It was a nice sunny day, if a bit breezy. As a result, Haruka wasn't completely drenched in sweat as she made the long trek to Usagi's school. Even though she was forced to rest frequently from sudden bouts of lightheadedness, she made good time and, most importantly, didn't black out again. She was focused on one thing and one thing only -- to find her princess and ensure her safety. The senshi took no notice of the scenery around her, nor the people she passed, so intent was she on getting to her destination.
She had already traversed nearly twenty blocks when she came upon an ordinary street. Ironically, it was this single-minded focus that caused her to miss the changing traffic light and subsequently, the car coming directly at her. If it weren't for quick reflexes and the judicious application of antilock brakes, the senshi might have ended up a messy smear on the street. Even though she dodged the ignominious fate of getting creamed by a car, she wasn't fast enough to avoid colliding with the bumper and sent flying into the air like some rag doll, finally skidding to a merciful stop several feet away.
As she lay in the middle of the street, arms flung wide and once again staring up into the glaring sun, she couldn't help but wonder if it was 'Screw Haruka Over' Day and she'd somehow missed the memo. If she knew her life was going to go so horribly wrong in so short a time, she would have locked herself in a bunker with a picture of Usagi, surviving on canned ham and bottled water, until it was safe to come out again.
She didn't know how long she stayed there, contemplating a seemingly endless string of bad luck when suddenly, her clear and unobstructed view of the brightly shining sun was blocked as someone came to stand above her, shouting her name. She didn't understand why he was yelling and became unnerved, particularly since his face was practically hovering right above hers. The ringing in her ears was starting to give her a bad headache and trying to make out his shadowed features against the bright backdrop was an act of futility.
"Haruka! Haruka!" He shouted again. "I didn't see you. Are you all right? Are you hurt? Do you need an ambulance? Someone call for help!"
Finally realizing that this man was using her name and therefore must know her, the blonde tried getting up.
"No, stay down," the man said, panicked. "You might hurt yourself or worse. Just wait until the paramedics get here."
Ignoring his pleas and the stabbing pain running throughout her thoroughly battered body, Haruka struggled to sit up, succeeding only with the helping hand the man extended. Only then did she get a good look at the person that nearly ran her over and astonishment wasn't strong enough a word for the feeling that washed over her.
"Shinji? She asked, dumbfounded, the name falling from her open mouth. If she weren't a believer in serendipity, meeting up with her friend like this would certainly sway her position.
"Yes," her mechanic friend confirmed. "God, I'm so sorry … Haruka … I-I could have killed you." At the mere thought, Shinji's face started turning as green as the polo shirt he was wearing.
"But I'm not dead so don't start puking all over me," she said, trying to lighten his mood. "Shinji, don't just stand there, help me up."
"Shouldn't we wait --"
The senshi interrupted. "No time. I have to get somewhere and since we've already established that you have a car, I think the least you can do is drive me."
The mechanic ran a concerned eye over the slumped over frame of his friend, feeling torn as to what to do. But Haruka didn't wait around for him to make up his mind. In agonizing fashion, she climbed to her feet, each little movement clearly reflecting the effort it took on her expressive face. Watching Haruka's dogged determination and knowing she wasn't going to stay down no matter what he said, Shinji made up his mind and wrapped a supportive arm around the blonde's waist, helping her onto her own two feet.
"Let's get you into the car," he said, noticing the growing crowd of spectators gathering around them.
Like any accident scene, there were bound to be curiosity seekers drawn to the morbidity and neither Shinji nor Haruka wished to be the center of that attention. Awkwardly, Shinji helped his friend open the passenger side door, maneuvering her inside the tight confines of a sports car made more for speed than for legroom. Once the blonde was seated comfortably, he rushed around to the other side, waving in apology to the drivers stuck behind his car, and plopped onto the driver's seat with a panache born from habit.
The mechanic started the car, blowing the horn a couple of times to get some of the remaining spectators out of the road. He kept sneaking quick nervous peeks at his passenger but, as far as he could tell, Haruka looked a little paler than normal but aside from that, she didn't look like someone who was going to drop dead at any moment. But with the way she flew across the pavement, he couldn't rule out internal injuries either.
"Are you sure you don't want me to drive you to the hospital?" He asked, unable to hold his tongue any long. "We should get you checked out -- make sure nothing's broken inside."
The last thing Haruka wanted was to go back to the hospital after she went through so much trouble breaking out the first time.
"No." She shook her head emphatically and regretted it almost immediately as a wave of overpowering nausea washed over her.
Noticing his friend's sudden distress, Shinji asked in a rapid-fire manner, "Are you all right? Are you going to throw up? Do you need me to pull over?"
This time, Haruka shook her hand in lieu of her head, which felt like it was going to float away on a cloud at any second. In truth, even she was becoming concerned about the number of times she'd been getting thrown around in the past few days but she pushed the fear aside, along with the queasiness.
"I'm fine," she grunted out. "Just drive."
A few moments passed in which Shinji's eyes focused directly ahead. "All right but, just so you know, if you die on me, I'll never forgive you. Now, where are you expecting me to drive you?"
The senshi cracked a smile. "Juuban High School, Jeeves. And if you get me there in the next fifteen minutes, I'll even give you a tip."
"This better be a pretty big tip because I don’t play chauffer for just anyone," he said, smiling back, some of his tension easing at the banter. This was Haruka after all, and if anyone could survive a minor collision with a moving vehicle, he had no doubts the racer certainly could.
"A lime green top and tan pants will make you look like a walking bush."
Shinji glanced long and incredulously at his passenger, almost driving them into the other lane in the process.
"That's your tip? That's what you're paying me with? If I wanted an insult to my fashion sense, I'd just go see one of my ex-girlfriends … or even my mom if she's in a bad mood."
"At least this way, I'm saving you the trip," she answered, unrepentant. "And you might want to watch where you're driving. I've already had one near death experience. I'm not really up for another go-around so soon."
Shinji quickly returned his eyes to the road, but not a minute later, he was once again surreptitiously glancing at his friend. Haruka still looked pained but at least some color had come back to her face and although he wasn't a doctor, he took it as a good sign.
The senshi sighed. She'd noticed the glances -- she'd have to be blind not to. "Do you want to ask me something?" She asked, turning her head to face him.
Almost before the question left the racer's lips, Shinji answered, "Yeah. Why are we going to a high school? And why do you want to go there so badly that you're risking death to do it?"
Haruka scoffed. "Stop over exaggerating, Shinji. You make me sound like I purposely jumped into the middle of a busy multi-lane highway. It was a one-way street and I was stupid for not paying enough attention to the light … I had other things on my mind."
"That still doesn't tell me why you want me to drive you to this school."
There was the slightest hesitation before the sandy haired young woman answered. "I have to meet someone there ... I have to make sure she's all right."
Shinji readily noticed the dreamy quality his passenger's voice had acquired, and in all the years he'd known Haruka, he'd heard the tone often enough that he immediately associated its use with one person -- Michiru. He'd never seen a couple more in love than these two and it showed in the way they talked to each other and even when they talked *about* each other as he thought the case was now. It was only confirmed in his mind a second later when he turned and saw the tender expression on the racer's face.
Apparently satisfied with her admittedly short and ambiguous answer, he turned back to the road, allowing a short silence to descend. However, as with many of the silences that Shinji initiated, he was also the first one to break it.
"So when did you get back?" He asked with pointed curiosity. "And why wasn't I the first person you called? As your best friend, I'm feeling slightly hurt here. You'd better have brought me a damn good gift to earn my forgiveness, Tenoh -- none of that T-shirt crap. "
Haruka started at the strange question, staring at the man as if he'd suddenly started speaking tongues and spewing pea soup. Had Shinji taken a hit his head too? How else to explain why he was blithering on like an idiot?
Finally, overcoming her momentary shock, she sputtered, "What? Hideki, have you gone completely off the deep end, breathing in all that diesel fume? What are you talking about? Get back from where?"
"From Europe, of course," Shinji stated, a frown forming on his face. Noticing the completely flabbergasted expression on his friend's face, his own confusion increased exponentially. "You've only been gone a month. I thought the tour was supposed to last for three. Did something happen?"
Growing frustrated with her inability to understand, she banged a fist against the dashboard. "What tour? What are you talking about? I swear to God, Shinji, I'll kick your ass if you don't tell me what the hell's going on."
"All right, all right, calm down," he said, trying to mollify the agitated blonde. Pursing his lips, he thought of the best way to start an explanation when he wasn't sure where the confusion lay. "Well, I'm not sure where to start but the last I time I saw you was last month. You said you and Michiru were going on a tour of Europe and that you wouldn't be back for three months. By the way, what'd you do to your hair … you dye it something?"
"Dye it?" Haruka dully repeated, her eyes fixed on his profile as if staring intently enough would squeeze some sense out of the situation.
"Yeah, dye it," Shinji confirmed with a shrug. "It looks good and everybody says blondes have more fun … is that true, by the way?"
Ignoring the mechanic's usual tendency to go off on tangents, Haruka focused back on the important issue while struggling to pull her scattered thoughts into focus.
"So … as far as you know, I've been gone for the last month?" She asked, phrasing each word carefully as if tasting the weight each individual syllable carried.
Shinji nodded, daring a quick peek at his riled passenger. He was starting to think he should have gone with his first instinct and taken the injured woman to the hospital. He could just imagine the damage that must have been done -- Haruka might have a thick head but bouncing it on the concrete must have really affected her sanity.
"This can't be happening," the senshi muttered to herself. "I must be dreaming because this is too weird to be real."
Haruka continued her mumbling commentary, too quiet for Shinji to pick up anything but the occasional curse and too loud for him to totally tune her out. Finally, fed up with stewing in silence and concerned that his best friend was acting like a lunatic, he blew out a breath, prepared to launch into all the reasons why they should turn around right now and head straight to the nearest hospital when the wind was summarily taken out of his sails by an unexpected question.
"What was I before I was blonde?"
It took a few seconds for him to process the question that came seemingly out of nowhere but as before, he chalked the strangeness up to the head injury Haruka must have suffered when she played bumper cars without a car.
The question shook him from his thoughts and he hastily replied, "I guess your hair was more of a platinum color … damn it, Haruka, I really, really think I should take you to the hospital. You're starting to scare me, okay? You're obviously not doing so good if you can't even remember what color hair you had a month ago."
"If you try to take me to a hospital," the racer stated, her voice laced with resolve, "I'll jump out of this car."
"Are you fucking crazy?!" Shinji blurted out, before fully realizing how his outburst would sound, given the suspicions he already harbored about his friend's mental state.
Green eyes narrowed dangerously and the man unfortunate enough to be the target of that gaze shuddered noticeably. Without having said a work, Haruka had effectively cowed him and he recognized with chagrin that, even back during the first days of their friendship, this had more or less always been the case. Even though he liked to pretend their relationship was modeled on the mentor-student dynamic, he readily recognized there was something about the cool blonde that would always be beyond his reach, beyond his understanding, and, if forced, he would also admit that he was somewhat intimidated by this hidden power.
He had taken it in stride though, dismissing his reservations as unfounded but more often than not deferring to the willful blonde. Only this time, there was something different in her demeanor; he could almost feel the palpable burn of anger devouring his skin like winter frost. For the first time, he felt the stranger behind his friend's face, looking out at him through familiar eyes that held none of the gentle humor, which had always been present even when she had been in the blackest of moods. For the first time, he felt a genuine prickle of fear in her presence.
But as quickly as it had appeared, the disconcerting presence was gone and it was just his old friend Haruka again. A half-smirk graced her lips as she ran a distracted hand through her hair.
"I've been dropped on the head so much lately that going crazy might be a distinct possibility. But if you promise not to cart me off to the hospital just yet, I'll promise to go there myself as soon as I take care of some personal business. Deal?"
Inordinately relieved that Haruka seemed to be back to her old self, Shinji quickly agreed, knowing that this was her way of extending the olive branch. He would also make it his job to see to it that the racer kept her promise after this mysterious 'business' of hers was concluded even if he had to drag her, kicking and screaming.
A few subdued minutes later, the mechanic pulled his car outside of Juuban High School, an intrigued expression on his face as he took in the seemingly tranquil scene.
By this time, Haruka was nearly squirming in her seat with equal parts anticipation and fear. It wouldn't be long now before she could finally see the one person that held her heart. But even as she rejoiced at that prospect, a part of her was apprehensive at the reception she would receive from her beloved. The disturbing new information from Shinji was still fresh on her mind. Would Usagi also think she was somewhere in Europe? Was Michiru then in Europe too? Was any of this related to what happened that night when she battled that creature?
She honestly wasn't sure what to think and the uncertainty frightened her more than anything else.
Shinji turned around to face her. "So we're here. What are we waiting for?"
Almost before he finished the question, the bell chiming the end of school rang clearly in the crisp air. Haruka quirked an eyebrow in answer to her friend's question and returned her attention back to the front doors of the school. She experienced a moment of déjà vu, remembering the last time she'd been here and waited anxiously for her odango atama to come out.