Hot Air

A Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu fanfiction

by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: The light novel series started with the novel 'Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu'/'The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi' is the creation of Tanigawa Nagaru. A poem here is quoted entire, and disclaimed appropriately in narrative; no disrespect is intended with the creation of this work: I'm merely a peasant with an easel and some borrowed paints.

Note: Aiming for WAFF, heavily inspired by Owl City (specifically, Galaxies, and Hot Air Balloon; the latter will probably work better for the scene overall, though the former absolutely conjures images of Haruhi and Kyon's relationship in my mind). Diverges between books eight and nine.

I'm roused from fuzzy memories of something that's slipping away from me even as I wake to find myself staring blearily at a flashing light from somewhere in my room. Shortly after that is the generic ring tone I use for everyone, since I've never bothered setting custom sounds.

It's dark once the flash cuts off, and I fumble for my phone before realizing I had plugged it in at my desk instead of my headboard, as it rings -- incidentally flashing again. The flash lights up my ceiling, and from my position when I raise my head and groggily look toward it, a single LED flashes at me balefully, like a glaring red eye.

My own eyes slowly drift shut, as my head sinks back to the pillow. Shortly after that, the sound cuts off, rolling over into voice-mail, and I start to doze again.

Start to, I say, because before the chirp to notify me of a new message can even sound, the phone starts ringing again.

Groaning, I pry myself from my warm blankets and stagger across the room, shivering at the chill of the early morning air. Grabbing my phone, incidentally pulling it free of the charging cable, I flip it open without checking the caller. One hand goes to the surface of my desk, helping support my still-tired body as I grumble, "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Yes I do!" a familiar voice snaps back. "It's ten minutes after I first started trying to call you!"

"What--" I try to start, before being abruptly cut off.

"Specifically, it's a week after the spring equinox -- March twenty eighth, 2011; a Monday. It's six minutes after four AM, because you took even longer to wake up than I expected! Get ready quickly; I'll be at your house in twenty minutes, and you have to drive both of us!"

My hope of going back to properly restful sleep is slowly fading. "Haruhi, it's the spring vacation," I remind her as sternly as I can, given my tiredness. "Wouldn't sleeping be a much better way to spend my time?"

"You don't have time to chat! You're seven minutes behind schedule now -- so shower quickly! My train is going to be on time -- and before you even think of complaining, I got up even earlier than you!"

Then there's a beep as she hangs up. I close the phone, then blink at the notice that I have a single voice-mail and a few dozen missed calls.

Shaking my head, I set my phone back down, and then crawl back into bed.

Unfortunately, I've been awake too long. My chances of returning to peaceful slumber are truly dashed; mild irritation, and some genuine curiosity compel me. After only a handful of minutes of trying to find the warmth that escaped my bed in the brief time I got out of it, I heave a defeated sigh and trudge to the bathroom to wash up.

Fifteen minutes later, I'm dressed in comfortable, casual clothes -- t-shirt, open button-up long-sleeved shirt, and jeans. Too cold to wear anything lighter, I think, toweling my hair dry as my phone rings again.

I think I really do have to talk to Haruhi about calling this early, though. And, try as I might ... I can't recall a single event that slipped my mind from sleepiness. There's no marks on my calendar, no notes.... No text messages from Koizumi, either.

I flip it open, unsurprised when Haruhi immediately asks, "You're ready, aren't you? I'm at your door -- but I don't want to be inconsiderate and wake your family."

Inconsiderate to my family, huh? "Yeah, yeah," I grumble, "I just got out of the shower -- be there in a minute."

I creep through the silent house, wary of waking my parents and earning their incredulity, or worse, waking my sister and having her demand to play with me. Or join us.

I open the front door, taking in Haruhi standing there, snapping her phone shut with one hand and raising an eyebrow as she inspects me, one hand on her hip. That girl's energy is unreasonable -- in this cold, she's wearing a black skirt and stockings, along with a crimson top -- in my mind, not nearly enough defense against the current weather.

Her single concession to the environment is a scarf that looks both hand-made, and far too long, looped around her neck loosely a trio of times, the ends dangling nearly to her waist. When the real cold of the outside air hits me and she reaches for my hand, I immediately about-face, moving back toward the coat-rack and earning a growl of irritation from her.

She crosses her arms over her chest and taps a foot impatiently while I grab my coat. "You're going to overheat on your bike," she chides.

"Then I'll take my coat off and you can carry it," I counter, pulling it on, then stepping outside to join her. I make a face at the cold air hitting my lungs ... but it's not cold enough to justify getting my own scarf from my room. The temptation to make Haruhi wait while I get it anyway....

...somehow, she looks far more irritated than I think is justified, considering how she woke me, and the fact that I still don't know why. "Where are the others?" I wonder, retrieving my bike from the side yard and climbing on, then holding still while Haruhi climbs on behind me. "And where are we going?"

"Near Kitayama Reservoir," she replies without hesitation, standing on the posts of my bicycle, her hands on my shoulders, firming her grip. "Turn right; next course change in three kilometers."

Most people would probably be pleased to have a GPS with the navigational guidance of a highschool girl's voice without having to buy it first. For me, I almost step off the bike and let it fall over at that. "Kitayama," I reply. "By Kabuto-san?"

"That's it! The very same mountain!" she replies, sounding more cheered, her fingers tightening their grip on my shoulders. It feels strangely gentle, which I attribute to the thickness of my coat. "So, let's hurry up, already!"

"Hold up," I reply, staying steady, craning my neck to try and look at her -- she obligingly leans forward and to one side, her face suddenly in mine, looking incredibly unimpressed at my hesitance. Returning an equally flat stare, though actually a bit surprised at her nearness, I continue, "Kabuto-san. The mountain. I'm taking us almost fifteen kilometers away, by bike?"

"Don't be stupid," she replies, her lips quirking up in a slight smile. "You're taking us to a train station. You only have to pedal five kilometers, total."

"There's a much closer station, you realize."

"There are no transfers that will get us there in time," she retorts. "And this one will let you take your bike aboard for the final stretch. Unless you wanted us to get up at two. Now are you going to get moving? I've only allocated so much time for you being a slacker!"

I take a deep breath, not particularly wanting to sigh in her face. "You still haven't told me where the others are."

"Get a move on! I'll tell you on the way!"

I stare at her, and am about to retort when I see the tiniest hint of a flicker in her eyes, and she pulls back behind me, hiding her face from my view. I can feel her breath on the back of my head as she sighs, and her fingers loosen on my shoulders.

Somehow, though I'm not entirely certain, I get the idea she's holding something in check -- despite how unreasonable her requests are, this is something important to her. I can't, for the life of me, think of anything special about today, but perhaps I can puzzle it out on the way. "Hang on tighter," I instruct her, just as she draws breath in again.

"Eh-- Right," she mumbles, leaning a bit closer and firming her grip as I kick my trusty aluminum steed into motion, crawling along and accelerating with painful slowness. After about a minute, once I've managed to get up to a semi-respectable speed, she speaks surprisingly gently. This is something I appreciate, considering the proximity of her lips to my ear; I can feel her breath wisping out against me distractingly as she starts:

"When I called Yuki, she answered right away, but said that she had 'business with her family.' Of course, I can never get her to talk to me about them -- so you know more than I do for what she's really up to."

An unpleasant thought; my feeble hope is that Nagato saw no reason to get up this early, either. I manage a grunt in response.

"Mikuru-chan just didn't answer!" she adds, her voice rising even higher in irritation before she catches herself, huffing a warm sigh against the back of my head. "And today I don't have enough money to take a taxi to her place!"

Well, most likely, the poor time traveler was reasonably asleep, possibly as the result of something sensible, like turning her phone off. I really should start doing the same, I think. Right up until the image of an irate Haruhi climbing in through my window to wake me by force enters my mind.

I manage a thoughtful noise, as we hit a slight upslope, and the more grueling element of today's journey begins. This will be nothing in comparison to later, however.

"And Koizumi answered reasonably, but said that something work related had come up! At this hour!" Her fingers tighten on my shoulder, almost uncomfortably. In a much quieter voice, but one I am sure she still intends me to hear, she remarks, "At least you can still put the Brigade first."

I almost retort that it's just us, not the Brigade.

Then I consider those words before they escape my mouth. It's no good seeing Haruhi down, but I'm not sure how ready I am to encourage her waking me at such hours regularly. I should still be asleep! This is my vacation!

I keep both my complaints and encouragement to myself.

Haruhi's grip loosens slightly as I pedal through the pre-dawn gloom, and after probably almost a kilometer, before I start heaving for breath, I ask, "Where are we going?"

"You'll see," she answers almost instantly, sounding suddenly eager once more. "But we have to get there before sunrise!"

So much for that.

There's nothing else to say, since she's thoughtful, and I'm working too hard at pedaling to talk.

After we get to the station, Haruhi surprises me by paying for my fare. With her typical luck, even though I get us there a minute late, the train is also precisely that far behind schedule.

"You lucked out this time," she warns me sternly. "That's too close!"

I'm not sure I really consider much of this 'lucky' at all.

"Oh, hush," she reprimands me gently, as I look around the largely empty car.

If it were more crowded, I'd undoubtedly get dirty looks for failing to disassemble and securely bag my bicycle. Undoubtedly, this will be a requirement for the return trip -- which reminds me of the fact that I managed to forget my bike bag at home. That'll be another three thousand yen I didn't want to spend.

Catching my expression, Haruhi rolls her eyes and says, "If you're so tired, sleep -- I'll wake you up when we get there."

After being woken so early, and then wearing myself out on that ride, I quickly settle into my seat. Not long after that, I drift back into welcome slumber, wondering if this is a dream....

Before it feels like I've rested that much, I'm shaken awake to raise my head from my pillow, and straighten myself up, rubbing my eyes. When I blink the sleep away and look around, Haruhi is sitting next to me, pointedly looking away, one hand rubbing the shoulder closest to me for some reason. "We'll be at the station in a minute," she warns me.

"Right," I mumble, needing that time to wake up. When I stagger off the train behind Haruhi, half using my bike to keep myself upright, I'm actually surprised that it's still before dawn. Well, she did say we needed to get there before sunrise....

From the station, there's a vantage across some of the city -- comparable to the view from school, just about. There's no traces of the pre-dawn glow of sunrise yet, though, so I ask, "What time is it?"

"Ten after five," she replies briskly, as we step outside of the station.

That's still too early!

"If it were later, we'd miss it," she counters. "Sunrise is at eight minutes to six, today!"

I sigh and shake my head, looking around closer, instead of studying the distant view. From the station, roads lead in three directions. This area looks like a tourist trap, except it's quiet and practically deserted at this hour.

Sensible people wouldn't be awake at this time, would they?

"Right!" she exclaims brightly, pointing at the single path leading -- naturally -- uphill, through the gates to the park surrounding Kabuto-san. "Let's go!"

As much as I want to grumble about it, we're already here, so there's no point to it. I just heave another exhausted sigh and climb aboard, waiting for her to get on behind me. Once she's grabbed onto my shoulders, she squeezes them tightly, as though in reassurance, and I unsteadily lurch into motion. The hill's not too steep, but with the added weight, it's pretty grueling.

I manage to get enough speed before the upslope to wearily maintain a pace not much faster than a brisk walk.

"In about half a kilometer, you'll be turning right," she notifies me.

Naturally ... this will be uphill. Resigned to this fate, I pedal on, pleasantly surprised when her 'right turn' takes us onto an abruptly level stretch. I pause for a minute to catch my breath, and she hops down from behind me, looking back and forth. This deep in the park, there's trees everywhere.

"Here," Haruhi decides, walking behind one of the clusters of vending machines that litter the route. I walk the bike to her curiously, a little surprised to realize she expects me to lock my bicycle up here. Well, walking will be a nice way to cool down from that workout, so I don't argue, just securing my bike to the chain loops that keep vandals from tipping over the vending machines themselves.

As I recover my breath, Haruhi leads us down the road -- now occasionally being passed by others. It's mostly folks in cars, a pair of busses, and to my vast irritation, a quartet of eagerly chatting bikers that zip past us. The only remark I catch from them is 'hot air,' before they pass from earshot.

I give Haruhi a quizzical look at that, but she returns only a satisfied, smirking silence.

At this point, I realize I'm probably not going to get an answer until we get there-- And just as I think that, we round a turn in the road and I stop, staring in surprise. The field is surprisingly well lit with numerous gas flares, as the 'hot air' bit suddenly becomes clear.

This particular section of the park has a nice-sized lot for the vehicles we saw earlier, and scattered around across the wide field sitting atop the foothills, there are an uncountable number of hot air balloons, most attended by scurrying teams of technicians as they inflate them. I stare in stunned silence for a long minute, blinking, realizing the pre-dawn glow is coming through the trees. This must be it, as Haruhi is merely at my side, watching with me instead of chiding me to hurry.

A large banner strung between two trees at the edge of the field proclaims, 'First Annual Nishinomiya Hot Air Balloon Festival.'

"What," I manage after a minute before shaking my head sharply. Starting over, I try again, "What are we doing here?"

"Isn't it obvious?" she asks, turning to me with a huge grin, hefting her purse. "We're going to take a balloon ride, and watch the sunrise from the air!"

I'm not paying for that.

Her smile vanishes. "Idiot," she grouses. "I'm paying for this myself -- but the cost is for the balloon, not per passenger."

...that actually explains a lot.

"Alright," I agree, even though I'm not a huge fan of heights. We are here already, after all.

She looks ready to retort, and then for an instant, as though she were taken by surprise before she gives me a different smile. Not quite as confident as she usually is, but absolutely as energetic as she was before. "This way!" she declares, marching toward the banner.

When we get there, there's a small cluster of people waiting in line to fill out the proper forms and pay for their passes. I'm totally unfamiliar with the process, but by watching intently, when Haruhi and I finally reach the front of the line, she's able to answer the questions as though she's been doing this for years. The older woman behind the folding table gives the pair of us a cheerful smile once Haruhi hands over--

Well, there goes my right to complain about spending my savings. Ouch! Haruhi, where do you get that kind of money?

"Don't buy frivolous things," she replies without hesitation, prompting me to stare at her flatly.

I ponder remarking that she should have warned everyone in advance so they could properly attend when she arches one eyebrow upward in challenge.

She dismisses my expression, shaking her head. "Come on -- with this pass, we can pick any balloon we want, as long as they've got a matching symbol on the balloon's basket," she explains, flashing me the ticket she purchased, but pulling it back before I even have a chance to recognize it.

After that, we wander through the field as she inspects the balloons, looking for something in particular. Since I feel like a passenger already, I just watch the process of setting them up. Some are already prepared, while others are still being unrolled. From unrolling the balloon, it's then blown up with a gas-powered fan -- something I'd never really thought about before. Once it's partially inflated against the ground with cold air, a technician or pilot starts a gas burner, and the balloon slowly fills and rises.

I've just figured out how the entire process works when Haruhi makes a muted cheer, dashing around the rising bulk of another balloon. I follow her more sedately and spot her choice -- a simple white balloon with a single red circle on the side. This one's evidently been set up for a while, as there's no ground crew, just a lone pilot, inspecting some gauges in the basket.

"Hey!" Haruhi cheers, stopping before him abruptly, her vigor renewed. "This is your balloon?"

The pilot -- a short, dark-haired man, probably in his early twenties -- looks up in surprise, then blinks, and takes a minute to study Haruhi. For reasons I can't quite explain, his look irritates me; when he glances at me, and then immediately returns his gaze to Haruhi, my irritation increases. I bite my tongue as he says, "Er, hello! Um, you want a ride?"

"Yeah!" Haruhi exclaims, grinning. "We want to watch the sunrise!"

The man chuckles, shaking his head apologetically. "I'm not planning on launching until the sun starts to crest the horizon," he explains.

To my surprise, instead of being annoyed, or running off to find another balloon, she simpers at him -- reminding me of the behavior she showed the manager of Nagato's apartment building when she dragged me with her, nearly a year ago, now. I've become rather used to that, haven't I? In fact, I've shifted from being dragged along to helping provide transportation!

I don't feel like watching Haruhi giggle and chat amicably with this stranger, so try to pay attention to the other groups around us, setting up their own balloons. Haruhi glances at me briefly, but keeps her attention mostly trained on the pilot. I can't tune out their conversation, and I don't feel like participating, either.

"Aw, that's a pity -- but you'll let us ride with you?"

"Oh, sure, as soon as my planned launch time comes around," he agrees. "You've signed all your waivers?"

What waivers? I certainly didn't sign anything!

"Oops!" Haruhi giggles again. "That totally slipped my mind! Shoot-- I don't want to run off and lose our spot on your balloon if someone else comes along first...." Her expression falls, and she touches one fingertip to her lips in worry. "What should I do?"

I realize I'm gritting my teeth, and wonder what expression I'm showing when the pilot shoots me a briefly smug smirk. "It's no problem at all," he says expansively, spreading his arms in a shrug. "Why not send your brother to fetch the forms?"

I feel one eyebrow tic and turn away, trying much harder to tune them both out. And failing again.

"This lazy guy's good for nothing," she says, punching my shoulder lightly before I can protest. "He'll take a nap halfway there!"

Well, the obvious solution is for Haruhi to go get the paperwork for this stupid ride herself. I don't say that, since I don't want to be alone with this guy -- there's nothing I can think of that I'd like to say to him.

"Well, alright," he acquiesces, chuckling. "Tell you what -- watch my balloon, and I'll hurry right back with the paperwork. There's still a good--" He breaks off to check his watch, then nods, giving her a broad grin. "--Yeah, about fifteen minutes before sunup. Don't go anywhere, now!"

"Not going to step any further away than this until the ride ends~!" Haruhi chirps, her cheeks flushing slightly, one hand going to rest on the edge of the basket.

"Alright," the pilot agrees. "Oh -- what's your name, anyway? I'm Suzuki Taiso."

"Nice to meet you, Suzuki-san~!" Haruhi replies in the same voice she used before, giving a polite bow. Then, much to my surprise, she winks and says, utterly without hesitation: "My name is Asakura Ryouko!"

"Alright-- Don't move a step, Ryouko-chan!" he answers, turning and dashing away, pausing only once to wave before he vanishes from sight.

I'm a bit too stunned to say anything at that. I had thought that Haruhi had forgotten all about her!

As if in response to that thought, Haruhi's reply is a sour, "What a creep! Guys like that -- so incredibly stupid! Ugh!" She stamps one foot angrily, as though to crush some unwanted or irritating insect before shaking her head abruptly. "Alright-- Kyon! Give me a hand up; let's climb in!"

I grudgingly give her a hand up, helping her climb, then manage to struggle over the lip of the basket in a much less dignified manner. The bottom of the basket is floating loosely about fifteen centimeters over the ground, tethered to a pair of sturdy looking anchors that have been driven deep into the ground.

As I'm about to fall into the bottom of the basket, Haruhi jerks me to one side, so I collapse on the sturdy level surface, and not across the significantly more painful-looking fuel cannisters. "Careful!" she chastises.

After that, while I'm straightening myself up and regaining my balance, she turns to look at some control, or fiddle with something. My footing seems a lot less secure than I think it should be, and when I stand fully upright, one hand on the basket's rim, the other on one of the supports going up to the burner overhead -- I'm disconcerted to realize what Haruhi was doing.

"Haruhi!" I yelp, eyes widening at where she's just cast off the second anchor cable. "You can't steal a hot air balloon!"

"A bit late to opt out now!" she returns, securing herself by hanging onto a different strut, then tugging a control on the burner, prompting a flash of hot flame overhead, and our rate of ascent to increase.

Ironically, if I'd jumped out just before that, it probably wouldn't have been too late. But now the ground is four meters away and dropping away from us -- fast. "You can't fly this thing!" I protest.

"Yes, I can," she returns, crossly. "It's incredibly simple-- Look!" She points at other balloons, already lifting off all around us. We're surrounded by the mild pre-dawn glow, and all around us, like floating, multicolored lamps, they're flaring their own burners and lifting off at different rates. Some shoot up past us, some pace us, and others still lazily rise, as though uncertain it's worth the effort.

Haruhi does a surprisingly good job of keeping us roughly in the center of the pack.

"Where did you-- When did you...." I can't even finish the question.

"I've been reading up on it on the internet all weekend," she declares proudly, checking over a very small collection of gauges briefly, then nodding and turning the burner back down. We're now toward the top of a large cloud of glowing, hanging balloons, surrounded by the sound of muted cheers as various other passengers and pilots in distant balloons call to one-another.

I can't help but wince as someone below us, recognizing the balloon, but not able to see us, shouts, "Have a good flight, Suzuki-san!"

"Alright, fine," I sigh. "You can fly this thing." If she wanted, she could probably take us safely to the moon, knowing her. "But you stole it!"

"Appropriated," she corrects me. "I did pay, after all! Anyway, we're going to land in the center of the pack, then we'll just run off to the train station -- that's why we left your bike somewhere nearby the launch point, instead of actually there."

"I'm going to be branded a criminal and expelled from school," I groan, covering my face with both hands.

"Oh, knock it off!" she grouses. "They'll be looking for a Canadian citizen, and it's not like we were in school uniforms! Even if that guy calls ahead, people will be too busy securing the balloon to stop us."

Realizing I'm not going to win this argument, I sigh, pulling my coat slightly tighter against me -- and very, very glad I thought to bring it with me.

"There," Haruhi decides abruptly, pulling a cord and letting some air out of the balloon, slowing our ascent, now at the top of the pack. Behind and below us, I can see a cloud stretching back to the launch site -- there must be almost a hundred airborne craft in total, by now. Some of them are odd shapes that I can't quite make out yet, though the sky is brightening.

I turn around when Haruhi nudges my elbow, surprised at the view.

I'm still not a great fan of heights, but there's not much I can do, since the basket doesn't appear to have any parachutes. An oversight if I've ever seen one, but then ... I don't honestly know that I have the courage to jump out and use it. And anyway, with Haruhi here....

The eastern sky is lighting up, and as it does, I can see more and more of the lights in the city below us winking out; a field of earthbound stars below us, fading in the rising sun's light. Just as I think that, the fiercely glowing arc of the sun's curve breaks the horizon behind the line of distant mountains we're seeing.

"There!" Haruhi crows, her eyes shining with pride. "See? This is what we came for!"

I'm still not sure this is something I ever would have agreed to in advance ... but I'll admit, it's not terrible. The basket's large enough for six people, probably -- a rectangular shape with ballast lining the edges, and fuel tanks in pairs at either of the longer ends. Pulling a camera from her purse, Haruhi starts taking pictures -- stumbling slightly when an unexpected sharp wind strikes us, rocking the balloon.

Before I realize it, I'm holding her arm with one hand, the other with a death-grip on the basket's support struts. She says nothing, merely moving slightly closer to me and continuing to snap pictures. When the wind dies down -- or, I suppose, finishes pushing us faster along with it -- she puts the camera away, needing two tries to fit it into her purse again.

Strange, considering how graceful she typically is.

I admit -- the view is surprisingly impressive, once I acclimate to the height. We're still below the clouds, but above most of the mountains. The city is spread out below us, more and more bright points winking out as we watch the line of sunlight creeps across, slowly driving the shadows away.

Mountains cast shadows, naturally, but from a ground-based perspective, it's harder to notice. From here, their shapes are clearly defined against the earth below. Until the light conceals them, anyway.

"It's a pity that the rest of the Brigade couldn't see this," I finally manage in appreciation.

Haruhi makes a noise in response, shaking her head slightly. "They'll have to make do with pictures," she says. "It's their loss for not getting up on time!"

Is that really okay?

"It's ... not like I don't understand some things," she mutters. "Next week-- Next week ... is going to be the start of our second year. And ... Mikuru-chan's third year. Her last year."

I frown; this feels entirely counter to the mood I thought she was looking for. As always in these situations, I remain silent, unsure of what to say.

"And ... when Mikuru-chan goes to college, that's...." She trails off there and shivers at the thought; I feel a certain morose sympathy. "Yuki ... will probably go into Toudai, or maybe Kyoudai, considering her family-- You would know better than me. I don't know about Koizumi-kun -- he may not even bother with college, since he seems to have a job already!

"I-- I wouldn't be surprised if he was turned full-time on the spot once he gets his high-school diploma."

After a pause, she adds in a quieter voice, "Whatever the heck it is that he does...."

She sighs and glances at the gauge that I think is an altimeter, then scans around for the other balloons. They're spread in a multicolored field, mostly below us, but a few braver souls ascending even higher. The colorful balloons no longer glow internally against the sunlight, but their colors are vibrant, and now that I can see them, the few odd-shaped ones -- corporate mascots, giant stuffed bears, and so on -- add an amazing variety.

"I just-- I want to do something amazing, but ... what if we can't in the time we have left? What if the Brigade can't...." She trails off there.

Haruhi at a loss for words -- a sight even rarer than the cloud of multicolored balloons that start to catch up to our altitude, more and more of them catching some lower breeze and surrounding us in an amazing display.

Of course-- For all of that, I'm not looking at them.

"It's like that speech from President Reagan," she says, frustrated, shaking her head. "E-even if there's risks, we have to be brave about it, right? So, like he said, we should 'slip the surly bonds of Earth, to punch the face of God!' Challenge your limitations -- t-the limitations of the world!"

That clicks-- But before I can correct her, I wonder: since when has Haruhi ever stuttered this much, anyway? Is she that worked up about this?

She shakes her head abruptly, pulling the cord to release air, and firing the burner simultaneously -- we maintain altitude, and are briefly warmed by the blast of flame.

It takes a minute for things to get through, and as she releases both controls I realize aloud, "For all your reading up, you forgot that it gets colder this high up, didn't you?"

"S-shut up," she snaps, her teeth chattering slightly as she tries to shoot me a glare. "Damn it! Why can't you appreciate this? I worked-- This was hard to set up! Can't you-- Ugh!" She turns her back on me, pulling herself free of my grip and crossing her arms over her chest as she moves to the side of the basket, causing the entire thing to rock gently. "If you're so comfortable, give me your coat!"

I am not, for one heartbeat, enjoying the prospect of that. My precious body heat is not going to be cast away so easily! But ... Haruhi is smaller than me, and realistically, more vulnerable to the cold in that outfit. Looking down, I don't have any idea how we can land the balloon in the city proper, so that doesn't seem like a real alternative either.

If that difficulty weren't already nearly insurmountable, well, I can't see Haruhi agreeing to land the thing right away, in any case.

I sigh and unbutton my coat before answering, as gently as I can: "No."

She starts at that, raising her head -- but before she can even turn around to confront me, I take the single step separating us.

It's not the Brigade; it's just me and Haruhi. I think I get why the others were really unable to make it, now, considering her earlier speech.

So, holding my coat open and wincing at the cold, I wrap it around her shoulders and hold it shut around her as well. It's just barely big enough for that, though now cold is seeping through the gaps. I'm not sure what reaction I expect, but Haruhi stiffens momentarily.

Then she relaxes, leaning back into me and squirming around a bit to un-loop her scarf partially. With her typically ridiculous dexterity, she manages to re-loop that length around my neck, solving that problem. Is this ... maybe what she wanted after all?

Her body is even colder than I anticipated, and she allows a subdued mutter to escape her lips, lowering her head and holding my coat closed when I start rubbing my hands across her chilled forearms, slowly restoring some of the warmth there. After a minute of that, she finally, very quietly, allows, "...thanks."

And then, even though it is just the two of us, and not actually talking about the Brigade at all, I answer: "It's my job to look out for the Brigade Chief, somehow. After all, no one else could make it, right?" There's no way I could ignore her when she's shivering like that.

"I--" Haruhi starts before shaking her head slightly. Her voice is slightly muted, since she's facing away, and there are occasional sharp bursts of wind, but I can hear her well enough.

She stops and swallows something back.

Feeling emboldened, thinking -- maybe -- I understand what she was really saying, I note, "You got the quote wrong, in any case."

"How do you know that?" she grumbles, no longer shivering from the cold, but making no move to pull away from me or try and twist around to shoot me a dark look.

I hold back a sigh and look away, admiring the view around us for a while, enjoying the comfortable bubble we're sharing as she warms up. "I used to really be into absolutely everything involving space exploration," I admit. "So, I know that speech, too-- It's from a poem written by an English pilot in the second World War.

"The title is High Flight, and the author's name was...." I trail off for a moment -- I remember memorizing this in Middle School for an English assignment; as that and Grammar are my only 'good' subjects, it doesn't take long for it to come back me. "His name was John Gillespie Magee. It goes:

"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
"And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
"Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
"of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
"You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
"High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
"I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
"My eager craft through footless halls of air....

"Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
"I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
"Where never lark, or even eagle flew
"And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
"The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
"- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."

I punctuate the last line, breaking our precious heat containment to stroke a single fingertip across her cheek. Despite my apprehension, it seems to be almost exactly what she wanted; I can feel the tension leaving her as she relaxes.

"I thought you sucked at poems," she mumbles, unable to keep a tiny bit of grudging admiration from her voice. "You were that into space exploration?"

And aliens, esper powers, and all of those other things you reminded me I used to believe in -- not that I think it's time to tell you that yet.

"Yeah," I admit. "I'll tell you that much."

"I always knew there was someone amazing behind that stuffy exterior," she says quietly. "A...alright, then-- I won't give away your secret identity as a space otaku."

Ouch! But then I catch it -- that would be a genuine stutter, not a barely-concealed shiver.

"I don't care to be 'Vice Commander,' or 'Secretary,' or anything like that-- I'm 'member number one,' right? So long as that stays true ... you'll always be the chief."

I leave it that, and Haruhi's hands shift, so she can hold my coat closed with one, while her other grabs my arm, hugging it to herself. "Always," she answers softly.

She draws in a breath, seeming about to say something else when the moment is suddenly shattered-- An excited voice from not nearly far enough away loudly cheering: "Wahaha~! You go Haru-nyan, Kyon-kun!"

The pair of us freeze and turn to stare in amazement and -- a little bit of shock -- at the nearest balloon, rising past us lazily from about a dozen meters away. Her figure is dressed more warmly for the weather than Haruhi, dancing back and forth in a way that makes the basket sway alarmingly. Accompanying her are an unfamiliar female pilot and a pair of other girls Tsuruya-san's age; I guess that they are are either friends or classmates of hers I just don't recognize.

I purse my lips and wait for Haruhi's quick retort that my job list has simply expanded to include 'personal heater.' Except ... instead of that, she just ducks her head, turning a somewhat guilty grin to the heiress.

Tsuruya laughs loudly across the distance, her balloon -- green and gray, patterned with her family crest -- continues rising. She un-loops her bright pink scarf and clenches one end, unfurling it and waving it like a brilliant cheering banner before she vanishes behind the curve of our own stolen craft.

Now that I can actually see part of her face in profile, I'm almost shocked to see Haruhi -- Haruhi! Of all people! -- blushing.

"I-- I still mean that," she mumbles. "As long as you do too -- then ... always."

Oh, this is a bit too much, though; as well as things are going, we need to take a step back. Haruhi seems to realize this, too, and lets go of my arm with what feels like reluctance, un-looping her scarf from her neck and leaving it all with me.

She then steps to the controls and points ahead to where some of the faster balloons are already drifting down toward a wide open field, just beyond the foothills, before the real mountains. I can distantly see what look like ground crews, scrambling around and ready to grab the dangling cables from the descending balloons.

"Wait," I interrupt her, as one hand goes to the release flap's cord. She turns to look at me questioningly, but before she can ask ... I let the murderous cold hit me, taking off my coat. "You're leading me away from possible arrest, now -- so you'd better be in good condition for it."

Her eyes light up as she snatches my coat and twirls -- keeping her balance on the rocking basket and slipping it on effortlessly.

It's needlessly huge on her, and as her attention goes to our landing, I have to admit -- it's cute. It really is cute.

Trying to pretend I'm not feeling the biting chill of the wind -- thinking of what she'd already endured this far -- I arrange the over-sized scarf as well as I can and bear it. As we descend gracefully, pacing a few of the other balloons, I can't help but wince when I glance down at the parking lot near our landing site.

Three police cars, shutting off their lights as they pull in. Oh, boy, Haruhi....

"You ready to run?" she asks, when we're a mere half-dozen meters off the ground, carefully flaring the burner to keep us from crashing down -- and then throws one of the anchor ropes over the side, to a quartet of the ground crew, jogging directly beneath us.

"Like I said," I allow with a resigned sigh, not looking forward to the walk back to where my bike is locked up, "as long as you're leading, well...."

She gives me an unreadable look.

"Always, Haruhi," I finish, as the basket gives a lurch, slowing dramatically as the crew below hauls us to a halt.

"Right!" she cheers, vaulting over the edge of the basket without hesitation the second it touches down, me not far behind.

Author's notes: In many senses, while I hope all can enjoy it, this fic is also an apology to someone I believe I have inadvertently offended while trying to sort out a self-inflicted spell of cognitive disconnection. That person knows who they are, and won't be named here. Catharsis and apology, all in one; I hope that this is enjoyed!

Oh, and by the way:

Lyrics property of Adam Young (Owl City); used here without permission; excepts are covered by Fair Use; no disrespect is intended.

From Galaxies:


Dear God, I was terribly lost
When the galaxies crossed
And the sun went dark.
But dear God, You're the only North Star
I would follow this far.


From Hot Air Balloon:


I'll be out of my mind
And you'll be out of ideas
Pretty soon
So let's spend
The afternoon in a cold hot air balloon
Leave your jacket behind
Lean out and touch the treetops over town
I can't wait
To kiss the ground
Wherever we touch back down