Picking Your Battles

A 'Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi' fanfiction

by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: The series begun with the light novel 'The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi'/'Suzumiya Haruhi no Yutsuu' is the creation of Nagaru Tanigawa. No disrespect is intended with the creation of this work.

Note: May contain spoilers up through book nine. Set in the second year, but without any of the book nine (or later) events. The ending half of the first scene was heavily inspired by a (non-H, thanks) doujin ... but I'm going a different direction with that scene. As always, special thanks to the Soulriders crew - this time for their advice on this rewrite, which strives to remove the more 'bashy' elements from the earlier draft.

After an underwhelming turnout of potential recruits, it had been determined that not one was suitable to join the SOS Brigade - as per the judgements of its leader, Suzumiya Haruhi. What followed was a difficult month for her loyal crew as she tested their fitness to remain in the club. After that came more stressful times, until near the end of May. That was when she had finally started to calm down from the more labor intensive and exhausting 'recruiting techniques.'

I can't complain too much about seeing Nagato in a miko outfit, but all of that has to end eventually.

My wallet certainly appreciates her calming down - I traditionally get the unwelcome 'penalty' of paying for everyone's meals at events... I can't actually remember the point I stopped trying to get out of them, since I can't recall anyone else ever being penalized, with one exception for Asahina-san.

I do remember that it prompted one of those interesting discussions from Koizumi, though.

So, I'm very glad that Haruhi is finally calming down because ... between her and Koizumi, even I do have my limits.

That particular day as I leave the classroom, instead of slinking off to the clubroom to enjoy the day without being dragged into some other stunt, I am interrupted by a prson that I don't habitually seek the presence of. "It's good to see you today, Kyon-kun," he says brightly, falling into step beside me with an aura that I feel utterly cripples my chances at romance with girls in this school ... not that I had any hope left for that, anyway.

For various reasons.

"Too close," I reply.

He eases back half a centimeter. "I believe we should talk about Suzumiya-san," he answers with the same cheerfulness, his voice low. "Now ... I know that we've spent much time over the last few months talking about something without ever directly addressing it. Let us say that I'm leery of forcing an issue, because I would like to think that we embrace the spirit of cooperation and work together! After all, our goals are similarly aligned, right?"

"What are you going on about now?" I wonder.

He chuckles as though I told him a particularly good joke. "Surely you've come to realize that there's a reason I haven't been particularly concerned about Suzumiya-san's state lately?"

I glance across the empty hallway and answer, "I really see that as your responsibility, except for those few instances where it mysteriously falls to me - the token 'regular' member of our mad leader's club. What can a person like me do that someone with your gifts can't?"

I'm rewarded with the merest instant of Koizumi looking flustered before he shakes his head and places a hand on my shoulder, stopping me in my tracks. I actually do try, for a moment, to tear myself free of his grip, but he's got training from that Organization - and he's always been stronger than me anyway.

So, his fingers dig in, and without any visible show of effort, I'm halted - unless I want to really strain myself. "Apologies," Koizumi says slowly, "but ... if you have not noticed, this may be one of those times."

"So, what's she stressed about now?" I sigh. "I thought she was getting over the whole 'no good recruits' thing." What else can she spring on us over this? Though he doesn't show much, I can tell that Koizumi's been incredibly anxious about her behavior lately - and who can blame him?

"Do you truly..." He trails off with a sigh of his own and gives me a wary smile. "To explain it most simply, I believe that Suzumiya-san is not truly that upset about her 'failure' because she has chosen to direct her energies elsewhere. In other words, truly, she is seeking to admit just one person into a much more exclusive membership than merely the Brigade."

Whatever that's supposed to mean. "That's great - but either ask me out, or let go of my shoulder," I reply.

His fingers leave my shoulder as though I were an RPG summoner, and had replaced myself with a magma golem.

"Let's get this figured out - what do you want me to do?" I ask, crossing my arms over my chest. "If she's choosing someone from within the Brigade, then there's no way it can concern me. Or she'll assign it to me anyway, in which case, I don't understand what you're suggesting with 'searching.'"

Koizumi looks - very briefly - displeased. These small glimpses into what I think might be his true face are surprisingly scant; I should probably treasure them.

"Suzumiya-san may be in a rare good, but also delicate, mood," he warns me. "Perhaps if you just try not to upset that...?" he suggests.

"Koizumi, you're good at talking to people, right?" I wonder.

He blinks, but offers a cautious nod in answer.

"So, can you explain why you had to say all of that other stuff, when you could have just said, 'Hey, Kyon, I know you complain that I'm really bad at getting to the point, so here's the critical information: don't piss Haruhi off today, she's moody?'" I ask.

He sighs at that, shaking his head, his smile unchanging. "I've said enough, I think," he decides. "You know me..."

"That's for sure," I agree. No one else on Earth can talk as much while saying so little.

After that, we walk to the clubroom in silence.

When the door opens, I wait for Koizumi to step through first, but he gives a bright smile and a shake of his head, gesturing me through instead.

Shrugging, I walk inside, glancing around warily for some trap. There's the lovely Asahina-san by the tea-set - in regular uniform, so I suppose she's washing the maid costume- our almost completely mute Nagato is in her usual chair, flipping through a book. And of course, behind the computer, her face lighting up as though she were waiting for Koizumi to arrive, is our illustrious Brigade chief.

"Excellent!" she declares on seeing me and Koizumi enter, after a pause adding, "Even if you are late, Kyon."

I nod absently at that, confident that it's not a big deal, and take my normal seat at the table. Wait ... how am I late, and Koizumi's not, if he stepped into the room after me...

...oh, it doesn't matter.

Just another arbitrary Haruhiism. It seems I'm inevitably underneath the microscope, when he somehow evades her notice.

"I've been going over our member reviews," Haruhi muses suddenly, as though to follow up on my thought once Koizumi closes the door. "We did have time, after all, since..." She trails off and shrugs, uncrossing her legs from where she had curled them beneath her and setting her feet on the floor properly. "To begin! Koizumi-kun, I'm glad to say you did quite well."

"Delighted to hear it," he says, nodding.

"Yuki, you did the next best," Haruhi continues, giving the short girl a warm nod.

Nagato looks up from her book for a moment, but says nothing.

"And of course, Mikuru-chan ... you would be in third, but your ability to perform your moe duties gives you a bonus - so you're actually tied with Yuki!"

Of course...

Remembering Haruhi's complaints over the last weeks while we were not gaining recruits, I have a good idea of what to expect next. While Haruhi prepares her next tirade, I preemptively tune her out, going for my math homework. Admittedly, if it weren't for Haruhi's help studying, I'd be much worse off at this subject - but I may as well put that painfully earned skill to use. It's not like she can complain about that, since she was my self-assigned tutor, right?

It's not until I've gotten my book and assignment out that I realize the entire room is silent. I look up from the book and scan across everyone - Koizumi's looking at me with an expression that suggests I'm not properly respecting the award I'm getting. Asahina-san looks uncertain and nervous, fidgeting with the hem of her skirt. Nagato turns to the next page in her book without looking up.

For some reason, Haruhi's giving me a strange look.

Did I miss the entire thing? It hasn't even been a minute - that's too short, for her. Then Koizumi's warning resurfaces in my mind and I wonder ... is this too far? Is she going to be upset over me working on my homework in the club room anyway?

"What?" I finally ask, when everyone other than Nagato staring at me gets old.

"Aren't you the least bit interested in your performance?" Haruhi presses, faint but mild annoyance in her voice.

"I-" I cut myself off from telling her I was just trying to make the most of this time. "I didn't think today was review day," I say instead, offering a weak shrug. Really, I had hoped that Koizumi's suggestion wouldn't work out into, 'listen to Haruhi complain about you at length.' It's a hobby she enjoys - or at least is very skilled at, considering how often she does it - but I don't share her passion. Like I said, I appreciate the help she gives me on my assignments when that comes around, but...

Haruhi drums her fingertips on the desk before her, lips pursing. "Alright," she decides suddenly. "Koizumi-kun, Mikuru-chan, Yuki - I need to talk to Kyon. You can all go."

If they're surprised, only Asahina-san shows it. Haruhi watches Asahina-san and Koizumi leave, then sighs and turns her attention to me, eyes narrowing slightly.

I had hoped that Haruhi's energy was subsiding, not waiting to be spent in one last burst directed at me. What's she up to, anyway?

"Alright, Kyon," she says, her tone not quite as confident as I had expected, once we're alone... Or, are we?

I'm positive I didn't see Nagato leave, even though I can't see her now...

I look at Haruhi expectantly.

She rises from her desk and paces back and forth across the window to the clubroom, obviously steeling herself, or working up to something. "You've got a poor attitude already," she sighs, shaking her head, stopping in the center of the window and turning her back to me, crossing her arms beneath her chest.

I almost retort that she can't expect everyone else to have her level of energy. Instead, I bite it back to a small sigh that she doesn't seem to catch.

"Can you guess what your review said?" she wonders, head tilting to one side as she gazes out the window.

"Lazy, inattentive, a slacker," I answer without hesitation, my eyes going to the small stack of papers she left on her desk. The reviews, though now I do wonder what's written there. It'd be nice to think there were some positive comments, too, but I know what she mostly grumbles under her breath at me when I don't go along with her plans.

"You call me those all the time," I continue. "And let's see ... belligerent, insubordinate, useless..." I trail off at that. I was the worst reviewed member, wasn't I? It's probably almost all negative - even though financially I've contributed more than anyone else.

If I tried to recite back everything she's called me over the last year, she'd just invent something else to get the last word in. Hey, it's not like I haven't had my own share of sniping at her, either.

Anyway, I think the gist of her complaints is pretty much: "Mostly a lot of things about me being uninformed and lacking initiative. Is that right, Haruhi?"

I look up at the end, and for some reason, her head is down, as though she were cringing from a blow.

"You remember those things?" she asks me quietly.

I snort quietly. "Yeah, I remember; every word you say is deadly serious and you never lie, right?" I remark. "You told me that, once."

"Right!" she declares, raising her head, still facing away. "Um ... so ... I've been thinking about this, and I've come to a conclusion!"

I don't even have the faintest guess where she's going with this.

"You've never confessed, or had someone confess to you. You're so hopeless in these matters that you have no clue!" Giving a decisive nod, she places her hands on her hips and spins to face me, grinning. "Naturally, you're at an age and in a place where thoughts like this are on your mind all the time; you're distracted from doing your duties and being a devoted member of the Brigade.

"You can't do your best if you're constantly wondering about dating someone, can you? Well! You can't be blamed for that, really, since you're in good health- The obvious solution is to address your distractions and bring your focus back where it belongs!"


"So!" she continues brightly. "Because you know I'll give anyone a chance, this once, I will allow you to confess to me! There's no reason to hesitate or be afraid; you know I won't say no!" Then she meets my eyes, her gaze spearing straight into me and...

...and I have limits, so I sigh, covering my eyes with one hand.

"You want me to confess to you?" I wonder.

"Yeah!" she says. "Well... I mean, I'm saying I'll allow it!" she quickly clarifies.

...thanks for the warning anyway, Koizumi.

"You really want..." I trail off there, uncovering my eyes to see her staring at me expectantly, maybe even apprehensively. "No... No, I can't-"

I cut myself off as she looks alarmed and break eye-contact before I get worked up enough lose my temper.

Taking a slow breath, my hands clenching at my side, I say as evenly as I can, "I realize I make an easy target, Suzumiya-san, but can't you pretend, at least a little bit, that I was more than just someone to get penalty money out of and use for practical jokes? Worse, did you really expect for me to fall for this after how you treat me constantly?

"You call me a pervert, lose your temper when I so much as dare to so much as smile at Asahina-san- The way you reacted when that note, with Nagato, which I didn't even write-"

I cut myself off again, realizing my heart-rate is increasing; I can feel the anger I almost never acknowledge bubbling up in the corner of my mind, and I clamp down on it quickly. Koizumi said not to ruin Haruhi's good mood, but that can only really go so far.

"This is too cruel - even for you. I'm sorry, but I don't have the stomach for it today." Done saying my piece, and still not trusting myself to look at her right now, I shove my books into my bag and leave the clubroom.

My heart's still hammering wildly in my chest - I don't want to make Haruhi angry. I really, truly, don't. But there are limits! Even so ... I pause in the doorway, not looking back, but restraining myself from ending it like this.

"I'm sorry ... and I'm sure you had a very clever prank planned," I manage. "But this is just too much of an extra penalty for a poor review. If it's not too much to ask, maybe you could find a way to make fun of me so that when it's done, I can laugh, too? Maybe it's not good enough, but I assure you, I do put earnest effort into this club - I could have quit at any time, after all.

"So... After everything is said and done, I'd like to think that as much as you complain about me, we're actually at least friends... That the time and effort I put into this Brigade meant ... anything at all, really."

"K...Kyon," she chokes out, and I've never heard her struggle so much... Well - her prank was ruined by my lack of cooperation; it's a rare moment to see her backing down. And so, she's regretful instead of furious that I'm not playing along? If she's experiencing remorse for that ... then I have to do the right thing and encourage her.

My right hand rises and assumes a shape I wish hadn't become so comfortingly familiar to me; thumb on right temple, middle finger hooked across the bridge of my nose. "Haruhi ... I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment to you in the Brigade. And I'm really sorry you think I did that poorly. I just think there's a more constructive way to address it. So ... let's try and talk about it tomorrow, alright?"

"Y...yeah," she says, surprisingly shakily. "Y...you promise?"

I feel able to relax a little at the idea of her agreeing to a peaceful discussion. "Of course," I agree. "I don't want to leave the club, as long as we can talk about things in a friendly way."


Still - I don't even want to know what she really had planned, now...

The next day, I run into Koizumi at the train station at the bottom of the hill, looking faintly anxious, his smile strained.

"So," he says, not even bothering to greet me as he falls into step at my side, "what happened?"

"I talked Haruhi out of going through with whatever stupid prank started with her making me confess to her," I say flatly, thinking of the storm of ignored phone calls from the esper last night.

Koizumi's eternal smile fades into a mere shadow of its previous self.

"I'm not going to listen to you if you want to tell me that I should have played along," I add. "It may be limited, but I do have some pride."

"Rather ... instead," Koizumi says slowly, seemingly slightly shaken, "I should say ... I don't believe she was playing a prank on you?"

I sigh and shake my head. "I'm not in the mood," I warn him, before picking up the pace, moving too quickly for him to have an easy conversation with.

Then I don't feel like talking to Koizumi for the rest of the day. While he's still troubled, he can't pester me without undue attention - and that gives me time to think about what he actually said. Simply because I don't wish to discuss it doesn't mean I can't consider his words.

And thinking of that, I decide to brush up on a book I picked up a long while ago.

Knowing that Haruhi's right behind me, and having a slightly better idea of what's going on, I spend the entire day not learning a thing, instead thinking about what I should be doing in response. With those thoughts on my mind, when we're in the clubroom again, things feel strangely, falsely subdued. Haruhi doesn't look that bothered about her prank falling apart; instead she looks determined and thoughtful.

I promised I'd be here, but what about that discussion?

Other than that mild foreboding, it seems to be a calm, mellow day. Koizumi is contemplating a chess game with himself as both players, since I don't feel like playing with him at the moment. I grab my own book, garnering a brief look of annoyance as Koizumi scans across the title, and then refocuses on the game board before him.

"Um," Asahina-san begins hesitantly as she places my teacup before me. "Kyon-kun ... about that book you're reading?"

"Hmm?" I muse in reply, setting the book down and giving my full attention to the girl who is once again dressed as a maid.

"Why ... would you want to lure a tiger from the mountains?" she wonders.

"'Lure the Tiger from the Mountains' is a book of stratagems," I reply. "After explaining each stratagem, there's a bit about how it can apply to everyday life."

"So ... it's philosophy, like Koizumi-kun likes?" she wonders.

What a strange thought.

"I don't think this would be abstract enough for him," I say. What a feeling. This can't be that closely related, can it? Surely we think about things entirely differently? If he is on the same page as me - so to speak...

"So, you are thinking of the future?" Haruhi asks, breaking into the conversation.

In an abstract sense, I suppose...

"Where do you see yourself in ten years?" she presses, leaning forward and peering at me over the black obelisk proclaiming her rank.

Asahina-san nods at this as if it were a good question, then shakes her head as though to dismiss some distraction, turning around and reaching for the tea set.

"Not sure," I admit, thiking about what Koizumi said that morning, and trying to pick my words carefully. "Probably working somewhere somewhat respectable... Ten years from now ... hmm, if I've managed to become someone worth dating by then, hopefully I'll have a wife, maybe even a child." I nod thoughtfully; it's a pleasant dream, anyway - finding a nice girl and choosing to settle down with her?

Haruhi fidgets for a moment, and I go back to my book, re-reading number twenty six, a personal favorite: 'Feign madness but keep your balance.'

The silence is broken when Haruhi wonderingly asks, "Where do you think we will be in ten years, Kyon? I mean ... you and I."

I blink and look at her. What's she trying to get at? Or is this related to...

"It's just ... after yesterday..." She trails off and shoots a glare at everyone aside from me, as though daring them to ask her for clarification. She shakes her head and turns her attention back to me. "Right - Kyon, we need to talk. The rest of you are dismissed!"

I take a breath and steady my nerves. I think I can get through this...

Koizumi hesitates enough for Haruhi to give him a curious look, but he quickly rises and offers his usual smile, a little stiff as he walks away. "O...oh," Asahina-san pouts, looking nervously at me, and then Haruhi.

Haruhi shakes her head again quickly, before I can step outside. "Eh, Yuki, you lock up," Haruhi adds, setting the keys on the table and gesturing me to follow.

Resigned to the inevitable, and suspecting how this is most likely going to turn out, I fall into step at her side. The pair of us nearly walk into Koizumi, who is staring fixedly at his cell-phone and gives a nervous jump as we step through the door. "A...ah," he says uneasily, looking between the pair of us. "Um ... it appears that my part-time job is calling for me again..."

"Well, good luck with that," Haruhi says, sounding completely uninterested. She shoots a look at me. "Come on," she says, more insistently.

A short time after, we're both walking toward the train station at the bottom of the hill. "So," she says, breaking the silence, "tell me ... we're friends, right?" Her question is cautious, but she immediately follows it with a slightly more defensive, "You said that yesterday!"

"I hope that you at least consider me that after everything you've put me through," I answer honestly. "I know for a fact that you've done things I wouldn't tolerate from anyone less than a friend." It's taken a lot of doing, but I'd hope that's the level we're genuinely at.

This seems to unsettle her faintly, and her slightly worried, almost cute expression twists into a more vulnerable fear and irritation. "So ... in that case ... I tolerate things from you I won't accept from anyone else at all, you know," she mumbles, repeatedly glancing at me, but unable to maintain eye contact for more than a few seconds at a time.

"Well, that sounds like it answers your question," I return. "So, we're friends." Maybe even better friends than I had thought...

"R...right ... so then ... where would you see us in ten years?" she asks anxiously.

"From what you tell me, I'll be alone and miserable, and you'll just be getting bored with ruling the entire world," I answer. I realize this is flippant, even if it is an evasion, so before she can complain I add, "When you ask questions, I always feel there's a right answer - or that if I answer wrong, you'll get upset with me again. So keeping that in mind, let's be straightforward."

Haruhi scowls, shooting a death glare away from me, at no one in particular.

Taking a breath, she says, very carefully, "I want to know your opinion. After yesterday ... I started to wonder if I didn't know you as well as I should, for you to react so badly!"

To be honest, knowing Haruhi, I can't feel that my reaction was uncalled for. Once I calmed down, I started to understand why she might think that was the way to do things - but even so...

"Anyway ... it's not like..." She hesitates a moment, then says, "You've pulled some really unimpressive, lame pranks on me in the past, you know."

"Like when?" I wonder, annoyed.

"Bah! That time you told me that Koizumi, Mikuru-chan, and Yuki were an esper, a time traveler, and an alien?" she asks, glaring. "Or that stupid prank where you told me Mikuru-chan was kidnapped?"

"Right," I sigh. I'm not allowed to defend myself on those counts, either. "Well, sorry. So, what do I need to do to apologize for those now? More penalties, I assume?"

Haruhi hesitates, then sighs, sounding aggravated. "You're being difficult," she mumbles.

She catches my expression at that and quickly backpedals.

"This is difficult," she says hastily, pointedly looking away. "Ugh... Um... W...what I'm trying to say is... I mean, I just wanted to know; in ten years, we're still going to be friends, right?"

"If you manage to not get bored of me," I allow.

She makes a face at that. "So ... where do you see the pair of us?" she presses.

"I don't know," I answer with a sigh. "Is there a right answer to this question? Will you get angry if I don't say what you want?"

"Shut up and answer the question!" she snaps.

"Fine ... ten years from now... I'd guess it was as I said earlier. I'd like to think that I'd be happily married to someone who remembers my name, and you would find someone who is able to somehow make you happy."

She gives me a very odd, confused look. "Hmm," she muses, at the edge of the covered walkway leading to the trains. "I see," she says slowly, her eyes drifting away as she looks troubled still. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

What the hell was that all about? I admit ... I was hoping for an explanation of her prank, or an apology. Then again, from her, I should be glad she's not taking her anger out on me - or ignoring what upset me and trying something even more confusing to me. So, for that, I can just leave well enough alone.

After that I don't really try to think about it much, except to acknowledge that Haruhi seems occupied. For now, that seems just fine. Over the next few days, strangely, I start seeing her less after classes ... which does seem a bit strange considering I thought we'd just reaffirmed our friendship. Koizumi simultaneously stops sending me messages.

In this manner, even though Haruhi seemed to want to talk to me, a week and a half passes without anything being brought up. Naturally, I'm not about to broach this tricky topic myself!

The strangest part about this week and a half is that Koizumi avoids me, and Haruhi is less than her normally helpful self when it comes to my math studies; usually she'll reliably tell me which problems I need to focus on for review, but lately she's seemed too busy.

All things considered, I take advantage of the calm as much as I can. Her help was welcome, but she's given me enough of a foothold that I can manage just fine. As they say, 'give a man a fish, he eats fish for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats fish for his life.' That thought in mind, I'll keep struggling through on my own.

So, that, and a lack of Koizumi suddenly interrupting my personal space?

I can't complain that much. It doesn't help that more and more, I can see growing anxiety in Koizumi behind his mask, so because of that, I can't shake off the impression that something's about to happen. I don't know what, exactly, but I try to keep myself as prepared as I can be.

That day, in the clubroom, since Koizumi is now fully absorbed in some exercise that involves a notebook and pen, I take a break from working on my math and turn to reading again.

"U...um ... Kyon-kun," Asahina-san asks tremulously, glancing at the title askance. "What's that book about?"

"Just another old book about applying stratagems to real life," I answer. Then, realizing the opportunity for a good joke, I set down my copy of 'The Book of Five Rings' and say, "I found this in the 'business and management' section of the bookstore. Considering almost half of it is about sword techniques ... I have to say, management has come a long way in recent centuries!"

Asahina-san looks bewildered, but tries to force a polite smile, recognizing it as a joke even if she couldn't understand it.

Haruhi gives me another of those strangely unreadable looks I've been getting ever since our last serious discussion. "What about tradition?" she wonders, shaking her head. "Don't they say 'old tricks are the best tricks'?"

"Yeah, that was a joke," I sigh. "The wisdom may not change much, just how it's applied to everyday life." This philosophising is really more Koizumi's thing, anyway. I gesture at him, picking my book up and say, "I'm sure he can tell you all about that."

Haruhi makes an uncertain sound in response, and I catch her out of the corner of my eye, headed to the side of the esper in question.

From there, I find myself wondering how much of the fire scroll is applicable to me. Miyamoto Musashi was writing for people who would lead armies and need to make split-second decisions on the edge of a sword.

For me, well, maybe I'll figure out how to answer what should be obvious questions in a span of mere days.

As I'm thinking these things, not quite registering, but noted, I see Haruhi stop behind Koizumi's seat. I think she's glancing at me, and then, I see her hand find Koizumi's shoulder as she asks, loud enough to actually claim my attention again, "So, Itsuki ... what do you think of all of that?"

His smile seems more forced than usual. "Ah ... I didn't ... really see much of a philosophical question in that, honestly," he says hesitantly. "But generally, I agree that what Kyon-kun suggests is an ideal compromise between old wisdom and new. Finding a way to present old wisdom in a new way credits the original wisdom, but also makes it more applicable, doesn't it?"

"Sounds good," I agree, thinking the issue sounds closed.

After a few comfortable pages, Haruhi unleashes an irate sigh. "Hey- Itsuki, are you busy tonight?"

I don't see his reaction, focusing on the final paragraph of the water scroll.

"Ah ... w...well, as it happens, I should be busy with my part-time job at that point," he says anxiously, which does get my attention. More closed space? As much as I appreciate Koizumi not lurking and being annoyingly creepy, if Haruhi's been acting up, it's surprising that he hasn't mentioned it to me.

Then again ... I did grouse at him for that pretty heavily last time. And he has looked agitated lately...

"What about tomorrow?" she demands.

"Well ... I can ... be free," he allows uncertainly.

Curious, I actually look up at the pair of them. Koizumi seems - for once - nervously uncertain, as though he doesn't know how to behave at Haruhi's sudden attention. For her part, she's got her hands on his shoulders and is practically leaning into him - that's certainly very, very close! Her eyes spark for a second, a momentary shine as though she were looking quickly away when our gazes met.

Nagato is not even pretending to read a book. Asahina-san, from her spot by the tea set, fidgets with poorly concealed anxiety.

"What's going on here?" I wonder for a moment, before realization sets in.

Wait - really? But-

"Haruhi ... are you trying to ask Koizumi out on a date?" I can't help but ask, my heart rate accelerating again.

Her eyes flash again, and she quickly looks away. "Well, what if I am?" she asks, somewhat testily.

I work my jaw for a moment, and climb to my feet. The air in the room seems charged for some reason, Asahina-san quietly tensing herself, as though in preparation, Koizumi hunching over the slightest bit - as much as he can in Haruhi's grip. Haruhi's feet slide the slightest distance apart as she widens her stance, as though preparing for confrontation. Nagato seems calm, however, in fact reaching for her discarded book and opening it back up.

"Well ... if you are," I start, thinking. "Eh, well... I want to say that this is unseemly from a Brigade chief, and hypocritical, aside - I don't know why, but I had thought relationships among Brigade members were forbidden, considering your usual behavior." Barring that whole ... 'confession' thing. But in that vein...

"So, you want to try and stop us?" Haruhi challenges, while Koizumi winces slightly.

"Well ... as a member of the Brigade, I think I've said what needs to be said," I answer, shaking my head. "However, as a friend- Haruhi, I'm actually quite happy for you! For both of you!"

She has a look on her face like I just threw Asahina-san out the window for some reason.

"...what?" she asks.

"P...pardon?" Koizumi echoes, looking increasingly uncomfortable and confused.

I said once that my life would be easier if Haruhi would just find some boy to settle down with. If that happens to be Koizumi, well, I'm not going to complain. Hasn't he said he finds her charming? "To be honest, Haruhi, you've noticed that Koizumi and I often spend time talking about things outside of your hearing, haven't you?" I ask.

"Ah- K...Kyon-kun, I would appreciate it if that remained just between us," the esper says anxiously. "Really-"

"What's this, then?" Haruhi snaps, her attention turning to Koizumi.

"The content of those discussions is entirely centered around you, you know," I tell Haruhi, unable to keep from smiling. "Koizumi here has immesurable concern for your emotional state, you know! It's almost all he's talked to me about since nearly the day he joined our club! That this can now be in the open, instead of having to be a secret... Why wouldn't I be happy for Koizumi? And you're the one who's asking him out, so it seems it's mutual, isn't it? Of course this is great news!"

Haruhi and Koizumi both stare at me with astonishment. Asahina-san looks - if anything - even more bewildered. "U...um?" she manages, eyes going between Haruhi and myself in utter confusion.

"R...really?" Haruhi asks, sounding both confused and strangely unsatisfied.

"Well ... it is true that I have great admiration for you," Koizumi manages nervously. "This isn't... That is to say-"

"Oh, don't hold back," I can't help but remark. "Though ... Koizumi, Haruhi - if the two of you want some privacy, that's completely understandable."

"No- Well..." Haruhi drops her hands from Koizumi's shoulders. "He's got work today anyway," she says halfheartedly. "Um..."

For reasons I don't really understand, Haruhi doesn't look nearly as happy as I would have expected.

"Speaking of that- I must urgently go now," Koizumi says, giving a shaky, apologetic smile before he suddenly bolts, leaving the rest of us behind. Undoubtedly, he has to brief his superiors on this new development.

"Um," Asahina-san tries, "d...does this mean that Suzumiya-san and Koizumi-kun are a couple?"

"It seems so," I agree, retaking my seat.

Haruhi suddenly huffs a very abrupt sigh, shaking her head and crossing her arms over her chest as she retreats to her seat, frowning.

"Don't let it get you down," I encourage her. "Koizumi should treat you well, I expect - and if he doesn't, for some reason, you've still got your friends, right?"

"Kyon," she answers tiredly, crossing her arms on the desk in front of her, laying her head down, "shut up."

Hmm. I shrug at that; it seems she just got her way, so there's no good reason for her to be upset. Maybe she wanted it to be more dramatic? Oh, well - more time to read.

Koizumi hasn't contacted me by the time the weekend has rolled around - the first time I'll see Haruhi and Koizumi since they canceled yesterday's club meeting for their date. The weekend mystery search is still on, though I can't help but think it would have been more sensible to attend club as usual, and cancel the city search, instead.

Still, we meet up at the assigned place. Much to my surprise, when I get there five minutes late, Haruhi and Koizumi have not yet arrived. Asahina-san is still there, wearing a very pretty yellow dress with cute little lacy flounces and bows. At her side, Yuki is wearing something from her limited selection of casual clothing - shorts and a shirt I think I remember from last year's summer vacation.

I frown as I glance across the pair. "Hello!" Asahina-san says brightly on seeing me, showing those small signs of nervousness she gets when she's alone with Nagato. "How are you doing, Kyon-kun?"

"Great, actually," I tell her. With all that extra free time yesterday, I had planned on tackling the hidden boss of that game it's taken me eight months to beat. My mom had a different idea involving my math homework. On the bright side, I think the feeling of accomplishment from completing the unwanted assignment completely outweighs my annoyance over not getting a chance to see two dozen flavors of party-wipe.

That hidden boss is needlessly mean.

"I really like these calmer days," I add. Turning to look at the most silent member of the group, I ask, "Are you doing well, Nagato?"

Her head inclines the slightest distance, and her eyes track to me briefly. She still doesn't quite smile ... but I feel some minuscule thawing in her gaze. Or maybe I'm totally wrong on that count. Could that be the case?

"I am fine," she finally answers.

"Glad to hear it. What do you think Haruhi's going to have planned for today?"

Asahina-san looks uncertain. "I don't know," she says slowly. "Um ... Kyon-kun ... is it ... okay that Suzumiya-san is dating Koizumi-kun?"

"Seems like it'd be fine to me," I reply, shrugging. Now that she's brought it up, I allow a tiny bit of bitterness out, sighing, "If things aren't fine, no one likes it when I try and address it on my own, anyway."

"What?" she asks, confused.

"I tried to interfere once, when I felt that things had gotten out of hand," I clarify. "I suppose you don't remember it because of the alcohol."

She winces at that and instantly turns to look away. "That's..." she starts, unable to follow it with anything.

I do remember that moment quite well. That interaction ... that defines the distance between Haruhi and myself, and what I've accepted as my chosen task, regardless of whatever it is she thinks she keeps me around for.

Those thoughts in turn define the uncomfortable silence that surrounds us for the next few minutes.

"I don't... Somehow, this moment feels very sad," Asahina-san says uncomfortably, her expression dismayed. "I... I really don't like that Kyon-kun would say his temperance is unappreciated."

I can't help but shrug. "Unappreciated is exactly the word," I sigh.

"Appreciation or its absence do not wholly define the substance of your transmission," Nagato observes.

Though, come to think of it ... this is something we never really discussed. Oh, when things got heated at that time, she told me what Koizumi and Asahina-san's goals and motives were, but for herself, she never seemed to offer any opinions or recriminations.

Sad to say, it's the closest thing to support I had in that altercation.

"If you're trying to say that even though she never apologized, she paid attention to what I said, I get that," I acknowledge.

That's why I'm still here; if she couldn't grow at all, I'd never have thought of Haruhi as anything more than the worst sort of annoyance. Or an outright hazard! The kinds of thoughts I had in the first month we met. There were times when I first knew her, but now...

"Speaking of Haruhi, where is she?" I wonder.

"She is a bit late, isn't she?" Asahina-san agrees uncomfortably, checking her watch.

Nagato turns slightly to one side, and I turn with her. Haruhi is stalking toward us, already looking like she's in a bad mood. She's dressed for the weekend, or really ... for a date, I would expect. She's wearing a skirt and heels - her outfit actually reminds me a little bit of Asahina-san (big). Behind her, Koizumi is dressed in his typical manner, which means if he holds still I assume he's mimicking the cover of some men's fashion magazine or another.

I raise a hand in greeting as the wayward pair arrives, Haruhi scanning across the trio of us as though expecting a blank spot to appear, so someone else can be the last to arrive after all. "Good morning," I greet her. "What's wrong?"

"That's some way to say hello!" she snaps at me.

"Hmm, likewise," I return.

She draws in a breath and then sighs, looking across the others and shaking her head. "Eh ... I'm annoyed because Itsuki slowed us down having breakfast - that's why we're late!" she complained.

"My apologies," the esper manages, scratching the back of his head, his smile weak and tired. "I lost all sense of time- I was in such delightful company, after all!"

Haruhi shakes her head severely, shooting a surprisingly dark glare at Koizumi. "I told you; the Brigade has to come first, Itsuki! Ugh- Right-" Without any further hesitation, she pulls a set of now-familiar toothpicks from her purse in one fist and presents them, giving me a look as though challenging me to go first.

When no one else moves to, I shrug and take one before she can speak - marked with a black tip. This seems to satisfy Haruhi.

Mikuru picks one without any marking, looking at it in consternation, as though she could glean some fascinating insight from the thing. Koizumi goes next, and Haruhi's expression betrays a small twitch when he pulls one that is marked, as well.

I suppose I can catch up with Koizumi for this one, at least.

Going last, Nagato surprises me by pulling out a third marked toothpick. Haruhi stares at it in surprise, opening her mouth to comment, then shaking her head in disgust and muttering, "...grabbed the wrong ones- Oh, whatever!" She shakes her head and tosses her own toothpick into a nearby wastebin, declaring, "Itsuki, Kyon, Yuki, you're a team. Kyon, find something amazing! Now, come on, Mikuru-chan."

Not waiting for a reply, she seizes Asahina-san's elbow in her hand and storms off.

I sigh, shaking my head and giving Koizumi a studying look. How does it feel when the shoe is on the other foot, Esper-san? "I would have thought that you, of all people, would try and make Haruhi happy in this situation," I scold him.

He gives me an openly, undisguised look of incredulity. "You aren't... You're not serious," he says, shaking his head quickly. "This can't be right!"

"You tell me?" I ask. "I suppose- If it's none of my business, I respect that ... but Haruhi doesn't look very happy."

"Believe me, I've noticed," Koizumi grumbles, betraying just how stressed he must be by all of this.

...I'm probably not helping by nettling him. Taking a step back mentally, I shake my head. "Well ... we're supposed to find something amazing, right?"

"If we're literal, that order seemed specific to you," Koizumi counters, his frown not lifting. "However, as it happens - I do have concerns regarding Suzumiya-san."

I catch a glimpse of Haruhi and Asahina-san at one end of the street, so shake my head; if she hesitates and sees us hanging around, she'll undoubtedly turn back and complain about our behavior at length. "Come on," I say, gesturing Koizumi and Nagato to follow me as I head the opposite direction from where Haruhi headed. The esper doesn't need even more stress, as haggard as he must be.

The pair fall into step behind me, Koizumi's footsteps nearly silent and Nagato's absolutely so. After half a block, Koizumi pulls even with me, sighing. "If you are truly unaware, then I have to explain that Suzumiya-san's current behaviors are a result of your actions," he tells me in warning.

I don't see a problem with this, if it results in her settling down.

"Why don't we pass through that alley?" Koizumi suggests, gesturing to a side-street too narrow for regular traffic. "There's a park two blocks over."

I change course without really thinking about it, passing behind the rear entrance for some restaurant or another, weaving between the trash bins that fill most of the space. Koizumi grabs my arm between two buildings, reminding me strangely of the way that Haruhi grabbed Asahina-san. "Kyon-kun," he says in warning, "this matter is far too serious for you to act so indifferent. It pains me to make things this obvious, but to spell it out for you..."

He turns to fix me with a particularly serious stare. "Suzumiya Haruhi is in love with you," he declares.

I press my lips together in a flat line. Let's be serious for a minute ... but it's not like such thoughts haven't crossed my mind before. I didn't realize that this is where she was trying to go with things with what I'd initially called her 'prank,' but as it stands now:

"And?" I ask. "How is any of this my problem, since she's dating you? I don't think that there's anything I can do that would make things better, here. I'm clueless about romance, in her eyes, you know."

While his grip tightens, squeezing painfully, I'm rewarded with the sight of his eyes and mouth popping open wide in shock.

"To be honest, I suspected as much at points," I tell him, shaking my head.

"T...then ... why haven't you done anything?" he shouts. "You know- You know! And you just pretend to be ignorant?"

"I'm not oblivious," I say, the pressure on my arm becoming truly discomforting. "But what she wants has nothing to do with what I want."

One of Koizumi's eyebrows twitches - and for the first time ever, I see Koizumi lose his temper, releasing my arm and reaching back to somewhere near the constellation of Orion before hurling his fist at my face. At the very last second, the projectile changes trajectory just enough to narrowly miss my face, crashing into the brick wall of the building behind me with a distrubingly solid thud.

I can only stand there, more than a little shocked- That Koizumi, of all people, could be pushed this far? His face isn't far from mine, his eyes locked on mine in an angry glare.

I take a breath and try to think for a minute before speaking. "I think I understand your situation a little better than you think. Then again, I don't have all of your knowledge, or your agenda. It seems very obvious that you feel I should reciprocate - give Haruhi what she wants. Right?"

He gives a grudging nod at that, stepping back and dropping his hand to his side. His knuckles are a bit red - one of them is slightly skinned, too. "You do realize that this current arrangement is meant to inspire jealousy in you, don't you?" Koizumi asks sharply. "There is no joy in this for me - Suzumiya-san has made it quite clear that our 'relationship' is purely a cover."

Actually ... I suspected that. "Well, that's too bad. I had hoped it was more genuine," I sigh. He did find her charming, so it seems that the cruelty I had initially thought Haruhi aimed at me was instead deflected onto the esper. To say nothing of the fact that if it were real, Haruhi's interest in Koizumi would certainly have made things easier for me...

"I had... I had thought that you cared about her," Koizumi says uneasily. "That ... you would be happy to return her feelings..."

"It's not like I don't care," I assure him, shrugging. "But she's never been forthcoming and honest about the issue. So how am I supposed to really respond?"

He blinks at this, seeming to consider something for a while before he nods. "I see," he says quietly, frowning.

Hmm. He's probably got the wrong idea...

Oh, whatever. I don't really need to worry about that at the moment - she's currently involved with him, so it's got nothing to do with me. And if her attention shifts back to me...

"Is your hand alright?" I try.

"Honestly, I do not expect Suzumiya-san to even notice," he sighs, rubbing at his knuckles, then glaring at the street below his feet for a long minute.

"Do you think we'll find something amazing at the park?" I wonder, trying to change the subject back as I lead the walk toward our theoretical destination.

Taking a spell to put his smiling mask back on, Koizumi shrugs and answers, "Perhaps."

Despite that, it's relatively quiet for some time. A few days later, back in the clubroom, Asahina-san takes it upon herself to remark on my reading choice again. "Um ... Kyon-kun ... why so many books about conflict and war?" she wonders.

"Just learning how to pick my battles," I answer, closing 'The Art of War.' "It doesn't hurt to be more aware of what your options are when you run into unknown situations, right?"

"But ... war?" she asks anxiously, her eyes wide and worried as she clutches her hands to the chest of her charming maid costume. "That's so scary!"

"It's about conflict, not just war," I explain. "Every problem you encounter can be viewed in terms of a conflict. For all of my reading, I don't expect to ever use any of this knowledge in a fistfight - or any other kind, for that matter."

"What, you think those books will let you solve problems you haven't been able to before?" Haruhi asks, doubtful and tired.

Sensing a trap, I shrug and answer, "Maybe, and maybe not."

"What stratagem would be used to defeat an implacable foe?" Koizumi asks abruptly.

"Define implacable," I reply.

"This foe is a brilliant, powerful strategist; it seems direct confrontations are not an option," Koizumi says with a helpless shrug. "I cannot defeat him. So, how would I resolve this situation?"

"Still lacking a bit in context," I say, pretty sure I know exactly what he's alluding to. Haruhi crosses her arms over her chest and watches our discussion curiously. "However, taking this as seriously as I can...

"Number thirty five, chain stratagems. First, your enemy is like a tiger; strong in its natural environment. So naturally, number fifteen, lure the tiger from the mountains. After that, your foe has lost the position that grants them strength. While he's in the open, he's vulnerable - or at least weaker than he is otherwise.

"From there, number ten; hide a knife behind a smile. If your foe is unbalanced and unprepared, the guise of friendship may allow you to attack unexpectedly. Simultaneously, because that may fail, number seven - create something from nothing. Make a rumor or create a compelling reason to move your foe elsewhere, ideally from the neutral ground to a less favorable one.

"Once you've gotten him moved all the way from his place of strength to a place of extreme risk, number twenty seven; remove the ladder when your enemy has ascended to the roof." I pause from my delivery to drink from the teacup Asahina-san placed before me, noting the absolute silence my speech has left in the others.

"If all of that fails, you would be best to rely on number thirty six," I complete, shrugging.

"Which one is that?" Koizumi asks, smiling thoughtfully. "I'm afraid I'm barely familiar with these ideas, let alone have them memorized to your degree..."

"I know those because that exact plan was used against me once," I answer, shrugging. As flattering as it might be to be labeled 'implacable.' "Well, that should only be a problem if I was your theoretical 'foe'," I add, giving Koizumi a sympathetic shrug as his expression falls. "Number thirty six is, when all else fails, retreat."

"That's actually interesting," Haruhi remarks, rubbing her chin. "What 'foe' are you talking about, anyway, Koizumi?"

Not 'Itsuki' anymore?

He catches that too, wincing slightly. "Really, it was more of a thought exercise," he answers, forcing a half-hearted smile to his face.

Haruhi purses her lips, looking annoyed. "Right, we're breaking up," she announces, shaking her head. "I'm bored with you, Koizumi."

"Ah..." Koizumi sighs and stares at the table, unable to maintain his perfect smile. I actually do feel sorry for him...

I've said enough for today, though. I give Koizumi another sympathetic shrug, but given his explanation to me that it was all staged on Haruhi's part... Well, yeah, I do feel sorry for him, still. I can't say it was very kind of her, either.

"What?" Asahina-san protests, confused. "But, but- But you just started, Suzumiya-san! That's too sad!"

"It was getting in the way of the Brigade," Haruhi counters testily, shooting a dark glare at the bottom of her teacup. She huffs another abbreviated sigh and gives a shake of her head, climbing to her feet. "Kyon - you..." She trails off, all eyes going to her. After another irritated shake of her head, she grabs our schoolbags, throwing mine before me. "Come on," she orders. "I want to talk with you."

I have an acknowledged habit that I cannot leave an unknown word unresearched on the internet. I can't leave an idea alone once it's introduced to my mind, and I have to continue understanding it. I suppose, in this way, I'm not that far from Haruhi...

So in my reading, even as slow as I am, I learned a little bit about this.

The concept of dealing with conflict is directly related to survival. In the simplest times, in the early days of man, conflicts were with predators, starvation... They were struggles - or maybe just obstacles - that needed to be overcome if early man wished to survive.

From there, as the concept of civilization began to rise, conflicts encompassed battles over less immediate things. Territory, religion, a billion trivial-seeming things that suddenly turned out not to be trivial at all.

That's probably looking back too far, but it does point out that conflict - and overcoming it - is a thing that's ingrained into our very natures. And by contextualizing things in that way, they can be more easily dealt with.

To bring things to a more relevant point:

It all began, honestly, when things began to truly gel for me during the filming of Haruhi's movie. Did Koizumi think that after he mentioned fatal conflicts between rival factions that I wouldn't take him seriously?

Though, before that ... I'm sure you remember that part in the story I got to avoid last time by saying, 'Haruhi is Haruhi'?

I knew it was a cop-out then, and I know it now. And I'd be an idiot to read the books that I do without realizing the important parts of the art of war. As Sun Tzu said:

If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemy nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

Between those, of course, is the idea that knowing yourself and not the enemy is half of victory; I think the American military has a motto along those lines.

And, as there is between those points, between the points prior to that - Haruhi being Haruhi, and me cultivating my own plans...

Around the end of May last year, I was content to believe that I was slowly falling in love with Haruhi, despite how much her behavior could occasionally bother me. It's easy enough to imagine; it was my kiss that somehow persuaded her to come back to this world, and not drag me with her to...

Who knows, actually?

Those thoughts in mind, I thought that's how things were.

When Haruhi showed her temper, filming her movie... That, and Koizumi's long speech made me wonder if I really did love Haruhi. Haruhi's pretty, she's intelligent, she lights up the room when she's there-

-and she always gets her way.

Can I let myself be just another thing that turns out the way she wants? Can I give up all of my ability to choose for myself? Then, recent events, reminding me of that girl from middle school...

It wasn't enough to try and sort out my feelings, though. I knew that there would always be a question of limited trust and freedom. Koizumi regarded me as a means to an end, if he was generally amiable; Haruhi was a problem, and I should be the stabalizing solution, not a catalyst. Then, too, there was the idea that he said Asahina-san was some clever form of spy sent just to manipulate me...

So, I also needed to learn more about how to behave when confronted with unknown enemies. From there, I began to see the tactics employed against me. I'd already figured the drive of Koizumi's speeches, but information control is a form of conflict, too. I know where I stand in the grand scheme of things; Nagato could surely defeat me, if she had reason to. But I trust Nagato - and I trust Haruhi.

I can say with confidence that even if I don't know all of my enemies ... I at least know myself, now. That should get me halfway there.

Haruhi and I set out from the school together, leaving the supposedly abandoned Koizumi with Asahina-san and Nagato to console him. My attention is on the girl at my side, as I'm pretty sure I know what's coming. But that's fine; that's part of my stratagem.

Number one: Deceive the heavens to cross the sea.

"What's wrong, Haruhi?" I ask, trying to sound supportive, but unable to keep a faint note of suspicion from my voice.

She huffs again, not even trying to meet my eyes. "What do you think?" she grumbles.

"Koizumi?" I pose.

"Look- That..." She grumbles and shakes her head. "Koizumi and I weren't really dating," she sighs. "We just made that up, okay?"

"Hmm. So, is this the prank you came up with instead?"

"I wanted to see your reaction," she admits. She shifts her shoulders and grumbles, "I didn't know he really had a crush on me..."

"Is that a problem?" I wonder.

She makes a face. "A guy as phony as him?" she asks doubtfully. "Come on ... he won't even say where he works. Even if he did help us get part-time work, there's no way I'll buy him wearing those mascot outfits all the time. Bah - I bet it's something nasty, like a compensated dating scheme with unmarried thirty year old office ladies!"

...that has to be one of the most unappealing ideas I've ever heard of.

Haruhi catches my expression and nods. "Yeah, you know what I'm talking about..." she trails off with a sigh.

"Well, you wanted my reaction?" I prompt. "Is there something you wanted to just maybe ask me about?"

"I tried to," she mumbles, bowing her head.

"Stratagem thirty; make the guest and the host exchange roles," I say with a sigh. "I was thinking about being more direct. Weren't you just asking me if old tricks were the best tricks?"

"Fine," she says softly, shifting her shoulders and raising her head, staring forward. "So... Kyon, do you like me?"

"Of course I do, Haruhi; that's why I'm your friend," I answer. "That's why I hoped you would actually be happy with Koizumi."

"Eh... I meant ... more than that," she mumbles. "You... You get what I'm trying to say, right? Why I'd ask if we'd still be ... together ... in ten years..."

"I think I know," I agree, stopping at a street corner and turning to face her. We're alone for the moment, the vast majority of students either already gone past us, or still back in their own clubs. "So ... can I say some things, and have you hear me out?"

"Absolutely," she says without hesitation, her eyes lighting up as she stares at me.

Despite everything, I lick my lips nervously, unable to meet her eyes. "So ... listen. In ten years, or twenty, or thirty... Who's to say what's going to happen? We're still in high school, now; will you even remember me in a decade, outside of school reunions and scrapbooks?"

"I'll never forget," she answers instantly, scowling.

"Alright," I allow. "Then if that's true- Why change the way things are right now? Won't you just get bored of me, then have to set me aside like you did to Koizumi? Wouldn't everything else become awkward?"

She gives me a somewhat incredulous look. "T...that wasn't ... real though," she mutters.

"Real or not, people grow and change. Why commit to something when in a few years, we're all going to split apart and go to different colleges, live different lives? If you don't believe me- Just look at yourself, Haruhi!

"You've changed from an annoying, demanding girl who doesn't care for others - into someone I'm very happy to spend time with! Someone who looks our for Nagato and Asahina-san now. I felt that before you helped me with my studies! Don't you remember the friendly moments we've shared? Say, last February?

"Even if it was at my expense, you did stand up for Nagato when you thought I was somehow pranking her - and then you helped her actually meet that person."

Her expression shifts, becoming something I can't quite read. "Eeh," she mumbles. Her eyes track to one side, and she seems to regain the confidence that's been missing from her lately. Then she frowns and fixes me squarely in the eyes, her expression shifting to a frown. "Then, why wouldn't you confess when I gave you the chance?" she complains. "You just admitted that you're happy spending time with me, right? That you like me, even!"

"Why would I confess?" I counter, frowning. "I'm pretty sure that being happy and being in love are different things. I mean ... I'm happy spending time with you, and in the brigade, and with our other friends... But how long can that really last?"

Her eyes darken and she shakes her head fiercely. "What the hell is this? You find something you like, so instead of fighting to keep a hold of it, you're just going to enjoy it while you can and let it slip away? That's- Can't you see what I'm really looking for, Kyon? I want that same thing, too! I don't want to let it get away from us! So if you feel that way - why wouldn't you confess?"

"Because..." And I hesitate, unable to meet her eyes again. "Well, you've taught me something on that, Haruhi - what I feel for you and romance are separate things. I don't do romance - I'm just a pervert, and not worth anyone's time, right? So, I'd never want to risk what we have for something like that."

"What," she sputters for a moment before stamping one foot and huffing, swallowing back some comment. After a second to regain her composure she mutters, "It's ... okay to be scared, Kyon. Sometimes ... I am, too- Like right now, that ... the best friend I have doesn't want anything to do with me. Are you going to tell me that what you said before - that we were friends - is a lie?

"Because you're saying that you don't believe in romance, and that you don't love me - but it sounds a lot more like you never want to see me again! Is that really true? Is that what you're trying to say?"

I almost cringe at that return, bowing my head - still avoiding meeting her gaze. I've been telling myself it's for my freedom, but that question pierces to the heart of me. How much of it is cowardice, too? Being honest...

I do consider Haruhi a friend. I am happier for having met her. Can I take those steps, and still make my own choices?

I can't be the only one who's right, here, so still clinging to my resolve, I admit, "I do like you, Haruhi. I like you a lot- You're probably the best friend I've had in a long time; if you can love someone unromantically, then that's probably what I feel for you. I think I like you even more than my own sister." The sudden relief in my chest at getting that out lets me meet her watery gaze, realizing how true those words were only after I said them.

"So, to that," I continue, fumbling for words again beneath her gaze a little, "if you want us to be together in five years, or ten, or twenty- My idea of growing old at your side is keeping that friendship alive - I don't know what I'd do without you, and even if I'm flattering myself ... I'd like to think that my friendship is meaningful to you as well."

She blinks several times at this, slow realization setting in. "Are... N...no, wait," she says, shaking her head, her expression anxious. "I... I picked on you a lot, alright? Because- Because I like you a lot too! I wasn't trying to prank you! I wanted..." She sighs and deflates, staring at the ground. "I wanted ... to start going out with you. What the hell is all of this 'unromantic love' bullshit, now? D...do you think I'm ugly or something? I...is it- Are you g-"

"Hold up there," I interrupt, shaking my head. Seeing a course for both of us to get something good out of this, I find the strength to smile. "Don't even finish that.

"Before I met you, I was much more shallow, and probably would have been satisfied with going out with you- And then, you'd be bored and done with me. What we have right now, Haruhi ... it works. I think with you as a friend, I can be truly happy. And I'd like to think as your friend, I could try and help be you happy, too.

"For romance... My personal stance on that until at least college has simply become, 'don't.' I've learned enough about myself to decide that even if you didn't say it seriously, you're right that I'm probably not cut out for that right now." There - that should see us into college, where she can find someone else to date - and we can still be friends.

"Uh," Haruhi chokes out, a pained noise as she stares at me, her face filled with dismay. "N...no... Kyon, w...why is it like this?"

Because I'm not going to give you what you want, Haruhi.

I'm not going to give you what Koizumi wants, either.

I'm going to give you what we both need.

"T...that look," she says, some tiny amount of stress seeming to abate from her face. "You... You really ... care?"

"Absolutely," I swear.

"Huh," she manages, before heaving a sigh. "I..." She then manages to laugh, though it's pained, and there's little humor in it. "I've ... never been shot down before."

Well ... what am I supposed to do, here? "Normally, I think I'm supposed to offer to find the guy responsible and rough him up for you," I offer, not quite smiling.

Then she does laugh, though I can see she's still hurt. I regret that... "Just ... this once, since he's ... kind of a cool guy after all ... you can let him off easy," she says, forcing a smile.

"Alright," I allow. "But ... Haruhi ... seriously? If I've hurt you, I really am sorry for that - I don't... I don't want to make you unhappy."

"So full of yourself," she retorts, sighing. "Well... If you say I've grown, then honestly ... I think I can say you have, too. Well - in any case, I'm holding you to this," she warns me, thrusting her right hand toward me, pinky extended.

Yubikiri? Really? Only you, Haruhi...

"Alright," I grudgingly allow, linking my pinky finger with hers. "I promise to always be your friend, and if I lie, may I swallow one thousand needles and cut off this finger."

"I promise to always be your friend, and if I lie, may I swallow one million needles and cut off this hand!" Haruhi answers, needing to one-up me, naturally.

I give her a real smile at that, we shake linked pinkies, and then she releases me.

"You know, I can get puffer-fish, too." Haruhi nods, and seems about to break away for her own path home, but she pauses, then releases a tiny sigh. "I'm keeping my promise, still ... but I want one thing from you anyway," she says. "With that, I'll be satisfied."

"What's that?" I wonder, before she pushes into me and seizes me in a hug, pressing her face into my coat.

"Just shut up," she mumbles. "Don't ... hug me back." She heaves one great sigh, then breaks away, her eyes shining. "I'm going home. We have to study tomorrow; no friend of mine is going to be as poorly prepared for college as you are! And you're an idiot for thinking I'm going to let you get into a college worse than the one I pick! 'Separate ways'- Screw that! It's friends forever, and don't you forget it!"

I give a chuckle at that and nod. "I appreciate that, Haruhi. Thank you ... for being my friend. Take care until tomorrow, okay?"

"Yeah," she answers. "You too. And, seriously, what's wrong that you like me unromantically more than your sister? She's awesome - be nice to her, too, or it's yubitsume!"

...she's probably serious, but I don't really want to cut off a finger today.

She shakes her head and sighs again, walking the route toward her home with one last wave.

After she's out of sight, I place one hand to my heart and unleash an explosive sigh of my own. My heart-rate probably was equal to the assumed rotational velocity of V1487 Aquilae at that point.

"Sixteen; in order to capture, one must let loose," Nagato observes from just behind me.

I should probably be unsettled.

Instead I shrug and turn around, offering a weak smile. "No one fights as hard as someone who doesn't see an escape," I agree, nodding. "At the same time ... I can't lash out against Haruhi for taking away my freedom of choice when she doesn't even know she's doing it. But she's right, too - running away from her doesn't solve things, does it? Wasn't I just trying to run away and leave her alone?

"But she can't always get her way, either. So ... if someone must be in such a position, it strikes me that she needs a friend much more than a lover. That's a good balance, I hope."

Plus, well ... I like Haruhi, but I love making my own decisions. Somehow, getting this outcome... It feels much better than managing to reject Haruhi and run away.

Nagato's cool gaze regards me without blinking.

"What about you?" I wonder. "Did I handle that well?"

Blinking once, she answers, "Good strategy."

"And what do your bosses think?"

She blinks again, saying nothing.

I give her a small smile, catching the unspoken message. "Thank you again, Nagato..." I still owe her a trip to the library. I suppose I could calm down there, but I just want to go home and collapse, maybe let myself belatedly panic over what I just pulled off.

"Nagato ... I wonder, because you're a friend also - as Haruhi and I are going to stick together, will you be with us, too?"

Though, honestly ... this is probably me being selfish.

"I wish to observe something that will not be possible until college," she agrees.

"Oh? Well, hopefully you'll be with us longer than that," I say, frowning, wondering what it might be. Probably something too profound for me to understand.

"Yes." She nods very slightly.

I give her a smile. Maybe she means something like she knows through a trick of predetermination or synchronization that we'll be together until college, but not after. And maybe not. It probably doesn't matter.

"Well, be sure to let me know if there's anything I can do for you," I decide, rather than leaving it unsaid this time. "I do owe you that library trip, don't I?"

She gives a tiny nod of her head.

I can't help but smile softly at that.

"In that case, I suppose I'll see you tomorrow," I say, raising one hand in a wave. "Take care, Nagato."

"Take care," she echoes, before blinking and turning on one foot, marching back up the hill to the road her apartment is on.