The senshi of the wind approached the unfamiliar green car on silent feet and grinned as she saw the jumpsuit covered legs sticking out from underneath. A popular pop tune played from a nearby radio's tinny speakers and a cringingly awful voice, clearly emanating from some place other than the electronic device, sang along to the words. She stood above the pair of tapping feet for as long as her badly abused ears could stand it.
"Shinji!" She bellowed, emitting a satisfied chuckle when she heard the metallic clang of a dropped tool, followed almost immediately by a muffled string of curses.
Shinji Hideki rolled out from below the car with an exasperated expression plastered on his face. He was a brawny man, used to working with his hands since he was a kid. His black cropped hair and jutting chin made comparisons to a bulldog somewhat inevitable but his easygoing personality quickly put people at ease. Even though he was just a few years older than the sandy haired senshi, he had always acted the part of the wise elder to the tilt if only to tick Haruka off.
"If it isn't the reprobate," he sighed in a melodramatic fashion as he eyed the sandy haired woman up and down.
"It's good to see you too, grease monkey," Haruka sardonically replied, leaning back against the passenger door of the green car.
Shinji got to his feet, brushing off some dust from his dirty uniform. "I was beginning to forget what you looked like. What's it been now? A couple of months already?"
Haruka gave a derisive snort. "Try two weeks … but you'd know that if you ever bothered looking at the calendar once in a while."
"As long as I know the year, that's good enough for me," he replied, dismissively waving off the criticism. "But two weeks is still a long time. I can still remember a time when you couldn't part from my charming company for more than a day."
"Before I realized your idea of charming was leaving the toilet seat down."
Shinji glanced balefully at the grinning senshi. "You've been talking to my ex-girlfriend again, haven't you? I'm telling you, that woman is trying to poison your fragile young mind with bad ideas."
"So are you saying you don't put the toilet seat down?" Haruka asked, twisting away from Shinji's playful swipe with a lighthearted laugh.
She'd desperately needed this easy banter after the emotional roller coaster ride she'd been strapped to for the past few days. Joking and laughing with Shinji, she could almost pretend everything in her life was as it had always been; she was still the Haruka whose dream was to be the best racecar driver in the world. That had always been her dream -- to be the fastest, to be like the wind -- unfettered and free. Lately, that dream had been supplanted as she began spending more and more of her time off the track and pursuing a certain odango atama. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed this place, surrounded by cars and clanging tools and the smell of motor oil. A part of her ached at the comforting familiarity of her environment. She had spent such a large part of her adolescence hanging out in garages that this was almost a second home to her now.
Reaching for a wrench, Shinji carefully studied the younger woman for several long seconds before he voiced his thoughts. "Seriously, Haruka, where have you been? The chief has been giving himself a stomach ulcer over your disappearance and I quote, 'Tenoh better get himself a mop because the only job he'll be doing around here is the janitor's if he ever bothers to show his sorry ass in here again!' Imagine me saying that with foam around my mouth and you'll get the general idea of the man's mood."
Haruka breathed out a troubled sigh, her entire demeanor changing as a result of her friend's words. In place of the teasing, good-humored girl standing in front of him not five seconds before, there now stood a defensive and weary individual.
"I had some personal business," she said, turning to stare pensively at the ground. "I'll speak with the chief later and explain it to him."
She knew she was in big trouble by completely dropping off the face of the earth as far as the chief was concerned. As of late, her time had been stretched precariously thin between her duties as a senshi, her duties as Michiru's girlfriend, and the desire to spend every free moment she could scrape together with Usagi. And this didn't include the extra attention she had been lavishing on her girlfriend out of pure guilt for her selfish actions. All these factors added up to an exhausted young woman too worn out to make even a token appearance.
"If you're going to speak to him, make sure your life insurance payments are up to date," Shinji said, moving next to his friend. "Because if he doesn't bite your head off then I'm not the best mechanic in the Kanto region."
He waited patiently for the sandy haired driver to say something but Haruka's attention seemed entirely focused on the small oil stain on the floor. Shinji observed the tense lines in the youthful face and the black hollows under the unusually dark green eyes with mounting concern. He was used to bouts of moodiness from the high school student, even witnessed an occasional blow up from the temperamental star of Japan's racing circuit from time to time but this was different. Yet he couldn't put a finger on what that that something was.
"Haruka, is there something you want to tell me?" He asked, unsure of how to draw his friend out. "To put it bluntly, you look like you've been dragged through a war zone and then run over by a truck. You haven't been acting like your usual smart mouth self and I'm worried about you -- everyone is. I might not be the best person to ask for advice and normally, I'm not exactly the sharing and caring type but if you ever want to talk to me … about anything, you know I'll always be here for you."
He saw the corner of her lip draw up into a smile but it was far from pleasant.
Still staring at the ground, she whispered, almost as if to herself, "How do you help someone who doesn't want to be saved?"
Shinji wasn't sure what disturbed him more: her cryptic question or the utterly hopeless tone in which it was delivered. He stayed silent, just looking at her, even more unsure of what to do.
The senshi finally looked up at him, her eyes dulled of their usual sparkle. "So how have you been lately?" She asked in a blatant attempt to change the subject away from her. "Tricked anyone gullible enough to actually go out on a date with you yet?"
Although clearly not happy about being shut out, Shinji, much to the senshi's relief, did not try to pursue a topic his friend so clearly did not want to discuss. Subconsciously relaxing his stance, he smiled a rueful grin.
"Not everyone has as handsome a face as you, playboy. If I did, I'd have someone as beautiful as Michiru hanging off my arm too." The quick flicker in steel green eyes was not missed and the stocky mechanic had to restrain himself from not asking if Haruka's distress had anything to do with the driver's girlfriend.
Looking directly into the mechanic's eyes, the young woman asked with a cheerless smirk, "Haven't you ever heard, Shinji? Beauty is on the inside."
"Might be so but it doesn't hurt if some of it leaks outside too," he joked, earning a small laugh from the tall blonde that lasted all of two seconds.
As if a switch had been thrown, Haruka suddenly became agitated and looked down at her watch. "Hey, listen, I've got to go. I'll talk to you later, okay?" Without waiting for a reply, she turned to leave, only to have her arm caught in a restraining grip.
"You'll remember my offer won't you, Haruka?"
She gave the mechanic a quick smile that never quite reached her eyes. "Who knows? I might take you up on it someday, Shinji." Slipping loose, the lanky young woman strode out of the garage, feeling a pair of worried brown eyes on her back each step of the way.
She knew it would never happen; she could never confide that part of her life to her friend no matter how much she would've liked to. A dark secret showered with light didn't grow under the gentle radiance -- it withered and died, spreading its poison to the ones shining the light in a last vindictive act of vengeance. Shinji would not be caught up in that if she could help it. Haruka had hurt enough people as it was.
Walking angrily to her car, she slid into the bucket seats and sat there motionless. She felt so cold inside -- aimless and floating on a stormcloud, dark with rain. Her hands unconsciously tightened on the steering wheel, wanting to break it, as she was surely broken. But she knew it would only be a temporary salve at best. Closing her eyes tightly, she forced her mind to focus and almost on cue, a picture of a golden haired girl with moon kissed eyes swam in front of her mind's eye.
She remembered now why she was putting herself through this pain. All the betrayals, all the hurts, all the lies … it was all worth it if she had her princess' love. Nothing else was as important -- not friendship, not duty, not even the fate of the world. And if the reciprocal was also true -- if her love could make Usagi happy too, she would gladly endure an eternity of pain for the chance to shower her beloved with kisses. Her eyes opening once again, revealing a calm determination in the emerald eyes, the willful senshi started her car, mindful that time was running short. If she didn't want her impatient love to wait, she'd have to step on the gas the entire way -- something she was not averse to doing.
Driving past the large garage, something garishly bright caught the corner of her eye. Turning slightly, the wind senshi saw nothing but a gray cluster of oil drums, yet that brief flash of something nibbled at the edges of her psyche. There was a link there she wasn't making and it maddened her because she sensed that it should be obvious. But, as distracted as she already was, the puzzle was reluctantly pushed back into her subconscious where it would occasionally be prodded and scrutinized until this mystery finally unraveled … or drove her mad.
As opposed to her usual aggressive style, Haruka navigated the streets with a reckless preoccupation. Her turns were sloppier, her control rough but if she was aware of it, she neither showed it nor compensated accordingly. The tires of her car zoomed past blocks and streetlights standing sentinel, going faster, ever faster as if trying to outrun time itself. The asphalt snaked unending through the city, a black ribbon that she followed, whose path she knew led to one person.
She arrived in front of Juuban High School with a squeal of protesting rubber and not a minute to spare as the distinctive tones of the closing bell chimed. Haruka waited as patiently as she could, her fingers drumming an uneven tattoo on the black steering wheel, entirely oblivious to the warmth of the shining sun, to the soft cooling breeze, and to the peaceful silence. Noise abruptly shattered the once tranquil atmosphere as hundreds of teenagers started spewing from the front doors -- a veritable tide of adolescent humanity that was continually chattering, laughing, and playing. The school grounds fairly hummed with energy, its residents at once playful and shrill.
On the periphery of her vision, she blithely registered several students stopping to ogle her but she was indifferent to their stares. The green-eyed senshi scanned the crowd intently, looking for one particular student as all of her senses screamed in anticipation. It seemed forever before her eyes finally landed on the dazzling face of her angel and, like all the times before, she was held in thrall by the delicate figure of her heart's desire. Although hardly unbiased on the subject, to the wind senshi, the sun shone just a little brighter on her golden haired nymph, the rest of the world just a little duller by comparison.
Simultaneously, as if drawn by the passionate stare, Usagi turned, locking eyes with reverential green orbs. With a wide smile ordinarily foreign on her handsome face, Haruka remained mesmerized by her fast approaching love. She didn't remember leaving the car. She didn't recollect closing the short distance separating her from her princess. She was only aware that she was suddenly standing in front of Usagi.
The sandy haired woman nearly reached out, intending to properly kiss her lover but the suddenly panicked blue eyes burning into her own stopped her as surely as a bucket of cold water. The noise and jostling crowds that had been mute before swiftly filled her senses again, making her dizzy as she tried to absorb the jarring transformation. Blinking as if waking from a deep sleep, she noticed for the first time that her golden haired princess was not alone. In fact, the blonde's three constant companions and protectors stood at her side, each one with varying degrees of surprise written across their faces, no doubt inspired by the outer senshi's unexpected presence.
Unsurprisingly, the gregarious senshi of love was the first to break the silence that had descended over the small group. "Hi Haruka!" Minako said, greeting her brightly. In a teasing tone, she asked, "What are you doing here? Don't tell me you're here to pick up some hot girls. What would Michiru think?"
Haruka noticed the rising blush on her princess' face and thought it absolutely adorable. Tearing her eyes away from the captivating sight, she looked at Minako and grinned her trademark half smile. "Michiru would think I have good taste," the green eyed woman answered, arching a delicate eyebrow. "After all, I'm talking to you four, aren't I?"
At her deliberately flattering words, the remaining three senshi blushed almost as beautifully as their princess.
Makoto cleared her throat -- a tall girl with long brown hair held up in a ponytail, she had harbored an admiration for the wind senshi since their first meeting. "It's so good to see you again," she said with her usual straightforward sincerity. "It seems so long since the last time we ran into each other."
"Is Michiru here too?" Ami asked, her short blue hair whipping around as she searched for the other outer senshi.
"No, she's not," Haruka answered shortly, the corners of her mouth tightening ever so slightly. Deliberately trying to lighten her tone, she added, "I'm actually here to pick up the odango atama. We have a date today."
Usagi immediately became completely red, managing to stammer and stutter all at once. However, she somehow conveyed, albeit in the most confusing manner possible, that the two weren't going on an actual date. She never did tell them exactly what they were doing though because by the end of her stunted explanation, she was already halfway to Haruka's car, dragging a very willing sandy haired senshi behind her.
"Goodbye everyone. I'll see you tomorrow," Usagi called back to her dumbfounded friends as she excitedly climbed into the blonde racer's car.
Unable to keep the perpetual smile from her face while in such close proximity to her princess, Haruka jumped into the driver's seat of her car, soon leaving only a cloud of dust where her convertible was once parked. The three remaining senshi continued looking on, still left speechless by the strange display put on by their oftentimes ditzy friend.
"Was that odd to any of you?" Minako asked, finally breaking the lengthy silence.
Makoto shrugged her shoulders. "It's Usagi," she said, the simple explanation apparently enough to satisfy everyone in the group.