Suzumiya Haruhi no Yami
(The Darkness of Haruhi Suzumiya)
by Suzume CA
Complacency, I've discovered, can be more dangerous than anything. Aliens with conflicting agendas within their own ranks? Been there. Time travelers dancing around the edges of predestiny? Done that. Shady organizations of espers with seemingly unlimited resources in this world and incredible powers in another? Old news.
But complacency? It'll get you every time, particularly if you start taking for granted that aliens, time travelers and espers are a part of everyday life. I was growing accustomed to their presence in the same way that I was finally getting used to climbing that much-loved hill every morning as I walked to school. After a while, it simply becomes part of the everyday scenery. The paradigm of what is "normal" shifts, and what was extraordinary is now mundane.
Allowing yourself to think in this manner, of course, is one of the worst ways to tempt fate, right up there with those dreaded words: "What could possibly go wrong?" You'd think I'd know by now that if you are foolish enough to ask that question, the Universe will hear you. And it will answer.
I arrived close to the bell that morning, so I didn't notice the room's new occupant right away. Instead, I found my eyes drawn to Haruhi, who was resting her head in her arms atop her desk. It was a pose so reminiscent of her melancholy days that I was momentarily taken aback, but a closer look revealed that she just looked tired. "Oi, Haruhi," I commented as I took my seat in front of her. "Long night?"
"I was looking for comets," she muttered.
She sprang up from her rested position and fixed me with a sleepy-eyed rendition of her normal manic smile. "Comets! Or asteroids, maybe, but comets are prettier. Do you know how many comets have been discovered by amateur astronomers over the years, Kyon? Also, did you know that they name the comet for its discoverer? There are worse ways to be immortalized than that, you know. I could go for having a Comet Suzumiya, especially if it ended up being one of those ones that comes back on schedule every few years."
If I remember my astronomy correctly, a comet generally takes more than a few years, but I decided not to bring this up. I wanted to ask whether she'd had any sort of plan for her search, or if she'd spent the night pointing her telescope in random directions, hoping to pick out a smudge of light in the glare-polluted night skies of the city before it could be seen by someone in a proper mountaintop observatory.
Of course, since this is Haruhi, I suppose I should be thankful that she didn't conjure an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth.
Before I could get my question out, however, the class representative made the call to rise and bow to the sensei. As ever, we made our unison show of respect, but upon sitting down, I finally noticed the change in the room.
There was a girl seated in front of the blackboard, facing the class. She wore a Kitago uniform, and had a bookbag in her lap. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail so long that you could legitimately have called it a horsetail instead, and even from this distance I could see that her eyes were deep blue and piercing.
"Good morning, everyone," the sensei addressed us, pausing to stifle a yawn. "As you can see, we have a new student, who will be joining us starting today." He then turned toward her. "Please introduce yourself, and then we'll find you a seat."
Even without looking back, I could tell that Haruhi had perked right up at the mention of a transfer student. The sudden outpour of Haruhic Energy was enough to make me wonder if the back of my neck might get singed.
The new student stood up, and as she did, several members of the class (possibly including myself) let out a low gasp.
She was tall. As in, a full head taller than the sensei. If I had to guess, I'd say she was in the neighborhood of a hundred ninety centimeters. In school shoes.
After taking a moment to write the kanji characters of her name on the blackboard, she turned to face us once more. "Hajimemashite," she said with a bow. Her voice was moderately low-pitched and rather breathy, but it nevertheless carried to the back of the room. "My name is Azuma Hazuki. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu."
As the sensei indicated a seat for her on the other side of the room, I could feel Haruhi's presence at my shoulder. "Oh, I am so recruiting her..."
Wasting no time to make good on her threat, at the first break Haruhi made a beeline for the new girl and bustled her out of the room before anyone else could so much as say hello to her. I took this chance to go over my notes, but only had a couple of minutes to do so before I was no longer alone.
"So whaddya think, Kyon?" Taniguchi asked, plopping himself down in the seat recently vacated by Haruhi, while Kunikida found a spot in the next row.
I don't know; I thought giving letter grades to the female students was your job.
"Yeah, I'm dying to hear this one," Kunikida chuckled, rolling his eyes at our perverted friend.
"Hmm," Taniguchi pondered, making a show of his thoughtful expression. "I'm going to have to give her... a solid B."
Somehow, I expected higher. His scale had a tendency to skew in that direction.
"Don't get me wrong," he said, holding his hands up to forestall any protest. "I was sitting two rows over, so I got a good eyeful. Killer legs, even with the bandages on the one, hair you could spend days running your fingers through, heart-melting eyes, and a rack that might give Asahina-san a run for her money. She's got the full package, make no mistake."
Kunikida cocked an eyebrow at him. "Then why the B?"
"I gotta take a full letter grade off for how tall she is," Taniguchi shrugged. "I can't see dating someone who looks like she could kick my ass without breaking a sweat, you know?"
I wonder how many more girls in the class that would disqualify, realistically?
"Then again," Taniguchi leered, "having a girl that tall does make for easy access to certain things, if you know what I'm saying."
To my endless shame, I had a pretty good idea of what he was hinting at.
"Yeah, too bad for her the height difference would also make it harder for her to knee you in the groin," came a voice that froze Taniguchi before he could take things any further down his ecchi road. "Then again, I'm sure she could find a way."
"Suzumiya-san," Taniguchi smiled thinly as he hurried to his feet. "I was just leaving."
And then the two of them were gone, leaving Haruhi to take her seat. Her thunderous expression quickly shifted to smugly satisfied, and I swear I could hear her humming a little tune.
"So how did the recruitment drive go?" I asked, thankful that Haruhi was not focusing her ire in my direction this time.
"I'll have to tell you at lunch," she practically sang, as the sensei's return heralded the beginning of the next class session.
I remember thinking at that moment how nice it was to see Haruhi in such a good mood, even in spite of her comet-induced lack of sleep. Truly, it was something I'd been seeing a lot more lately, and it was a sight I'd be very happy to get used to.
Remember what I said about complacency?
We stayed at our desks for lunch while the Class Representative swooped down on Azuma-san with the intent of giving her a tour of the school grounds. Taniguchi looked as though he wanted to come chat again, but Haruhi glared at him, and that was enough of that.
"So she's agreed to come to our club meeting today," Haruhi grinned as she opened her bento box.
That didn't take a lot of recruiting, if you managed it over a single break.
"I only told her the truth," Haruhi mumbled around a mouthful of rice. "She's probably going to have people descending on her like vultures, asking her to join this or that club, and if she wanted to avoid all that, she could just come hang around with me and my very interesting friends. And you, of course."
Vultures, eh? Wouldn't this make Haruhi the biggest vulture of all? Or at least the fastest?
"I don't know, Haruhi. What will Koizumi think about having competition from another mysterious transfer student?"
"Oh, she's got a lot more to her than that," Haruhi pooh-poohed me. "She's a black belt in kendo and naginatajutsu. She could be the team bruiser!"
Well, I already knew that the team had a pretty decent bruiser in the person of Nagato, but I thought it best not to bring this up.
"Anyway, she's different enough that she wouldn't be a duplicate," Haruhi went on. "I mean, she's got a nice body, but she doesn't have the sheer moe factor that Mikuru-chan does, and she's pretty much the polar opposite of Yuki." She then looked around for a moment before leaning in closely. "Also? I'm pretty sure she's a lesbian."
And you're just going to come right out and say that? What gives you that idea?
"Girls have a way of knowing these things," Haruhi sniffed. "Plus, I asked her if she had a boyfriend, and she said no, she has a girlfriend. So if she's willing to say that to a total stranger, I think it's fair game to repeat it."
"So you're... pretty sure, then?"
"It might be a story," she shrugged. "She's a transfer student, she's pretty hot, she stands out in a crowd, and she's probably going to have guys like that hentai Taniguchi all over her. She might be saying she has a girlfriend to keep the wolves at bay. But between you and me, I think it's legit."
Haruhi, please don't tell me you're inviting her just to have a token gay character in the club.
"Of course not!" she said indignantly, crossing her arms. "I'd never abuse someone's lifestyle to fill a niche. But I've always intended the SOS Brigade to be all-inclusive, and how better to show that?"
Have you ever had one of those situations where a long-dormant memory pops up at the most inopportune time, and you give it voice before your common sense can censor you?
"Well, you did once say that you were looking for someone interesting, boy or girl."
Yeah, this was one of those times.
Haruhi blushed clear back to her ears. "I'm not looking to date her, you idiot!" she said in a surprisingly low hiss. "Besides, she has a girlfriend, remember?"
"I'm sorry, that was in bad taste," I said, hoping to keep the peace for the time being.
"Damned right it was," she scowled, but then just as quickly she smiled. "I think we should do a good old-fashioned mystery search this weekend! You know, give her a chance to get to know us all."
"Wait, wait. She hasn't even joined the club yet, and in your head you've got her doing outside activities with us already?"
"She seemed eager to join," Haruhi grinned hugely. "I almost didn't have to say anything at all to convince her. I think she and I just clicked, that's all."
To my complacent failure, I managed to miss both of the potential warning signs in that statement: first, that someone would allow herself to be convinced by Haruhi so easily, and second, the terrifying idea that Haruhi and anyone could have "clicked" so quickly.
Haruhi had cleaning duties after classes ended that day, and somehow had managed to rope Azuma-san into staying and helping ("So we can talk!"), so I strolled leisurely to the club room. As was frequently the case, I met Koizumi outside the locked door while Asahina-san was changing into her maid costume, then followed our red-haired goddess inside once it was safe. Nagato, as always, was seated in her chair by the windows, reading a hardbound book (today's selection being Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett). Asahina-san began making tea, while Koizumi made small talk about nothing in particular. By all accounts, an average day.
What could possibly go wrong?
Haruhi answered for the Universe with a BANG and a merry "Yoo-hoo!" as she slammed the door open and stepped inside, followed moments later by Azuma-san, who entered with her head slightly bowed.
"Everyone!" Haruhi called loudly enough to be heard in the next prefecture. "We have a guest and potential new member with us today! This is Azuma Hazuki-chan."
"Hajimemashite," Azuma-san said again, giving the room a bow.
It was at that moment that I had the rare and much enjoyed experience of seeing Koizumi getting flustered. Overly polite semi-suck-up that he is sometimes, he rose smoothly to offer a bow in reply. "Pleased to meet you, Azuma-sa... sa..?" He trailed off at the end once he rose from his bow and found that he only came up to about her nose. The mask cracked for only a moment, but it was a memory I would treasure. He gave a small chuckle, plastering the smile back into place. "Koizumi Itsuki, at your service."
"Potential... new member?" Asahina-san said with a nervous tone that only served to make her cuter than usual.
"That's right!" Haruhi beamed, grabbing Azuma-san by the hand and dragging her over to the much shorter girl. "This is Mikuru-chan, the club mascot. Anything you want her to do for you, just ask me. Over there by the window is Yuki, and... did you meet Kyon before?"
I stood to greet her as well, sighing inwardly as another chance to avoid the dreaded nickname went by the boards. "I don't believe so, but I'm in the same class as you and Haruhi. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Thank you, um, Kyon-kun," she said, giving me a bow and a tiny smile. She seemed a bit shy, but who could blame her after being swept into this room by Hurricane Haruhi?
"Um, would you like some tea, Azuma-san?" Asahina-san asked.
"That would be lovely. Thank you."
Any further potential interaction with our soft-voiced guest was quickly swept aside as Haruhi gave her the whirlwind tour of the room, showing her the costume rack, the assortment of knickknacks she had accumulated over time, and then the computer, which she quickly opened to the Brigade's website. I met Koizumi's eyes across the table as Asahina-san poured some of her exquisite brew, and we both gave a shrug, silently resolving to let Haruhi do as she must with the undoubtedly bewildered newcomer. That in mind, we began setting up a chess board: we could probably get in a few games before Haruhi took a breath.
It was then that I realized that only Nagato had not greeted our guest, so I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see her still reading.
To my surprise, she was not. The book was still open in her lap, with one hand marking her page, but Nagato was staring across the room at Azuma-san.
My experience with reading the subtleties of Nagato's almost imperceptible facial expressions is something I have documented in the past, and it remains a skill that gives me great pride. Because of that, I often caught things that others might have missed. In this case, what I saw was first confusing, and then unsettling.
Nagato could win a staring contest with a statue; I am convinced of this. However, this was not one of her normal collecting-data stares, or one of her I-have-nothing-else-to-look-at stares of pure inertia. She was tracking Azuma-san's movements, and there was a tension in her face that I had honestly never seen before.
She almost looked... afraid? No, that wasn't possible. She was probably just sizing up the unknown quantity and observing how she interacted with Haruhi, and the intensity I saw was just a reflection of the energy being radiated by our leader.
I looked back at Koizumi, and saw that he had noticed it too, however. Koizumi's face is one I have a more difficult time reading than even Nagato's, but let's face it: Nagato's is nicer to look at. Honestly, of the inhabitants of this room, his is the last face I'd devote time to studying. But even he had a slightly furrowed brow as he watched Nagato watching Azuma-san. Perhaps there was something there after all.
Deciding to leave it for now, we started our first game, while Asahina-san took a seat beside me, and leaned in to get a better look. One of life's subtle joys.
By the time Haruhi finished regaling Azuma-san with tales of past Brigade exploits, Koizumi and I had finished three games, Asahina-san had refilled the tea countless times, and Nagato had yet to look away from our visitor. Finally, though, Haruhi remembered that the rest of us were there. "So!" she announced, plopping herself down in a chair next to Koizumi and motioning for Azuma-san to take the next one. "I was just discussing with Kyon earlier that what we really need is another mystery search this Sunday. What do you think, Hazuki-chan?"
The tall girl gave a hesitant smile. "Remind me which ones were the mystery searches?"
"Oh, that's the one where we all meet in the city, split up into teams, comb the area for anything mysterious, and report it back. It was the very first outside activity we had as a club! I think it would be a great chance for you to get to know everyone in the group!"
True, since she hadn't given the poor girl a chance to get a word in with any of the rest of us so far.
"It sounds like fun," Hazuki nodded, looking guardedly enthusiastic. "But, um, if it's going to be Sunday morning... would it be okay if I brought my girlfriend?"
The subsequent heavy silence was broken only by a small "meep" from Asahina-san. Finally, Koizumi cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Azuma-san, but I just want to make sure I heard correctly. Your... girlfriend?"
Haruhi rose to her feet and placed her hands on her hips. "Does anyone have a problem with that? I will not tolerate discrimination within the ranks of the Brigade. If Hazuki-chan has a girlfriend, that's her business." She then turned to the new girl. "That is, assuming that you're not just saying that to make the boys leave you alone?"
"Er- no, I'm not," Azuma-san said with a shake of the head. "She's going to be visiting from Tokyo this weekend, to see how I'm doing at my new school. I'd hate to leave her by herself when she's coming out specifically to visit me. I know she's not a student here, but... this sounds like the sort of thing that she might enjoy, too, so..."
"That settles it, then," Haruhi nodded, deciding for all of us as usual. Not that anyone would have voiced opposition in the first place, most likely, but... yeah, as usual. "We'll meet at the normal place. Kyon, since you know better than to hit on her now, I want you to make sure Hazuki-chan knows where that is. I'm also putting you in charge of making sure she gets home safely tonight."
I don't know whether or not to find it amusing when Haruhi throws out something so blatantly sexist as that, given how liberated she is normally. While having a boy walk a girl home for safety's sake is as cliché as it gets, let's be real: how much added safety could I give to a double-black-belt who had twenty centimeters on me?
"That'll do it for today's official meeting, then," Haruhi said, addressing the room with a curt not. "Hazuki-chan, I think Mikuru-chan might be a little shy about changing in and out of her costume with you in the room since she doesn't know you like I do yet, so for her sake, please stay with the boys for the start of meetings. I'm sure she'll get past her homophobia sooner or later."
"My what?" Asahina-san squeaked, looking mortified.
"It's okay, Mikuru, you aren't to blame for your upbringing. Everyone is dismissed." Just like that, she turned on her heel and left the room, loudly closing the door behind her.
"I'm not..!" Asahina-san wailed, turning watery eyes toward the prospective new member. "I don't know why she said..!"
"Don't worry, Asahina-san," Azuma-san smiled reassuringly. "I promise not to behave inappropriately. I am in a relationship, after all."
Now if only Haruhi could learn the same...
"I'll be off as well, then," Koizumi announced, removing his pieces from the board and putting them back in their box. "Work tonight was... optional, but given how the day has gone, I should put in an appearance. Good evening to you, Azuma-san, all." He picked up his bookbag and gave us a wave as he followed Haruhi out.
Realizing that poor Asahina-san was liable to melt from embarrassment already, I gathered my things and stood. "Well, Azuma-san, it looks like I'm your escort, for all the good it will do you. Shall we call it a day?"
"Thank you," Azuma-san smiled, and for a moment I felt the tiniest pang at Haruhi's comment about me knowing better than to hit on her. Then again, it seems to be my curse to be surrounded by pretty girls who are, for one reason or another, completely off-limits to me, so I shouldn't be too surprised by this time. "I was hoping for a chance to talk with you anyway. I haven't had the chance to speak to anyone else in the class yet, honestly."
Leaving Asahina-san to change and lock up, I led Azuma-san down the hall toward the staircase. Standing at the top stair and blocking our progress, however, was none other than Nagato. I have no idea when she left the club room without us noticing, but here she was, staring up at Azuma-san with what was, for her, marked hostility.
"Nagato?" I asked.
"You should not be alone with her," the alien interface said simply, turning her dark eyes toward mine.
For an instant, I had the bewildering thought that Nagato might be jealous somehow. Did she really think that I couldn't be alone with a pretty girl without misbehaving in some way? This is me we're talking about here. Never mind that the girl with me was a self-proclaimed lesbian who could probably break my bones with a stray glance.
But that thought only lasted the aforementioned instant, because when Nagato felt it necessary to warn me of something, it was generally serious. "What do you mean, Nagato?" I asked her.
"Her presence is... dangerous."
Suddenly, all the staring made more sense. Did Nagato think that Azuma-san might be a literal threat? Still, to say this right in front of her... what could Azuma-san be thinking right now?
"We can all walk together, then," Azuma-san offered. "I believe you and I are neighbors now, Nagato-san. I saw you leaving the same apartment building as me this morning."
Nagato, to my shock and alarm, flinched at these words, and that was something I don't know if I'd ever seen. Rather than say anything, though, she stepped out of the way to let us pass. Azuma-san began descending the stairs, but I hesitated for a moment, staring dumbstruck at Nagato.
Something was very wrong here.
It was, without a doubt, the most awkward and tense walk home I'd ever experienced. Azuma-san and I walked side by side, with Nagato following a few meters behind. Occasionally I'd look back at her and motion her to join us, but each time she shook her head and kept her distance. Azuma-san said nothing at all, in spite of her earlier words about having wanted to talk to me, and the silence dragged until we reached Nagato's apartment building. Which, apparently, was now Azuma-san's as well.
Normally I would have said goodbye outside of the building, but I had the strangest feeling that leaving the two of them alone would be an incredibly bad idea, and anyway, I really wanted the chance to ask Nagato what was going on. The three of us got on the elevator together, with Azuma-san pressing the button for the fifth floor, and Nagato the seventh.
As the elevator dinged open on the fifth floor, Azuma-san stepped forward, but then turned to give us a slight bow from the threshold. "Thank you for seeing me safely home, Kyon-kun, Nagato-san."
Then Nagato dropped the bombshell: she said something that opened a pit beneath my feet, and made me realize that we were surely in for it yet again.
"I will not allow you to harm Suzumiya Haruhi."
Azuma-san blinked a couple of times, but rather than reply with surprise or bafflement, she nodded slowly. "I'm glad to hear that. I'm actually counting on it."
"I know what you are."
"Then you should know that your data manipulation powers can't touch me, so even if I were to try to harm Suzumiya-san, how would you stop me?"
"Repetitive blunt-force trauma utilizing any available heavy objects."
Wait, what the hell was all this?
"Fair enough," Azuma-san nodded, giving a small, wry smile. She then stepped back into the hallway, and the elevator doors began to close. "But you're still missing the point. I'm not here to harm Suzumiya-san: I'm here to save her."
The doors closed, and the elevator resumed its gentle ascent. Beside me, Nagato visibly slumped, which for anyone else would have been the equivalent of fainting dead away.
So it would appear that there was a story to be told here.
I followed Nagato to her apartment, waiting for her to speak first, which on reflection is never really the best plan. She motioned for me to follow her inside, so I did so, pausing just past the doorway to switch from shoes to guest slippers. At this point, Nagato waved me to the central kotatsu and spoke her first words since the elevator: "I will make tea."
Minutes later, she came to join me at the table, but as she poured the tea, I noticed something that filled me with a very real dread.
Nagato's hands were shaking.
Not wishing to interrupt her hospitality, I waited patiently for her to finish pouring, then took a slow sip. "Nagato," I said quietly, "who is she, and why has she got you so rattled?"
"She claims to be Azuma Hazuki. While accessing school records from across Japan, I discovered an Azuma Hazuki who was born in the Kyoto prefecture eighteen years ago. The being who joined us in the club room today bears a strong similarity to this person, with notable exceptions. The Azuma Hazuki of Kyoto was twenty-two centimeters shorter, and suffered from moderate to severe cerebral palsy of the spastic diplegia subset, as well as clinical depression and anxiety. Moreover, the Azuma Hazuki of Kyoto ended her life via overdose on sedative medications before reaching her sixteenth birthday."
I had been about to take another drink, but I froze before the cup could reach my lips. "So... a different girl, then?"
"Negative. Analysis of hospital records and recorded sessions with a psychiatrist, compared with my own analysis of our visitor, show identical fingerprints, with voice and DNA almost perfectly matched, allowing for some error in terrestrial methods of recording and the respective health of the two subjects."
I decided not to ask how Nagato had accessed hospital records and presumably private recordings in the time we'd spent in the club room. "So... same girl, then?"
I didn't like where this was going. "Then... what is she? A ghost of some kind? Did she die with a grudge?"
"She is... human..." Nagato said, very deliberately. "However, she is a form of data not native to this space-time."
In other words?
"To simplify, she is most likely the Azuma Hazuki of another... dimension."
Ah. Of course. Well, Haruhi, you can be satisfied at last. It appears we finally got our slider.
"In addition," Nagato continued, "she possesses a form of the data manipulation power present in both myself and Suzumiya Haruhi, though hers appears to be confined to her own physical being."
"That sounds ominous. But she said she didn't mean Haruhi any harm?"
Nagato stared into space for a few moments before turning back to me. "Since my initial transmission of data regarding Azuma Hazuki, the Integrated Data Sentient Entity has been in an uproar. Several factions believe that her purpose is to eliminate either Suzumiya Haruhi herself, or her data manipulation ability. Should this take place, autonomous evolution will fail, and there will be no further need to observe this world. I will... cease to exist." She took a tiny breath, and in a voice so low I barely heard it, she added, "I do not wish for this."
"But Nagato, if they make any kind of a move against you, I'll..." I trailed off. I'll do what, exactly? I'll find Haruhi and make her fix everything, even though by then she'd be either powerless, or worse, dead?
"At this time, there is no consensus. I am to continue to observe. However, the dwelling of Azuma Hazuki, which is in this very building, is now a blind spot to the Entity and its interfaces. In addition..." There was another uncharacteristic pause before she went on. "Many of the same factions are calling for my removal as primary observer, given my increasing accumulation of error data. If a consensus is reached wherein Azuma Hazuki is to be terminated, they believe I will not be able to fulfill my role. At this time, your past negotiations on my behalf are all that have saved me from deletion."
A chill ran down my spine. The thought of losing Nagato was more than I wanted to even contemplate. But here she was, being shot at from both sides, threatened by her own kind as well as external forces. If only there were a way to rid ourselves of the IDSE without losing Nagato in the process.
Maybe it was finally time to awaken Haruhi to her abilities after all.
"I do not believe you to be in danger from the Entity at this time," Nagato said next, drawing my attention to my own potential plight in all of this. "The vast majority of factions believe that your death would trigger a strong enough response in Suzumiya Haruhi that the universe, and with it the Entity, would be endangered. They do not underestimate her attachment to you."
"That's a relief, I suppose, but it doesn't help you much, does it?"
"I will be fine."
No, Nagato, you won't be fine. You're not even fine right now. You're terrified. You've learned to love your life, and you don't know how to react anymore to having it placed in a danger that's beyond your ability to control, or even attempt to control. You feel helpless and frustrated, and the logical part of you can't deal with these emotional responses.
The great goddess Nagato, who took a dozen spears to the chest defending me, has learned how to fear, but not how to cope with it. So many times I've counted on her to be the strong one, and the rational one, and now I couldn't do anything to help her in her own time of need.
Then again, maybe I could.
"Look," I said in as calm a voice as I could manage, "I think a big part of the problem is that we don't have enough information. Maybe we should talk to Azuma-san, and find out the rest of her story. It could be that we're actually on the same side."
"I want to believe that," Nagato whispered, and it took a few seconds for the implications of that statement to sink in. "However, there is something about her that terrifies me beyond rational thought, and adds rapidly to my error data. To me, she is the image of the Grim Reaper, and I see no outcome from her presence save the termination of my existence. To be in her company at this time would likely trigger a cascade of errors that would necessitate my removal."
"Okay," I nodded. "Then... I'll go and talk to her, and then I'll report back to you."
Her eyes widened the tiniest fraction. "Her dwelling is impervious to my ability to observe. It appears to exist between our own time/space and another. If you enter this space, I will not be able to protect you. This is... unacceptable."
"Nagato, believe me, I know plenty about fear. I don't want you to think I'm discounting yours, but... I think she'll be willing to talk first. She wanted to talk to me earlier, remember? Let me try this."
Tough words. Shame I didn't really feel as tough as I sounded, but seeing Nagato this shattered was all the reason I needed. I guess Haruhi isn't the only one with a latent sexist streak, because when I see a girl brought so low, it doesn't matter if she's an alien superhero who can bend time and space. I still get that feeling of wanting to protect her and take care of her, even if I know how unsuitable I am for the job.
"I will... gamble on you," Nagato said at last, though she didn't look very happy about it.
It wasn't until I reached the fifth floor that I realized I didn't know which apartment would be hers. I started up the hall, looking for nameplates, but none of them said Azuma.
One of the doors, however, remained unmarked, so by process of elimination, this was probably it.
Of course. How could it possibly have been any other than this? There's no such thing as coincidence, right?
Needless to say, this did not do wonders for my already flagging confidence. I thought for a moment about calling Nagato and giving her some If-I-Don't-Make-It instructions, but she'd been through enough already. Instead, I pulled out my phone and called Koizumi's number.
After two rings, it went to voicemail. He was probably in meetings with his superiors, reporting the new addition to the Brigade. There wasn't time to wait for him to finish, so after the tone, I left a quick message. "Koizumi, it's me. If you can, I need you to come to Nagato's apartment. I'm about to do something incredibly stupid, and if you don't hear from me by midnight tonight, I need you to tell Haruhi everything, and I mean everything. Nagato can tell you more. Wish me luck."
I hung up, placed the phone back in my coat pocket, and took a deep breath. Well, now that I'd gone this far, I'd best see it through, right?
Rather than use the doorbell, I knocked three times on the Western-style hardwood door. The seconds dragged by, and then the door opened, revealing a bit more of Azuma-san than I had expected.
She had changed out of her Kitago uniform. More accurately, she seemed to be in the process of changing out of her Kitago uniform, as she was wearing a pair of hip-hugging denim capri pants, a lacy white bra, and nothing else. Well, she did have what looked like a red angora sweater, but it was still in her hand. Better that than a hunting knife, certainly.
Due to our difference in height, I can only say that it was a Herculean effort to meet her eyes. Damn you, Taniguchi.
For her part, she didn't look at all surprised. "I thought you might drop by. Come in."
"Um, pardon the intrusion," I said automatically as I stepped inside and doffed my shoes. There were no guest slippers, so I had little choice but to follow her to the living room in my socks. The apartment was very much in the Being Moved Into stage, with a few boxes laying about, but there was some furniture in place in the form of a small sofa, a coffee table, and a large flat-screen television which Azuma-san immediately started talking to. "Looks like it's just him," she remarked, then beckoned me over after pulling on her sweater. Not sure what else to do, I stepped closer.
A pleasant, almost musical voice came from the speakers set up to either side of the screen. "You'd be... Kyon-kun, then? It's a pleasure to meet you."
Looking out from the screen was a girl with long jet-black hair, which was decorated with a pair of red ribbons in the shape of bows. She had a sweet, charming smile, glittering brown eyes, and was wearing a burgundy mock-turtleneck that did little to hide a figure that Taniguchi would have certainly given an A to A-plus. She appeared to be sitting at a desk, and I saw several tall bookcases on the wall behind her. She was also wearing a headset microphone, like the kind online gamers use, and it was only then that I noticed the webcam sitting atop the television. She was videoconferencing. Still, given the clarity of the picture, even on a big-screen, that had to be some serious computing power.
"This is Minamoto Chikaru," Azuma-san said by way of introduction. "And yes, this is Kyon-kun." She then shot me a frown. "Or should we call you something else?"
"You may as well keep using that," I sighed. "If you don't, Haruhi will just correct you."
"Fair enough," the girl on the screen laughed. "But please, call me Chikaru. It would appear that Hazuki-chan trusts you, by the way. Either that, or she's doing a better job getting over her nudity issues than I knew."
"I was wearing a bra," Azuma-san scowled lightly. "And I still have issues: just around women. He's not a threat to me." She then gave me an almost apologetic look. "No offense meant, but you're not. Plus, I really am gayer than a pride parade."
"I... see," I replied, reaching around reflexively to scratch the back of my head. "So, um, Chikaru-san, are you Azuma-san's..?" I cut myself off, uncertain of the etiquette in these situations.
"I think he's trying to ask if you're my girlfriend," Azuma-san smirked at the camera.
"It's a sweet word; I like it," Chikaru-san giggled. "And I'm... one of them, yes."
One of them..?
"Anyway," Azuma-san went on, "Kyon-kun is the only one in the group who doesn't smell of Souma. It's kind of hard to tell, because with Suzumiya-san there, everything else kind of pales by comparison, but... it's definitely real in the others."
"I see," Chikaru-san nodded, steepling her fingers beneath her chin. "So... shall we send Mu-chan for this Sunday?"
"I think she'd be the best choice," Azuma-san nodded, her face twisting into another semi-apologetic look. "I wish you could all come."
"As do I, but too many transitions..."
"I know. We need to keep things quiet for the time being. I'm not sure if Mu-chan will be able to sense anything more than I can, but... she's the only other one I know of who managed to do what Suzumiya-san has done."
"Pardon me," I spoke up. "Um... I don't really know what you're talking about, but... are you okay saying all of this in front of me?"
"It's best that you know," Azuma-san said, fixing her eyes on me. "You're the one who keeps the secrets for the rest of the Brigade, yes?"
"True," I agreed, even as I wondered how she could possibly know that.
"Then you can keep ours as well. Besides, I'm counting on your help to save Suzumiya-san. You could say that I'm an advance scout, here to observe and learn what I can before we take action."
Another observer. Perfect. "So someone else wants to keep an eye on Haruhi, eh? I can't say I'm surprised. Who is it this time? An international conspiracy? A religious cult?" I waved at the screen. "A librarians' association?"
Azuma-san looked me straight in the eye. "The creator."
That was going to be my next guess.
Okay, so it wasn't.
"Are you telling me," I said carefully, "that God has taken a personal interest in Haruhi?" Congratulations, Haruhi. You've made the big time.
Azuma-san rubbed her forehead with one hand: an unexpectedly weary gesture. "Please, for all that's good in the world, don't let her hear you call her God. We'll never hear the end of it."
"The creator of this world," Chikaru-san said from the screen.
"And she's... a she?"
Azuma-san crossed her arms. "Don't sound surprised. When you come right down to it, the force of creation is inherently female. Or do they not teach you where babies come from in this world?"
"You'll have to forgive my beloved for her feminist zeal," Chikaru giggled. "But yes, the creator of this world is female, as is the creator of the life within it. And we're here on their behalf... sort of."
"What does that make you?" I asked. "Angels?"
"Can you take this part?" Azuma-san asked the girl in the television. "I need something to drink."
"Go ahead, my sweet," Chikaru-san chuckled. She then turned her attention to me as Azuma-san padded toward the kitchen. "Let me start at the beginning, Kyon-kun. Do you believe in alternate realities existing concurrently with your own?"
"You... could say that," I nodded, crossing my arms. Were they sliders after all, then?
"Then we're off to a good start. Do you see all these books behind me? Each one of them is a world. Your world, the world I call home, the world in which Hazuki-chan was born... each of them is contained within a book, and all of these books are in turn contained in an enormous library at what you might call the center of creation. The creators live in the library and keep all the worlds safe. This is, in fact, the place from which I am calling you right now. With me so far?"
"Go on," I acknowledged, but I could not help but think of Nagato at that moment. What would she make of the idea of a celestial library?
"In many of the worlds – well, many by our standards, but an infinitesimal fraction compared to the library itself – we find certain individuals who... contain a spark of the power of creation itself. It's what's called Souma. Hazuki-chan and I are two of those people. We're human beings, but... we have that echo of the creative force within ourselves."
"I think I see where this is going. So, Haruhi is our world's contribution? She has a spark of this Souma of yours?"
"A spark?" Chikaru-san smiled. "No, no. She has truckloads of it. You've seen it, surely? The power to subconsciously rewrite the world as she goes? She's inherited the role of the Maker, and of all the Souma-bearers that are known to exist, she is second only to the creators in sheer power."
This certainly fit in with what I knew already. "But you said that the others had this power as well?"
"Yes, and that's what's troubling," Chikaru-san nodded, her face darkening slightly. "You see... mortals with Souma aren't able to pass that power to other mortals. Your Suzumiya-san did, without even realizing it. She gave mental powers to Koizumi-san and his group, time-travel abilities to Asahina-san, and... we're still not certain about Nagato-san and the others like her."
"You, however, have no Souma of your own," Azuma-san said, stepping up beside me and offering me a cup of red tea. "There are traces of it having affected you in the past, but you don't have your own source. You're the normal one in the group, and yet... Suzumiya-san is drawn to you."
"Drawn to me?" I repeated. "Isn't that a bit much?"
Azuma-san let out a sigh. "Please. Everyone in that room with the possible exception of Koizumi-kun is drawn to you, and even he's got a raging bro-crush. Are you that oblivious? What are you, the player in a harem game?"
My face felt very warm all of a sudden, so I tried to change the subject. "You keep talking about saving Haruhi. If she's so powerful, what does she need to be saved from?"
The two girls exchanged glances through the screen again, and Chikaru picked up the narration. "The fact that she's that powerful is itself the danger. From what I understand, you lot have been doing an amazing job keeping her in check, but... even with all your efforts, her powers are becoming more unstable, and it's beginning to endanger this world. More than that, it could endanger other worlds as well. If it goes much further, the creator will step in."
"Step in? As in, take away her powers?"
Azuma-san gave me a look that literally made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. "No, that apparently won't work at this stage. This particular creator doesn't do things halfway, and she doesn't take kindly to her books being threatened. If we don't figure something out, Suzumiya-san will be erased from existence, and history will be completely rewritten without her."
I stared blankly at her for a few seconds, and then so much as felt the blood leaving my face.
"I trust the implications are beginning to sink in," Chikaru-san said quietly.
Oh, they certainly were. Thinking of Haruhi ceasing to exist was... well, it was almost more than I could imagine. How could there be a world without a Haruhi in it?
But it wouldn't just be Haruhi, either. Koizumi and I would be the lucky ones: we'd just be ordinary students living out our mundane lives. But Asahina-san would never have been sent from the future. Nagato would never have been created to observe Haruhi. Or had Haruhi created the entirety of the time travelers and the Integrated Data Sentient Entity in the first place, meaning that neither of them would exist either? Was this why Nagato had freaked out after meeting Azuma-san? Could she see this coming?
Haruhi had grown powerful enough that God saw her to be a threat. As ludicrous (and even funny) as that sounded on its own, I didn't feel much like laughing.
"Tell me something, then," I managed. "You say that Haruhi is in danger from the creator him- er, herself."
"Correct," Azuma-san nodded.
"And... you work for the creator?"
"Mostly on our summer and winter breaks," Azuma-san snorted.
"I believe I see your concern," Chikaru-san grimaced. "One thing we may not have made clear is that there are two creators in play here. The first one... let's just call her the Maker..."
Azuma-san sighed loudly. "Let's just call her Lilith and get it over with."
Chikaru-san raised an eyebrow and gave the other girl a half-smirk. "Very well. Lilith was the one who created the worlds themselves. The author of the books, if you will. The second creator..."
"Let's just call her Eve and get it over with."
"...Indeed. Eve is the one who brings life to the worlds. Lilith is the author, but Eve creates the characters."
Another nod from Azuma-san. "And Eve doesn't want to see Suzumiya-san come to harm, if it can be at all avoided. Which is what brings us here. That and the fact that Suzumiya-san is... well, she's one of us, even if she doesn't know it, and we try to take care of our own when we can."
"To be fair," Chikaru-san added, "Lilith doesn't want to see Suzumiya-san come to harm either, but she has to act for the sake of creation as a whole, so she's giving us this chance to set things right."
Lacking anything to add at the moment, I stalled by taking a sip of the tea I'd been given. It had cooled off somewhat, but it was remarkably good: I don't know that I'd ever tasted the like.
"Well, if that's that, I should make sure we can find Mu-chan," Chikaru-san smiled. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Kyon-kun."
"Give my love to Tamao," Azuma-san smiled at the screen, that hard face looking unexpectedly wistful.
Chikaru-san cocked her head to one side, as if listening to something outside our hearing. "She says to tell you that she'll be reading along for a bit, so if you wanted to, say, give her a striptease, she'd be happy to return the favor once we're home."
"Tease," Azuma-san muttered, but she was smiling.
I drank the rest of the tea in a vain attempt to stop any of the inevitable mental images from forming.
"Oh, and Kyon-kun?" Chikaru-san added. "She also says to tell you that your friend Koizumi-kun has been trying repeatedly to reach your mobile for a few minutes now. I'm afraid the calls won't come through until you leave Hazuki-chan's apartment."
"Thank you," I said with a small bow. "I should let him know I'm okay. It was nice to meet you as well, Chikaru-san."
"I'll be in touch," she winked, and then the screen went black.
Azuma-san took my empty teacup and set it on the coffee table, then began ushering me toward the door. "I trust we can count on your cooperation?" she asked.
After taking a moment to put my shoes back on, I gave her as even a look as I could. "Look," I sighed. "Even with everything I've seen, I've still got a skeptical streak a mile wide. Even assuming that everything you've just told me is true, what do you intend to..." I broke off, realizing that now might not be the time for skepticism. Nagato's earlier reaction verified the story of Azuma-san being from another world, and the way this had spooked her was proof enough that something serious was afoot here. "How can we stop this from happening?" I asked instead.
Azuma-san looked away for a moment. "We don't know yet, but that's what I'm here to find out about, and that's why Mutsumi will be here on Sunday to help me." Her eyes found mine again, and her gaze seemed to carry actual physical weight. "As happy as Suzumiya-san looked today, there's some... darkness inside that she's hiding, and it's making her powers unstable. That, in turn, makes this book unstable. We need to find out what it is, and we need to do it in a way that won't light the powderkeg."
True enough. Haruhi had nearly destroyed the world once already. I remember it well: I was there at the time.
"Can I tell Nagato and the others about this?" I asked.
"It would spare me having to do it again, so sure," she half-smiled. "You seem to be good enough at keeping secrets from going further than they need to. And if you can, please tell Nagato-san that I'm on your side. I don't mean any of you harm."
"I'll tell her, Azuma-san."
"Oh, and one other thing. You can go ahead and call me Hazuki."
I nodded slowly. "Hazuki-san, then. Tell me, though... this darkness you see in Haruhi. Do you have any ideas?"
She gave me a thoughtful look. "Have you ever asked Suzumiya-san about her sister?"
The question was more or less a non-sequitur, so I just blinked at her for a few seconds. "Haruhi's an only child," I said at length. "She's even said to me that she envies me for having a sister. She's never had one of her own."
Hazuki-san nodded as she opened the door for me. "And that, right there, could very well be the heart of the problem."
To be continued
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Please consider this a Proof of Concept. I have a lot of other stories I need to work on before I can continue this one, but I needed to strike this idea while the iron was hot. I hope this can provide entertainment even for Haruhists who have no idea that Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito even exists, much less that some doofus named Suzume has been writing stories in that setting. Thank you for reading!