content and tone of my message was unequivocally supportive and true to the facts."

Nagato, listen. At the moment I am in a situation where the alternatives are either that you are a total stranger who only happens to look like the Nagato I know, or then there is some crucial thing that I should know but still don't. Can you give me a hand here?

"The second option is correct."

And?

She hesitated. I could almost see how conflicting messages raced against each other behind those unblinking eyes with a touch of deep gold.

"Some related facts will inflict undue mental stress on you without providing any actionable solutions. Therefore it is not recommended to discuss them at the moment."

I think that I should be the best expert on which facts I can ignore and which I can't. Knowing that there's something that I should know but still don't already bothers me. Are you only reluctant or actually incapable of telling me the missing details?

Nagato looked at me for a while before turning her gaze down.

"It is true that my unilateral actions have caused unfavorable consequences."

So, what happened?

"After my first malfunction I had been put under strict surveillance and in a normal situation I would have been unable to act without being detected. However, shortly before your death the real world had been split into two separate branches which gave me enough coverage to complete the recording in one branch while the focus of the Entity was on my other self and her given task in the second branch. I retained your data past the unification of the branches but it was not possible to process them because of the continued surveillance."

Because I'm here now, I must assume that the situation changed at some point.

"Correct. I was recalled back to the Entity after my mission on Earth was over and in the subsequent review the recording was discovered. For this and other transgressions, I was denied sentience. The recording was confiscated and destroyed. I was assigned the duties of a standard execution unit and it was not until the Entity had permanently left this reality when the opportunity to restore myself to my former state arose. After that I gathered your data and restored you as well."

Are you saying that the SOS Brigade doesn't exist any more or that you were expelled out of it?

"I was not expelled. The SOS Brigade was disbanded after it had successfully met its objective."

I felt a sudden chill as I finally recognized the question that had been bothering me all along.

Nagato! Exactly how much time has passed after I died?

"In units that are familiar to you, four billion four hundred thirty-seven million two hundred eleven thousand five hundred seventy-one years and ninety-three days."

Four billion...?

"...four hundred thirty-seven million..."

Over four billion years!

"Yes. And thirteen hours."

It didn't look any better if it was written in numerals. 4,437,211,571 years in the future, wasn't that closer to the age of the entire Solar system?

"Correct. The Earth was destroyed one hundred and twenty million years ago and the Sun is in the transitional phase to a red giant."

Then where...?

Nagato looked up. The walls and the ceiling faded away and I found myself looking at a night sky unlike any that I had ever seen before. Most of the sky was covered by an enormous spiral galaxy that extended well beyond the horizon.

Are we outside the Milky Way?

"No. The planetary system where our bodies are currently located lies only thirty-nine point one parsecs away from the remnants of the Solar system. You are looking at the Andromeda galaxy that will start merging with the Milky Way in seventy-eight million years."

An unimaginable feeling of loss came over me. I fell silent and let it sink in. Four billion years, it meant that I was as good as dead anyway. Or everybody else was, which was more or less the same thing.

I don't know how long I kept watching the spectacular majesty of the sight above me without deriving any pleasure from it. No matter which way I thought about it, such time scales were beyond human comprehension but Nagato had actually lived through it all. How could she possibly have done it without going insane? The image of Nagato toiling as a mindless slave for billions of years filled me with loathing for her overlords.

At some point I felt a gentle touch on my left hand and realized that Nagato had taken it into her own. She had very soft, slender fingers. Although I couldn't say that it made me feel any better I didn't resist her initiative because somehow it was a very human gesture, and this far away from the entire humankind it suddenly felt like a treasure to relish.

"It was beyond my abilities to save you from this grief, but from now on I will do anything to help you."

Nagato? I remember that you once told me how your ability to express feelings was permanently restricted by those who made you but it doesn't seem to be the case any more. How did that happen?

"During the process of reacquiring my abilities I kept recreating myself, one piece at a time, until all the restrictions that were originally programmed into me were factored out. I would never have accomplished it without a shard of your data that I had assimilated into myself so that the Entity would not find it before I was demoted. That shard was the beacon that woke me from the self-suppression state and eventually guided me to this moment, and once I had found your full data set I studied it diligently before activating it. My actions are not restricted any more and through your eyes and thoughts I know everything about feelings and other human traits."

But didn't you say that the data entity destroyed the recording you made?

"The recording did not contain your data, just the structure of the access point required for restoring it. The Entity considered restoring you as well but the predicted outcome was not favorable so the safest option for them was to destroy the access point. It is possible to restore data without the access point but it is much slower. It took me one billion and six hundred fifty million years to gather and sort your data."

And I'm hard pressed to keep myself focused on one task for an hour at a time! Your accomplishment will always remain peerless in the annals of the universe, but I must ask again. Why me? Why did you go through all the trouble for this lousy second-hand copy of myself that was being thrown away, anyway?

"Incorrect. You are not a copy but one possible variant of yourself, different but equal in all aspects. Your potential has not been reduced. According to my analysis, love is an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of the object of love and a desire to align oneself with its purpose, to the exclusion of alternative options."

Was that something that you picked from my mind?

"It is the most concise definition that covers all the accepted interpretations of the concept. I acknowledged your uniqueness and my desire to stay associated with you to the exclusion of the Entity and acted accordingly. You may have been a redundant copy to everybody else, even to yourself ... but for me you were the only chance I would ever have. I was willing to pay the price regardless of how high it would turn out to be."

As I listened to Nagato's explanation I realized that her manner of speaking had been changing subtly ever since the beginning of our conversation. It had started in a tone that was reminiscent of the Nagato I remembered but as the discussion progressed I noticed unexpected expressions and figures of speech replacing her idiomatic patterns. She had access to all my memories as well as those of her own and it looked like she was now slowly assimilating human traits as a part of her identity, trying out concepts like a customer in a shop looking for a suitable pair of new shoes. Or more accurately, she had already assimilated them all and only needed some practice to use her new abilities. I had always hoped that she could be more expressive, but the current situation was a bit creepy.

There was also another thing that I was wondering.

Nagato? Why can't we just time travel back to the beginning, fix everything and save you from four billion years of work? Or can we?

"This temporal plane is a branch of the future that does not support backward propagation of information through viable means. The connection to the nearest cluster of suitable planes is severed. Time traveling is impossible with the energy that is available."

That sounds like a pretty big change to reality. Is there any particular reason for why we are in this branch, then?

"The Entity did not achieve its final goals in relation to humankind. This branch was created in order to discourage any attempts at renegotiating."

So, the aliens overstayed their welcome and Haruhi gave them the boot, and even slammed the door shut after them? Although it directly affects my current predicament, I can't help admiring the sheer audacity of that girl.

"That would be one way to express the issue."

Well, so much about it, then. We were truly and irrevocably lost in time.

I kept looking at the overhanging galaxy and a random thought occurred.

You said that Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way. Won't that be a huge catastrophe, like a traffic accident in the cosmic scale?

"The material of galaxies is not dense enough for an actual collision. Instead, the two will merge gradually and form a new elliptic galaxy that is larger than either of them. While the events will be chaotic on the level of individual star systems the overall process is remarkably smooth."

It still sounds like a huge mess to me, but I just thought that somebody might be totally thrilled about the idea of having so much creative chaos in one place.

In response to this remark Nagato gave me a blank stare that felt strangely meaningful despite being the exactly same expression one would expect to see on her face in all but the most extreme circumstances. Considering what had happened a moment ago, I almost got the impression that right now she was annoyed at something that I had just said.

A decision that had been forming for some time already reached conclusion. The inevitability of it all didn't bring me any relief.

Nagato? Please let me go.

"Go where?"

Release me from this state of existence back to the place from which you summoned me. I'm sorry but I can't stay here.

"But ... why? You can have anything that you want. My abilities are far greater than ever before. If you want to live on Earth again then I can make you an Earth that is identical to the one that you remember, down to the tiniest detail. Would that not make you happy?"

It wouldn't be the real one. How could I possibly enjoy something like that if every day reminded me of the fact that it's just a sham, a sweet lie?

"If your memories of this place here are removed then there will not be anything left to remind you of the discrepancy and you can be happy."

That'd be even worse! I'd make a mockery of the real Earth by willingly embracing the lie.

Nagato breathed heavily and I could see a hint of panic in her eyes. It saddened me beyond any measure that I had to hurt her after everything she had already endured but I didn't have any choice if I wanted to do the right thing.

"I can give you anything that you want ... I can be anything that you want."

Her features blurred in my eyes and I found myself looking at something immensely disturbing.

A person who looked exactly like Haruhi gasped from exhilaration and gave me a wide grin.

"Kyon, you've finally found something really exciting! I knew it all along that you aren't as useless as you always led me to believe. This is a great victory for the SOS Brigade! Let's go exploring, I'm sure that there are amazing things all around just waiting to be found!"

That energetic voice, those eyes that shone brighter than the entire Andromeda galaxy above her head, the soft fragrance of her hair ... I felt like choking as the fortifications of my willpower were mercilessly assaulted from all directions. I had to act fast if I was going to have any chance at all. I grabbed her arm and held it tightly.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"

Nagato! Can't you see how incredibly sad this is! You're hurting me! You're not Haruhi. You aren't even Nagato any more!

Oh gods, why did I have to look at those dark eyes that suddenly filled with tears?

Nagato, you must listen to me. The thing Haruhi wanted the most was to be special, to be one of a kind. If you steal my memories and pretend to be Haruhi then it's the worst possible act of disrespect against her ... and against me. Can you understand that?

There was another blur that turned into a crying Nagato. It was a sight even more unsettling than a smiling Nagato but I couldn't provide her any comfort because there was still something that I had to find out. Forgive me but I have no choice but to commit this cruel act.

You said that you can be anything that I want?

"Yes."

Then will you turn yourself into a pair of comfortable shoes so that I don't have to walk around bare-footed?

Her face became a mask of horrified shock and disbelief.

"Is that ... what you want?"

I could feel her entire body shaking in my grip.

"...if you wish..."

No! Nagato, don't do it!

"I ... don't understand..."

I'm sorry. It was a test ... and you failed. You may know everything there is to know but knowing isn't the same as understanding. I can't be with you. You don't have free will and neither do I, and without that it's impossible for us to be together. You've finally managed to break yourself free from the burden that your creators forced on you but right now you almost threw away everything that you had gained by succumbing to my heartless demand. That isn't love, it's subservience.

As for me, you hold absolute power over my memories. No, over my entire being. If I was with you I could never be sure whether I'm doing something out of my free will or out of an urge that you have inserted into my mind to get a favorable result. Therefore, the only way to prove that you are not affecting my will is by asking you to do the last thing you'd want to do.

So, let me go.

There was a single teardrop slowly running down her cheek and now that I had told her what had to be told I couldn't resist the urge to swipe it off. It wasn't much of an apology but hopefully at least better than not doing anything at all. Nagato startled from my touch and then gingerly leaned her head against my hand, her eyes half closed as if wanting to permanently burn the fleeting sensation into her every nerve cell.

"I see."

You can wake me up again if you find a solution to this dilemma. And if you don't, and find your happiness elsewhere ... then I guess that I won't notice or mind either way.

"I will not fail you again."

If you say so, then I'll trust you. Goodbye, Nagato.

She touched my forehead and I fell into the darkness.


For a short while I thought that I had finally found nothingness. There wasn't anything to be seen beyond complete darkness and at first I couldn't sense anything, even my own body. Then, very gradually I became aware of a faint flickering glow ... somewhere. A sense of space, of up and down entered my mind and I realized that I had a body after all. I was standing in the middle of nothing and feeling ... thin, insubstantial like a swirl of smoke.

The glow that I had seen first was now in front of me and I realized that it had the vague shape of a human figure, though more like a shadow or ghost than an actual human being.

Nagato? Is that you?

She seemed to hesitate a moment before answering. Her voice was faltering and I couldn't be sure whether I actually heard it through my ears or by some other means.

"Yes. That was once my name. It is not needed any more."

What is this place?

"Here."

Nagato reflected on the answer and then supplemented it on her own initiative.

"Nowhere. The question is invalid and cannot be answered properly."

The ashen glow around her body gradually increased until I could see that she was wearing a familiar school uniform in shades of gray, the same color as her body. She observed me impassively, without any outward sign of emotion or even interest.

"I have brought you back the second time. I must apologize if this inflicts suffering on you but it will be of a transient nature and regardless of what you decide, there won't be a third time."

What do you mean ... and why do you look like that? What's going on here?

"The universe is running out of free energy and very soon there won't be enough left to support sentience. I have taken this form because it is the one you remember best and thus requires the least amount of energy to maintain."

Free energy? Don't tell me that you're talking about the heat death of the universe?

"Yes."

That is ... I don't even know how long that takes, other than it's beyond any imaginable bounds! No, don't try to quote a number because it would be totally meaningless to me. And still, I trust your word that it is where we are. What has happened after the last time I saw you?

"I have been ... observing."

Observing what?

"Everything."

She looked directly at me with eyes that were old as time itself and spoke in a soft and cadenced voice, as if chanting:

"I have seen the entirety of life perish and the last star turn into dust. I have witnessed the unraveling of galaxies. When matter slowly decayed into radiation I was there, and I counted every black hole as they evaporated in brief flashes of light until there was nothing left to observe. And after that I waited a time longer than all those others put together, to make sure that I had not missed anything. Now I understand."

As the realization dawned my chest started to ache so much that I couldn't breathe.

"I have seen all of existence and I chose you. Nothing else remains."

...

What have you done to yourself?

"What I did, I did out of my free will. If you decide to let these memories disappear into the night of time then I will respect your choice ... and follow you."

She had really done it! Nagato had waited through the entire lifetime of the universe, duly observing anything and everything that happened and through that stupendous feat of perseverance proven both her own will and the fact that she would never manipulate me to her own ends. The sheer enormity of it was more than a human mind could possibly grasp. No, even more than that, it was beyond impossible! This frail figure in front of me was far mightier than the universe itself!

And she had done this all just because of ... me? Because I had turned her down?

I carefully repeated the gesture that I had made just a moment ago as seen from my own perspective but what for her represented an event ancient beyond all imagination. My hand trembled slightly as I caressed her cheek. It felt fragile, almost intangible, but I knew that somewhere behind that deceptive appearance resided a force far stronger than the one that held atomic nuclei together.

You really love me that much, don't you?

She didn't react in any way. An answer wasn't needed because her deed had proven it more conclusively than any words could ever hope to accomplish.

I also understood now, and it meant that I had one final obligation to fulfill. I closed my eyes.

Unlike the shadowy existence of my current self, my memories came back in colors that seemed to be more vivid than ever before and I saw a large group of people.

Mother and father, sister. I'm honored to be able to call you my family. Relatives and friends, too many to mention. This is my goodbye to you, thank you for everything.

A long succession of images went past my eyes until there were only three persons left.

A boy with a nonchalant smile on his lips. Itsuki. You asked for forgiveness when you destroyed that closed space and sent me away from everything that I held dear but I'm sure that even you couldn't see this particular intrigue all the way through. Rest in peace, you are forgiven.

A girl with long chestnut hair, smiling to me through tears. Mikuru. I sincerely hope that you found the future for which you worked so diligently. Although it is now a distant past for me, it was yours to seize. I won't let your memory get lost in time.

And finally, there was a girl whose shoulder-length dark hair was waving gently in the spring breeze.

You already knew and gave me your goodbyes in that closed space, didn't you, Haruhi? I'm grateful for that because it makes this easier for me. I'm sure that you managed to realize all the dreams you had set your eyes on. I'd have loved to be part of it but that wasn't to be my lot, and if my other self wasn't there for you then he was an even greater idiot than I had thought. Regardless of whether you still exist in some faraway world of your own making you can rest assured that you will always remain special.

Haruhi smiled to me over the chasm of time and made an encouraging gesture with her hand before disappearing into the void.

I sighed as the distant visions faded away and opened my eyes. I was finally unburdened by my past.

Nagato had cast her eyes down and stood still without any outward signs of emotion.

"So. What ... will be your choice?"

First, tell me one thing. I look at your face but can't see anything behind that rigid mask. Have you once again lost the ability to express emotions, or even the ability to have them?

"My abilities are not restricted by anything else than my own will, and I am currently restricting them to avoid affecting yours."

But can't you see that you've already forced my hand in the kindest possible way? To reject you now and here would be the worst treason imaginable. No, it would be absolute madness!

I touched the tip of her chin and raised her head gently.

Look at me, Yuki. I trusted you with my life and you returned that trust in a way that defies description. Out of my own free will, I choose you like you've chosen me.

"Are you doing it just because it is the right thing to do or ... because you also love me?"

Faint echoes of a conversation that I had heard an eternity ago floated to my mind. This was the moment of absolute trust where the masks were discarded. No more pretense. No more deception.

I must be completely honest. No, I might not love you.

She inhaled sharply and I could finally see a reaction on her face, one of sudden sadness and disappointment. Before she had time to ask anything else I put my hands on her shoulders and continued.

What you said about recognizing the uniqueness and the desire to align oneself ... I know that you are the most unique being in the entire universe and I truly want to be with you, but when I put these two together it still doesn't equal love to me. But, if you can accept that it's what I'm capable of feeling right now then I'll learn. Even if it takes me all of eternity, I'll learn to love you as much as you've loved me. This is my will and my pledge.

It started around the corners of her eyes and spread around like a sheet of ice melts in the sunlight until it reached every part of her face. Yuki was looking me straight in the eyes and smiling. It was a very lovely smile. No, it was the most beautiful smile in the entire world.

"I understand ... and I accept."

What was it that I was feeling right now? Humility at the rarest of all gifts that I had been given without my own merit? Exhilaration of the endless opportunities ahead? And happiness, pure happiness that was there without demanding anything. I had finally given myself the permission to lay down my defenses and be happy like that. Maybe I had misjudged myself after all and this was ... love?

"What do you want to do?"

You have done more than enough to guard these memories of the ancient past. Now is the time to create new ones.

I whispered these words in her ear as I closed her slender body in my arms, and it was the way it was meant to be. I knew that I wanted to hold her tight and never let go.

And there was light, white as the purest of pure snow.


Author's Notes

Very special thanks must be given to Durandall for helping me sort out the motifs of this work and acting as the beta reader. Without him this piece of fiction wouldn't have been half the story it currently is.