"Kyon!" Asahina shouted from the beverage table, waving me over.
A tidal wave of relief crashed over me. Grateful for an excuse to escape the chokehold grip of my rather affectionate aunt, I strode over to her, giving her a quick one-armed hug."Hey, Asahina-san. I didn't know if we were expecting you today!"
"Yeah, life's been pretty insane lately." She laughed, tucking a strand of auburn hair behind her ear. "Still, I wouldn't miss your graduation for the world!"
Good old Asahina. Always knew just what to say.
"So, how's school?" I asked, scanning the crowd for Haruhi out of my peripheral vision, listening for an outlandish exclamation about aliens and time travelers and espers. Hoping she had stayed.
"Oh, just fine! Busy, but that's the way I like it," Asahina replied, sipping at her coffee. "Oh, that reminds me, I've been working on a new piece lately!"
As she launched into a monologue regarding the nuances of her latest painting over at the art college, I smiled fondly at her, thinking about how much she had changed from the shrinking violet who had tumbled into our corner of the universe that fateful afternoon.
How much all of us had changed.
She leaned towards me, lowering her voice as she said, "So...how's Haruhi doing?"
I shifted nervously from foot to foot. "Well, about that-"
The principal tapped the microphone, announcing, "Will everyone please take their seats? The ceremony will begin shortly."
"Good luck, Kyon!" Asahina lifted her coffee cup to me, and after a moment's hesitation, leaned in to brush a swift kiss against my cheek. Giggling at the astonishment on my face, she flounced off to her seat, flowery skirt billowing behind her.
I trudged over to my assigned seat, still feeling the heat where her lips had touched my skin.
"Will everyone please rise to sing the national anthem?"
Keys jangled, robes swished, and chairs wobbled as we eased to our feet, mumbling along to the music blaring from the speakers. Koizumi waved at me from two rows in front of me, and I managed a grimace in response.
At last, the last of music petered out, and we were finally motioned to sit down.
But still, Haruhi was nowhere to be seen. The seat besides me remained vacant.
"Thank you, everyone. Will Hanekawa-sensei of Class 3-1 please come to the stage?"
Hanekawa-sensei, domineering in a black pantsuit, stood from the faculty area and walked calmly up the stage, all rigid lines and perfect poise; her lips were colored a shocking shade of ruby red. She accepted a list from the principal and began to call out our names in her usual monotony. "Naoko Fujioka!"
"Here!" a girl in the row in front of me shouted in reply.
Name after name was read, drawing closer and closer to when I knew Haruhi's would be called.
And then, finally:
"Haruhi Suzumiya!" Hanekawa-sensei read, glancing up from the paper when only silence was echoed back at her. "Haruhi Suzumiya?" The sea of people seemed to ripple as heads turned, eyes hungrily combing the crowd for a glimpse of her yellow ribbons.
My throat tightened. I clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms in a last-ditch effort to jolt myself out of this terrible nightmare. When I re-opened my eyes, however, everything came rushing back in agonizing clarity, the realization hitting me with the colossal force of a tsunami wave, more painful than I thought it could ever be.
After the ceremony had ended, I politely extricated myself from my aunt's suffocating embrace, slipping unnoticed out the door. Though I was never the nauseatingly sentimental type - that label went to my sister- lovingly laminating my failed pop quizzes or drying corsages, I found myself wandering into the halls of North High for the last time.
The staircase I had toppled down. The vending machines I frequented during breaks.
As the memories came flooding back, more vivid than ever, Haruhi's face was stark clear in my mind, each and every memory tinged with a little piece of her.
And so, I inevitably wound up where half of my high school life had taken up. The dingy little room where I drank Asahina's tea, played shogi with Koizumi, read books over Nagato's shoulder, and rolled my eyes at Haruhi's latest scheme.
When we all felt young and whole and infinite, like three years was an eternity.
Like those quiet afternoons never had to end.
I halted in the doorway, my bag falling to the ground with a thud.
Because, sitting perched on top of the desk, was a girl.
Haruhi Suzumiya started at the sudden disturbance, whipping around to apprehend the intruder. Upon realizing who it was, however, her rigid features softened. She grinned wryly, waving her fingers in cheeky greeting. "Nice of you to show up, Kyon."
I gaped at her, still paralyzed in shock. "Haruhi? What are you doing here? I thought you'd-"
"Like I could ever leave without saying a proper goodbye." Haruhi smiled sadly, at me, tangles of chocolate hair rippling in the spring breeze.
"Why didn't you come to graduation?" I demanded, finally swallowing that lump in my throat. "You had us all so worried, you know!"
"Oh, that?" Haruhi waved a dismissive hand. "Ceremonies are a pain in the ass. Listening to those awfully cliche speeches quoting pop songs for three hours? No way." She hesitated, before lowering her voice. "I thought about what you said last night, and after talking it over with my parents...I've decided to take a gap year before going to Tokyo U. There are a lot of things I still need to sort out, and I don't think I'll be ready before I do."
She glanced up at me, a little shy, a little uncertain, biting at her lower lip.
"I...no, that's great. I'm happy for you," I said feebly.
"And I...just wanted to thank you." Haruhi looked away. "I don't think I ever did that enough."
"More like not at all," I quipped, before I could stop myself.
Her lips were pulled taut, like she was trying hard not to smile.
"There were times when I forgot I was even part of the human race, but you...you tied me to something real. You were like some sort of sanctuary. A constant. And no matter how many crazy stunts I pulled, no matter how much I kicked and screamed...you stayed by my side. You listened." Taking a moment to steel herself, she looked me straight in the eye, gaze completely unwavering. "So thank you."
Her words struck me speechless.
All of this time...
Haruhi slid off the desk and approached me, her eyes never leaving mine. Standing on tiptoe, she pressed a tremulous kiss to my my temple, before burying her face into my chest, fingers clutching tight to my jacket.
"I'll miss you."
Don't leave me, her eyes seemed to say.
I wrapped my arms around her, tentatively stroking her hair.
"Yeah. Same here."