~ CHAPTER SEVEN ~

Shinji lived in a nice enough house. It was big, chosen for the purpose of his future family. Haruka might even have been impressed if she could shake the feeling that she was intruding on a place where she wasn't truly wanted, even though she knew full well that she was a guest in his house. Betrayal bled a trail of darkness in the hearts of all involved, but most deeply into the heart of its victim. This was the fsecond such betrayal she had learned of since waking in her hospital bed all those years ago.

She stood in the doorway, holding the strap of her duffle bag in both hands before her, the weight of it resting against her thighs as she stared into the darkness. She hadn't met the gaze of the smiling woman as she stalked past her on her way to the door. Haruka wasn't a rude person—in fact, this was an emotion she had never dealt with before in her life, and she wasn't sure exactly how to place it—but her mind was still swimming with thoughts of Shinji's brutal confession. There were many things she knew she was supposed to say, but it was impossible to focus with the intense mixture of pain, anger, regret, sorrow, and confusion numbing her thoughts. This was the last place on the whole planet she wanted to be, yet here she was. Had she known what Shinji had intended to say to her beforehand, she would have never gotten into his car.

A silent breath left her slightly parted lips as she realized that she was standing on the other side of the door, just inside the Taira household. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists in a death grip around the strap of her duffle bag. Her body had moved against her wishes without her realizing it. Slender shoulders trembled slightly as a tear rolled down her cheek. She didn't want to look Miki in the face like this, not while she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"Bathroom?" she asked suddenly.

"First door on the left, just past the stairwell," Shinji replied as he walked up behind her.

Dreading what she might say if she tried to thank him, Haruka let her feet carry her deeper into the house. She heard Miki comment as she dropped her bag by the bathroom door and slammed it shut behind her.

She gasped softly and her head fell against the door with a soft thud. Tears that she had held back without even realizing it began to run freely down her reddened face. "Not fair," she murmured. "It's not fair. It's not fair."

And she knew her friends would all agree. Shinji probably would be the first to state just that. There was nothing fair about the way their friendships had fallen apart, all because of the simple yet profound complexities of the passage of time. A lifetime of changes had occurred while she was sleeping. She was a girl who in a very real sense had lived outside the bounds of time.

Something Shinji had commented about before his confession crossed her mind as she wept. Change comes without warning, she reminded herself.

She forced herself to stop crying long enough to wash her face and to stare at herself in the mirror. When she'd awoke from her coma, Haruka had still been a timid yet determined child at heart. While she was on the cusp of graduating from high school, she still took a very healthy pride in her youth. Part of her persistence to hold on to the foundations of her youth still shined through in a very real way: on the pages of the books that she wrote for the children.

As she thought about her past, she wondered if maybe she would not be so different today had she not suffered that terrifying accident that had so mercilessly stolen from her those precious years of her life and those three dear friendships she had built along the way.

She leaned heavily against the mirror and stared at her face. Stared hard.

She was certainly older. The curves of her body did very little to disguise who she had become in her adulthood, even if she had been forced to earn her figure through sheer determination and hard work during her rehabilitation after waking up. Still, she thought she looked very much like that timid high school student who had fallen for Takayuki years ago. Somehow she had won that fight, and retained her youth.

As she stared at herself, Haruka made the only decision that she could, mostly because there were no sound alternatives. She couldn't simply leave, and she wasn't about to lock herself up in Shinji's bathroom until the end of time. She splashed another round of cold water on her face and dabbed it off with a towel.

She was being foolish. The past was the past, wasn't it? In the end, Shinji knew he had been a fool, too. Knowing now what had been going through his mind then had hurt her, but she knew also that allowing herself to suffer for a past transgression could cause what she had begun to rebuild earlier that day to simply crumble into dust in her fingertips. She could not do that to Mitsuki. She would not do it. She was here to rebuild that bridge.

She replaced the towel on the rail over the toilet, smoothed the front of her blouse as she checked it for stray droplets of either tears or tap water, and turned to the door.

In the hall she turned back to the front of the house, toward the living room where Shinji and Miki stood, talking in hushed tones. They fell silent when they saw her approach, and though she never heard what they were talking about, by Miki's expression she knew they were talking about her. She took a single step forward as Haruka approached Shinji.

Haruka sidestepped her and fixed Shinji with a calm expression before striking him across the face. He touched his cheek momentarily, pondering the sting. "Okay, okay. I deserved that. I was a cold, callous, and childish idiot and I deserved it."

"Damn right," Haruka said softly. If felt odd, cursing like that. Haruka wasn't prone to such language. She closed her eyes. "I will never forgive you, Shinji. As my friend, you should have been there to support me when I woke up. I needed you, and you weren't there for me."

He looked at her, stunned.

"I thought a lot about what you said. You know something, what you said is true. I held my friends back for a long time. Because of me, their lives are less now than what they could have been. It probably would have been easier on us all had I died way back then. I'll tell you for certain it would have been easier for me."

"Haruka…"

"And as cold and callous and childish as that view might be, I think there's probably some merit to it. But the hard part is what you had to do today. You had to face me, to confess your sin to me. I understand now why you couldn't visit me after I woke up. Probably would have torn me up inside, too, huh? To have to tell a dear friend that you thought she'd be better off dead. Even if you realized you were wrong, it would've been one of the hardest things you ever had to do. Yet you did it today." She smiled and reached up and touched his face, right where she had struck him a moment before. "I should be thanking you for telling me the truth, even at the risk of our friendship. You could have lied, Shinji, yet you thought enough of me that you were willing to put it all on the line. That must have been so hard for you."

She patted his cheek, smiling before lowering her hands, clasping them behind her back and smiling up at him, taking him in.

"Well, so long as this is a day of starting over, I suppose now is as good a time as any. Shinji Taira… it is an honor to be with you again, after all these years. Thank you for respecting me enough to be honest with me, my friend."

He blinked down at her, dumbstruck.

She leaned forward, up on the tips of her toe, and kissed his cheek.

"Now…" She stepped back and turned to face his lovely wife. "You must be Miki."

Haruka's cheeks glowed with the relief of her own private revelation.