I'm not a superstitious guy. I gave up on wishing wells and lucky charms a long time ago. In fact, I wouldn't even have remembered Tanabata this year if it Haruhi hadn't insisted that I make a wish. Pretty ironic, if you think about it.
I set the last chess piece back in the case and stood up with a sigh, stretching out the kinks in my spine. Someday, I thought, Haruhi is going to have to spring for new chairs for the clubroom, or face a revolt. A very small, poorly armed revolt, but a civil uprising nonetheless. Maybe she could blackmail the president of the Home Economics Club and even swing us some cushy upholstery. I picked up my bag with a yawn, smiling at the thought, and locked the clubroom door behind me.
Down the stairs, two at a time, then across the courtyard; I was nearly to the bike racks when a reflection of movement in a nearby window caught my eye. Turning around, I squinted against the glare of the setting sun, trying to pinpoint the source. Hey, what can I say – I've gotten a little paranoid in the year I've known Suzumiya Haruhi.
Thankfully for me, it was neither a city-destroying giant nor a time-traveling secret agent - this time, anyway. A leafy bamboo pole fluttered from a familiar second story window, its limber trunk brushing gently against the sill. I shook my head at the multi-colored tanzaku dangling from its branches, bouncing merrily in the -
Complete absence of wind. I looked closer, saw a pair of hands fastening a new strip of paper to our makeshift tree. “Hey!” I called up to the window, starting back across the grass - then cursed my own idiocy as the tree jerked animatedly in response. The door was locked – anyone who went back in to leave another wish was both possessed of a key and clearly looking for some privacy.
A white slip of paper drifted gently downward, spiraling through the air like a maple seed. I dove to pick it up, thinking that I should retrieve it before anyone else saw it. After all, if it were Haruhi, who knew what it might say – better to intervene early than make explanations later. If it belonged to Asahina-san, however, what delicious confessions might that flimsy little scrap hold? I could hardly bring myself to look.
Snatching it up from the ground, I brushed away a few blades of grass and turned the blank strip over in my hands. Seeing nothing written on the reverse side, either, I looked back at the window in confusion. The tree had returned to its former angle, but next to it stood the last person I expected to see. Koizumi Itsuki leaned halfway out the window, his arm extended as if to call the tanzaku back. He wore a strange expression, swiftly trading it for his usual carefree smile. “Sorry,” I called up, shrugging my shoulders. “Do – do you want this back?”
“That's all right,” he replied cheerfully, shaking his head. “Don't worry about it.” He waved, and vanished from the window in a rustle of leaves. Strange duck, that Koizumi.
I stuck the paper in my pocket and didn't think about it again until after dinner that night. Gathering up a pile of uniform shirts for the laundry, it slipped onto the floor, a crumpled mystery against the carpet. I held it up to the light, suddenly seized by the idea of a secret message contained within its pulpy depths. That would be just like Koizumi, I thought, to hide something sinister and covert in plain sight.
I tried holding it over the bulb from my lamp, but nothing developed. A stint in the freezer did nothing to coax words or symbols from its rumpled surface. I even tried soaking it in lemon juice and smoking it over the stove before remembering that messages were usually written in something acidic – not drenched in it. If he'd encoded a secret missive for his mysterious Agency cohorts, I'd probably managed to obliterate it with my prying. Disheartened, I left it on my desk to dry out and decided to forget about it; I could always grill Koizumi later.
The next day, Haruhi announced that the SOS-dan would be holding a special evening meeting at a shrine near her house, to burn our official club tanzaku. What kind of leader would she be, Haruhi asked us, if she didn't help her subordinates achieve their dreams? The shrine, it seemed, was holding a fair for Tanabata – and, she elaborated, traditional dress was not optional. At least she would be entertained, I thought, sighing heavily. Then I thought about what sort of yukata Asahina-san might wear and the evening started looking up.
That thought buoyed me along until I arrived at the shrine to find that Asahina-san and I were the only ones dressed up. Nagato wore her school uniform and her customary blank expression, Koizumi looked unforgivably comfortable in a muted print t-shirt and jeans, and Haruhi – Haruhi was taking malevolent delight in teaching Asahina-san how to walk in geta, while sporting sneakers and a tennis skirt herself.
“Really, Mikuru-chan,” she wondered aloud. “How have you managed to never wear something like this?” I didn't have to wonder; in Asahina-san's time, this kind of thing was ancient history. Haruhi kept retying her obi, hands roving over and under the soft pink fabric. It was hypnotic, and a lot more entertaining than scooping goldfish.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that nearly everyone else attending the festival was attired in a similar fashion, I felt profoundly overdressed in my father's yukata. I frowned, tugging at the dark, lightweight fabric. At least it was cool in the suffocating heat. Apparently less fortunate in his everyday clothes (ha!), Koizumi grabbed a paper fan from a stall. He waved it about ineffectively, sniffing the breeze that wafted in with a curious expression. “What smells like lemons?” he asked, understandably confused.
“Oh, that,” I replied, trying to hide my embarrassment. “I, ah, brought your tanzaku. You know, from yesterday. I thought you might want it.”
Koizumi blinked. “That was very thoughtful of you, Kyon-kun, but that still doesn't tell me why you smell like -”
“Ithoughtitwasasecretmessage.” I said, cramming the words together under my breath.
“A secret message,” Koizumi mused, then his face brightened. “Ah, like disappearing ink! How romantic!”
“Romantic?!” I cried, hastily lowering my voice when people turned to stare. “What's romantic about you using SOS-dan property for clandestine communication with your – with that agency of yours?”
“The Agency?” He questioned, suddenly and very clearly at a loss. As for myself, I was more confused than ever about the entire situation, including our present conversation.
“It seemed reasonable,” I argued, defending my actions. My yukata was suddenly too warm, the sleeves too tight across my shoulders, and I squirmed, trying to rearrange the fabric.
“Stop fussing.” Koizumi had to gall to reprimand me and change the subject in one sentence, smoothing out a wrinkle at my wrist. “You look – that is, it's a nice color on you.” The corners of his mouth twitched up as he said it, making me wonder what deviant thoughts lay behind the compliment. Knowing Koizumi, I doubted I wanted to hear them, after all.
“Tch,” I scoffed, jerking my arm away. “Shut up.”
A fire crackled at the center of the shrine complex, at once fierce and reassuring. Haruhi took the initiative, plowing through the assembled crowd to toss her tanzaku into the roaring flames. She stepped back, a triumphant grin plastered across her face, and shoved Asahina-san forward to do the same. The poor girl tottered forward uncertainly, still not used to the geta, and hesitantly dropped her brightly colored strips of paper into the fire. I wondered what she really wished for, then decided I was better off not knowing, in the long run. It was turning out to be a night for that sort of thing.
Nagato handed her book to Koizumi, who accepted it solemnly as she walked forward, turned her hand palm-down, and dropped her own wishes into the flames without ceremony. One blew away on the wind, and she watched it go, tilting her head as if listening to someone far away. Koizumi tapped her on the shoulder with her novel, handing it back as he tossed his humbly-worded tanzaku into the pit. They caught immediately, burning to ashes in an instant as if they had never been there at all.
He turned away abruptly, looking at me with his usual dopey grin. “Your turn, Kyon-kun!” I shuffled forward, still embarrassed at my holiday get-up, and shoved the flimsy pieces of paper forward. The breeze chose that moment to change direction slightly, blowing their smoking remains back in my face. I staggered backward, swatting the smoldering coals out of my eyes.
Sixteen years, Haruhi said; sixteen years for our faux wishes to travel across the stars. We'd be lucky if the world we knew was still here tomorrow, much less after nearly two decades. I'd wished for easy, materialistic things, because I didn't know how to wish for what I truly wanted. Stability. Predictability. Routine. No one wishes for things like that on Tanabata, if they wish for them at all. What I wanted, more than anything, was to not wake up wondering if I'd end the day in the same world I woke up in. If I'd see the end of the day at all.
Koizumi ended my pensive thoughts by reaching out to brush the soot from my cheeks, his unasked for touch gliding soft and light across my skin. “Are you all right, Kyon-kun?” he asked, concerned.
“P-personal space!” I gasped, my throat full of ash and indignation. I grabbed his wrist, removing his hand from my unexpectedly ticklish skin. The air fled my lungs and I bent double, choking on the scent of smoke.
I looked up again as a squealing rush of fireworks exploded across the sky, trickling down like the branches of a mutant, technicolor willow. Nagato sat beneath a nearby tree, paging through her book even in the dim, wavering light. Haruhi and Asahina-san were nowhere to be found, but I could hear their voices echoing around the courtyard above the crowd. A brilliant red sphere fizzled a bit too low to the ground, and I glanced at Koizumi, a jab on the tip of my tongue to dispel the uncomfortable moment -
But Koizumi wasn't looking at the fireworks. He was looking at me. The joke died on my lips and I cleared my throat, as if the words had turned to a second helping of ashes in my mouth. He didn't look away, didn't even blink, and I found myself asking an entirely different question.
“Why did you tie a blank piece of paper to the tree?”
“Why are you bruising my wrist?” He answered, a question for a question and I dropped my hold on his arm in surprise. I shifted uncomfortably, scratching the back of my head. He broke his stare, slowly turning to watch red and gold birds etch their fiery paths against the sky. A strange fascination with the play of colored lights grew from a secret smile and I wondered how anything, least of all me, could have ever drawn his attention away from them. “It wasn't a wish I could put into words,” he said after a long, lingering moment.
“I think I know what you mean,” I said, thinking only about my own wish, my own frustration with a fragile, limited universe. Koizumi seemed to freeze in place, as if for just a moment he'd forgotten how to breathe and the knot in my stomach told me that wasn't what he'd meant at all. He glanced back at me over his shoulder, opened his mouth as if he might say something, then shut it instead. He smoothed out the wrinkles in the much-abused tanzaku and stepped forward, holding the paper out as if to ward away the wind-blown flames.
He stood there for a moment, winding the paper between his fingers before turning and brushing past me on his way to the exit. “See you tomorrow, Kyon-kun,” he murmured, barely audible above the last, desperate rush of sparks across the sky. Asahina-san chose that moment to stumble headfirst into me, nearly knocking all three of us off our feet as Haruhi chased her relentlessly around the bonfire.
“See, Mikuru-chan?” Haruhi declared gleefully, ignoring the collision she had just caused. “You're getting better!” I sat her back on her feet and looked to see if Koizumi had fallen from the impact, but he was nowhere to be found.
“Ooh,” Asahina-san whimpered. “I think – my ankle - “ Nagato closed her book with a snap, causing several festival goers to turn and stare.
“Suzumiya-san, we're leaving.” Nagato announced, shifting Asahina-san's weight away from me and onto her slender shoulders. She murmured appreciatively, favoring her left foot.
“Yeah, ok,” Haruhi agreed, tromping past me at a brisk march. “This place was getting dull, anyhow.” I hope she didn't notice the look that passed between the girls and myself at that pronouncement. Before long, I was one of only a few people still gathered around the fire pit, mostly couples arm in arm, heads bent close together - whispering as the flames subsided into a warm, comfortable glow.
Something flickered in the corner of my vision and I jumped, cursing when I realized it was the same blank tanzaku. Koizumi must have dropped it when Asahina-san knocked us over like dominoes. A whirling breeze, the sort of current old folks blame on meddling ghosts, carried it along the ground to stop beneath my feet. I reached to pick it up without thinking, jumping back with a yelp when my hand closed around warm skin instead. Koizumi chuckled at my discomfort, materializing from the gloom.
“I was just going to throw that away,” he explained, turning toward a nearby rubbish bin. “Hey,” I called after him. “Don't do that!” He turned back to me with a puzzled expression, his hand hovering over the bin. “Give it here, you moron.” No one's wish deserved to end up in the garbage, I thought; not even that bastard Koizumi.
He walked back slowly, his eyes on the ground as if he thought he might stumble in the dim light. I held out my hand for the tanzaku and he placed it carefully in my palm, folding my fingers around it with both hands. It probably should have bothered me, this blatant violation of my own rules concerning just where his hands belonged - but somehow, without Haruhi and the others around, it didn't seem worth the effort to protest.
“I'm holding you responsible for this, you know,” he said, looking up at me through a curtain of precisely tousled hair. The lump in my stomach tightened and I wondered how I always managed to find myself in such bizarre situations when Koizumi was around. He broke into a grin, squeezing my hand a little too tightly. “Don't look so serious, Kyon-kun,” he joked. “I'm only kidding!”
I scoffed, tugging my hand free. Leaning into the lingering heat of the dying fire, I tucked the tanzaku away between two glowing embers. No matter how he tried to play it off, I did feel oddly responsible for the unspoken hope in that little scrap. I'd been the one to intercept it to begin with, after all. It seemed only right that I sent it on its way to the stars.
“Kyon-kun, I - ” Koizumi began, sounding unsure. “Thank you.”
I shrugged. “No big deal.” I started back towards the exit, more than ready to ditch an awkward pair of geta at my front door. Koizumi fell into step beside me without a word. “I guess we'll see in sixteen years, huh?” I said, willing the world to endure with the certainty in my voice.
His footsteps stopped for a moment, and I turned to see him shaking his head, a somewhat perplexed smile on his face. An honest smile, one that bridged the distance to his eyes with ease. I wondered what I had done to coax it out of hiding, and if I could ever do it again.
He laughed a little, glancing up at the smoke-stained stars. “Maybe we will, after all.”