+++++ Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park, Japan. (Thursday + 5)

It was after the clock transitioned to a new day that Shinji ran. At first, he didn't know where he was running. Eventually, he didn't care that he didn't know where he was running. The act itself began to become essential to his very existence. Running no longer existed as a means, but as an end. Here, he was safe. Here, he was free. No one could talk to him. No one would bother him. He was just another man out for a late-night run. Exercising his legs. Exercising his lungs. Exercising his heart.

They'll never love you.

Legs that surprised him with their strength. He'd never really pushed himself in school. Lungs that seemed to have a near-infinite capacity. Coasting through his life, not bothering to see what he was capable of. A heart that beat with a steady, marked, cadence. His life had been one long joke, and he began to realize he'd allowed himself to be the walking punchline. His 'friends' only wanted information on the Eva, or someone else to bully that wouldn't walk away from them. His fellow pilots either ignored him or treated him like he was worth less than the waste LCL they expelled after battle. His father hadn't even bothered saying anything as he sunk into the abyss. He'd died without hearing one word from the man.

They never respected you.

He felt no fatigue, only increasing amounts of rage. He had been beaten, bloodied, burnt, and sliced. He had been the only bulwark against the world ending until they finally decided to give him back up in the form of a reclusive blank slate and a flaming inferno of terror and contradictions. He'd jumped into a volcano for her. He'd risked being crushed to death by molten magma. And what was his thanks? Being called an idiot. Every single woman in his life was like this! They'd ignore him until he was useful. They'd bully him into doing what they wanted. Then they'd leave him alone again. Nothing he ever did was good enough for them. Nothing he ever accomplished earned him so much as a pat on the back!

They are not your future.

Even here, on this un-Impacted Earth, he was beaten and belittled for things he'd never done. He was accused of being a pervert for being a male. He was accused of being horrible because he was cursed with the Evangelion. He was used as a weapon, treated as a target, and forced into things simply for existing. His life wasn't his to direct. It never had been, and it never would be so long as he allowed himself to be treated like a consolation prize or an all-purpose bandage. 'Have a problem with something that needs killing? Hire Shinji! He'll kill anything from family members to skyscraper-sized aliens without needing to be paid for it!'

Submit.

Unbeknownst to him, Shinji was being observed as he ran the outer perimeter of Shiba Park for the tenth time. His mind, his awareness, his sense of self, all were snapping and snarling at the inevitability of betrayal. Of course, I'm not good enough. Of course, I'm not worth more. What good do I bring to anything? I'm a leech. I didn't support Misato enough to get her attention long enough to explain how I felt. I had months to try and get through to her, and I did nothing. I'm weak. I'm worthless. I've taken all of the opportunities I had and squandered them! I could have reached out, could have tried a lot earlier to just talk to Hikari-san. Asked her to talk to Asuka. Or to talk to Touji. Or even to just talk to me! But that's just outsourcing the blame. Or misdirecting it. She could have tried. She could have taken the first step. But no, it's a man's place to take that first step. A man's place to assume all of the risk. Put your heart out for someone only to have them stomp on it like the burning trash that it is.

Rounding a copse of trees, he had just enough time to shift his momentum into a twisting tumble as an enormous tentacle smashed down towards him. Grass, gravel, and stone dug into his shoulder as he made contact with the ground, before being shoved aside as Unit-01 encased him in metallic might. Rolling to his feet, Shinji saw a bad memory floating just above the ground in front of him. …You. A smaller version of the second Angel Shinji ever fought. Another Angel reborn in a past that they weren't present for. His pulse was pounding. His breathing had stopped. There was no 'good' in this land. There never had been. It was all a lie.

The tension hung in the air for several seconds as the former Fourth Angel assessed the enemy before it. The being had not expected resistance. The creature it targeted echoed with the mark of the hated, but it had been flesh and bone. Now, standing before the majesty of the Child of Adam, was a fused abomination. An imperfection. A harbinger of disorder that could not be allowed to stand on what would become a perfect world.

The longer Shinji glared, the angrier he became. He'd killed this thing already. He'd been hurt, scared, and embarrassed by it. He'd been yelled at for saving two idiots that didn't stop and think about running outside to be crushed by two titans at war. When does the killing stop?! Unable to physically roar, not allowed to release his inner turmoil, he chose to cut short the traditional posing and posturing. If this Angel wanted a fight, he'd give it one. If this world wanted evil….

His first step was intentionally in a different direction than he'd intended to go, measuring how responsive and aware the Angel was. There was no sluggish reaction, as there had been the first time they'd fought. A smaller size brought improved reaction times, and before he could reach and damage the torso of the beast, he had to contend with three rapid-fire lashes of its glowing tentacles. The first two he managed to dodge, the third lashed him across his belly. Electric pain raced across his synapses, reminding him of the first time they'd fought. It only increased his anger.

Destroy it. Consume it. Submit.

His momentum had been blunted, but not abated, and as he launched himself at his foe there was little the Angel could do to stop him. Unit-01 struck the central mass with the kinetic force of a being far larger than it presently was, toppling the tentacled abomination to the ground as its center of gravity was overbalanced. This did not mean it was at Unit-01's mercy, simply that the engagement was not as one-sided as it had hoped it would be.

The Fourth Angel wrapped a tentacle around Unit-01's leg before the purple warrior could reach the glowing red core, sending sizzling torture along his body in addition to halting his forward progress. Weighted down by the mass of the creature upon it, the best the Angel could manage at that point was a stalemate. Its attempt to employ the other tendril was countered by Shinji grabbing hold of it and using it as leverage to pull himself away from the tentacle attached to his leg. The sight might have been comical, a monstrous tug of war, had it not involved increasing amounts of blood.

Kicking his free foot into the flesh of the Angel's underbelly, raking his fingers into the surface of the tentacle he held, Shinji was no longer willing to allow fear to run his actions. It hurt, it hurt almost as badly as the dive into the volcano, but it did no permanent injury to his body…yet.

"Mercury Aqua Mirage!" A spiraling torrent of water blasted Shinji out of the monster's grasp, signaling the entrance of another combatant to the fray. "Mercury Aqua Mist!" Blinding their enemy, she shouted to who she believed to be her ally, "Eva! Over towards me! We need to strategize!"

The surface level thoughts of Shinji were dark. Angry. Colored with memories of mutilated human corpses and testimonies to his inadequacies. The deeper thoughts, though, did not contain as much negativity. They recalled kindness, curiosity, and gratitude. The bearer of water hadn't once taunted him, tormented him, or belittled him. She'd displayed compassion, offered healing, and stopped him from hurting others.

She'll use you. Just like they all use you.

Her voice called out once again, desperately urgent, "Please, Eva! This way! I can't fight this alone!"

The darker side of his mind wanted to abandon cooperation, to attack. The smaller, pained side of his mind wanted to give her the chance to prove him wrong. The strategic part of his mind, the part Misato had carved out for her voice during combat, told him that he was being an idiot if he turned down aid in a fight against the Angels. Ducking under a blindly flailing tendril, he moved towards where he knew she was. He could see her through the mist, a glowing beacon of azure flames. When he reached where she was, he scooped her up and ran further off, ducking behind some trees and setting her down hurriedly.

"Oh! Oh wonderful!" A cautious smile appeared on her face as Ami patted Shinji's chest, "I don't know what you're doing out here, but I got a call from Artemis that I was the closest to your energy signature. He's going to try and get the others, but nobody else is responding. I think the new wands aren't working right. We might need to retreat until-"

Unit-01 shook its head. There would be no retreat. Crouching down, Shinji cut a pair of quick symbols in the patch of dirt near the base of the tree, 'Retreat = Death'. The lack of offensive attacks he possessed was the limiting factor. Although. He could hear the Angel beginning to uproot trees back where he'd left it, so he scratched out the symbol for ice, then pointed at her with a tilt to his head.

"Y-yes. Yes, I can do some things with ice." She hadn't seen this side of him yet, and it both worried and thrilled her to see him this way.

'Spear. Aim.' He tapped his chest where the core would be on the Angel. If she could manipulate ice to any great degree, then he would distract it while she attacked. There wasn't time to wait for confirmation of the plan, and so he turned and sprinted towards the enemy. He felt slower, and his arms were now an asymmetrically patterned blue and white, but he could feel his strength growing. Whether due to bravado, impatience, or arrogance, he allowed the Angel to throw an uprooted tree right at him. When he slapped it away, like an annoying fly, pitch black joy swelled in his heart. Not this time, asshole.

Off to his side, Mercury jumped from tree branch to tree branch, uncertain as to how she would manage to follow his instructions but determined not to fail without even trying. The most she had managed to that point was to make it sleet. The physics, so to speak, seemed simple enough. Aggregate enough cold in a single spot and draw out a shaft of water while freezing it solid. It wasn't, however, a spell she had ever thought to practice. Most youma were susceptible to being smashed into the ground by an overwhelming amount of water, and her team's goal had usually been to capture, not kill. He's right though, she thought to herself, there is no capturing this thing. If we leave, it could turn on the city. Too many would die while we waited for backup.

The Angel made another attempt at grabbing Shinji, only to find that the Eva was now even heavier than before. Infused with blue, patterned with white, its enemy had easily tripled its mass. Instead of lifting him up with the tentacle wrapped around his waist, it found itself yanked to the side and slammed to the ground in an awkward throw. Now on its back, it was placed further on the defensive as Unit-01 grappled with several of the exoskeletal legs that occupied the Angel's upper torso. Pain, unforgiving and ruthless, began to roar in its mind as the Evangelion stomped, wrenched, and broke apart three of those appendages.

"Ok…ok…." Ami had found a position where she could attempt an assault, and for the first time in a long time had to think through her actions. The rote attacks they'd become accustomed to were effective, and rarely required them to do more than say the words and perform the motions. This was something different. She had to explain to the magic what she wanted, without known words, without pre-scripted motions. "Just…think of a spear. Except, uh, frozen."

Time slowed down for her as she flexed mental muscles she didn't know she had. The traditional musical instruments she used to focus her energies could not be used here, would not work to direct a spear of solid ice. Music flowed, it drifted, it crested and troughed. This couldn't be flexible. It had to be rigid. Unyielding. Her eyes caught sight of Shinji batting away another strike with a tentacle, using one of the forelimbs of the Angel like a gruesome club.

It must be violent. "SHINE ICICLE DIRGE!"

Coalescing above Shinji, aimed at the core of the Angel, an enormous frozen cone readied to plummet to the planet below. Tapered down to a killing point, there could be no doubt as to its intent. Dropping her hands as if throwing the projectile herself, Sailor Mercury willed the attack to land a solid blow.

The Angel, however, exercised its prerogative to not be present for the festivities. Giving up on fighting for the moment, it slithered out of the direct path of the gravity-driven spear, sacrificing momentum for another opportunity to attack its enemies. Its flesh was elastic, and that flexibility aided it in maneuvering out of the path of any danger.

Realizing too late that she hadn't factored in the enemy's mobility, Ami struggled to rally her energy for another try. Sucking in a deep breath, she almost choked when Shinji used the natural properties of the Angel's flesh to trampoline himself up to where the spear was falling. To her ears, there was no battle cry, no roar of murderous intent. There was only the sounds the Angel made as it thrashed to get away. Once her ally made contact with her attack, his armor transitioned to the purest possible white. A white so perfect that it was almost physically painful to observe.

Shinji's jump had only taken him a dozen meters into the air, but it was enough. His momentum redirected the bomb, his motions guided it to its destination, and his silent scream of fury fueled its thrust. It became an extension of his hate for the alien beings that threatened his peace. A physical testament to the ultimate fate of any who thought to test his conviction. He had run this evening, but not away. He had run for the sake of running. To learn about himself. To race towards a peace that would never be his. The Angel threatened that. The Angel would die for its hubris.

Piercing the core on contact, the perfectly smooth surface of the icicle drove through it and the surrounding viscera as easily as it had the air above. When Shinji himself made contact, still riding the missile to the ground like an enraged cowboy, the Angel exploded into chunks of LCL-soaked gore. The fight, if it were even worthy of being called such, was over.

With his feet on the ground, and his fist resting against the icy surface of the weapon gifted to him by Ami, Shinji glared with contempt at the pathetic being now adorning the surrounding flora in bits and pieces. It believed itself his better. Believed it could stand against his will. Against his power. It was nothing. It was less than nothing. It was-

Ami's hands began to touch a section of Unit-01 that he hadn't noticed. Her touch, as if through magic, snapped him back to himself. Her voice, full of honest concern and layered with true sincerity, matched her actions, "Oh, oh Eva. Ok. Ok, we need to get you somewhere that we can look at this wound. Uh…no, the Hospital won't do. They'd ask questions. Think. Think."

Turning his head enough to look down on the bluenette, Shinji tried to piece together what he had just been thinking about. He knew there was a darkness within him, it showed up at odd times during battle. But the thoughts that rang throughout his mind seemed foreign, intrusive. He was upset at the fact that he only ever served as a replacement for someone. Touji, Mamoru, Makoto's Senpai. But that upset had somehow grown beyond its proper boundaries, taken on an ugly life of its own. It wasn't until he tried to speak, forgetting that he couldn't, that his lungs informed him that once again Unit-01 had suffered wounds at the hand of the Fourth Angel. Pain dropped him to a knee, the adrenaline wearing off and allowing the gaping wound a tentacle had drilled through him to make itself known. Ah…ah, ok…. Ow. L-lots of ow.

"No, no no," Ami shoved herself under his arm, trying with all of her strength to lift him to his feet, "you can't stay here. You'll bleed out." Her brilliant mind triaged potential avenues of success, and landed with grim acceptance on the least bad option, "This is going to hurt a little, and I'm very sorry about that." Using the same mental technique she'd discovered in the battle, she encased the wound in a solid chunk of ice, encircling his torso with a makeshift frozen tourniquet. After dashing to the other side, so that she didn't brush up against the wound, she repeated her apology, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I know that must feel terrible. Come on, we'll…we'll go to…." A quick map of different destinations ran through her mind, "We'll go to my apartment. It's closest. I'll sneak you upstairs. If you can drop out of your armor, once we're out of sight, it'll be a huge help."

Shinji shook his head, wishing he could say something to the woman dragging him onwards. It…it's just cold. It doesn't hurt anymore. It's numb. Ugh, where did all of that anger come from?

"…Sh-Shinji-kun?" Despite the stammered word, she kept a hard pace forward, "Shinji-kun, I just heard what you said."

Oh. Leaving it at that, he focused on putting one foot in front of the other. There was nothing for it, right now. They had to leave before cops showed up, and he had a hole the size of a large cantaloupe in his flank. One more person mucking about in his head wasn't going to make an enormous difference.

"I-I…I'm sorry. You…oh," her voice gained a sorrow-filled note of sympathy, "oh I know exactly how that feels. Oh, Shinji-kun, I…I really don't think Makoto-chan or Usagi-chan believe you to be a replacement for anyone! I know I certainly don't." Trying to lighten the mood, she engaged the same tactic Shinji tended to, self-deprecation, "I mean, I'd have to have had a boy be interested in me at some point in my life to be able to consider you a replacement for someone, wouldn't I? Nobody ever looks at the girl with her nose in a book. At least…nobody decent tended to."

He felt consciousness slipping from his grasp, and remembered Misato's limited combat lifesaver training she'd given him one day. He had to keep talking. Not go into shock. Keep engaged. I…uh, I find th-that hard to believe. His head wobbled a little as he tried to look at her. You…you're just as beautiful as they are.

"Tsk, beauty isn't the end-all, be-all." She blushed, regardless. "I-I mean, thank you. I'm very glad you think I'm as pretty as my friends. But, uhm, that's not what I'm talking about. I don't want a guy who looks at me and sees only my outer self. And I don't want a guy who doesn't take care of his outer self. He doesn't have to be the most handsome, or the most dashing. He just has to take care of himself, look like he cares about what others think of him. If he respects himself enough to do that, then he'll respect me enough too."

The thought made sense, as he thought on it. It isn't easy…finding the motivation to build healthy habits. It's easier to just…wallow.

"Exactly. Dedication, focus, and an acceptance of your limitations are far more attractive than a pretty face." She was thrilled he was still talking, and terrified that his wound was getting worse. "Not that a pretty face isn't welcome, mind. I mean, if you can have the entire package, why not? But accepting that it's very rare to find someone who checks every box you have is important. Finding your happiness, being reasonable about your standards, it's key to not becoming bitter. After all, nobody deserves anybody. They can only ever offer themselves to another. To accept or not, that's up to the other person."

They'd reached a side street, giving them some shelter from any possible passing late-slash-early traffic. The chill was spreading farther and farther from his side. I wouldn't know. I don't think anyone's ever accepted me. His eyelids were growing heavier. Maybe Misato. …I miss Misato. The memories of his Tactical Commander, and her crazed antics, gave him a small jolt of happiness. I'm sad that she's probably dead because I vanished.

Ami felt him become lighter, Unit-01 going back to wherever it went when it wasn't needed. "If you're in the past, though, she's not in danger yet. Maybe you can change everything, make it so she's never in danger." Eyeing him askance, she took a calculated risk, "I mean, if you love her enough to try."

Love. Rounding the word out some, he dismissed the notion. I don't know if it was love, in any sense of the word. I cared about her good opinion of me. I worried that I was a disappointment. I worked hard to earn her approval. But I also had…thoughts. She was crass. Undignified. Undisciplined at home. She eschewed her share of the housework. She pawned things off on me. She let Asuka run all over me. It was only at the end, just before I came, that she realized how badly her absence had fucked my life with her over. The sudden curse made him blink, confused. I…I'm sorry. I don't know where that came from.

"Probably from your subconscious." She had an easier time moving him, and her voice was less strained for the lack of additional weight. "I mean, everyone has dark thoughts. There are times where I just want to slap Minako-chan until she stops talking! It doesn't mean you're bad, it just means you need to talk things through with someone. Approach whoever you're angry with calmly, explain your thoughts. If they can't handle it, disengage and try again later. Your feelings are valid, their feelings are valid. It's only when we try and see other people's perspective that healing begins."

The answer didn't feel right, to him. The intrusive thoughts came across as forced. Unnatural. He knew about his darker side. The side of him that wanted to squeeze Asuka's throat until the gurgling stopped. The side of him that wanted to turn around and blacken Touji's eye for shoving him around. It was well-contained, though. Dark fantasies, never to be acted upon. His ability to formulate a response, however, was interrupted by them reaching the entrance to the high-price community Ami lived in.

Speaking in a low whisper, she moved them around several of the local security guards, "We're invisible, so long as we don't make a lot of noise. I'm sorry for sneaking you in…I'd rather have just been able to invite you over normally. I'm not ashamed of you, I promise."

+++++ Every/Any/Nowhere. (Thursday + 5)

"Hmm…perhaps he has more to him than most. What a wonderful place he must come from, filled with such delightful opportunities." The Presence grew amused. "To think that we would be considered the 'heroes' of their world."

+++++ Mizuno Apartment, Hiro-o, Japan. (Thursday + 5)

Ami hurried Shinji into the bathroom, lying him down on the tile floor and tearing his shirt away so that the magic animating it vanished. "I'm sorry I don't have anywhere more comfortable. Let me go get the emergency medical kit. If we have to, I'll call my mother and beg her to hurry home. She's working a late shift taking care of several cases." Dashing off before he could say anything, she almost missed his pained groan.

The ability to read his mind, however, did not seem to be limited to his immediate presence. I'm…woozy. Woozy is a weird word, but that's the one that fits. He couldn't get comfortable with the band of ice around his midsection. It hurt, and he was tired. I'm sorry, Ami-san. I messed up. I let myself get angry, and you can't be angry in battle. That gets people killed. Misato said so.

Lugging back in a trauma kit worthy of the best Forward Surgical Team, the bluenette noted that her patient was losing consciousness rapidly. "Hey, hey hey," patting him firmly several times on his face she got his attention back on her, "I need you to stay awake, ok? Tell me about Misato. What kind of woman was she?"

His eyes blinked owlishly. She could be fun, or strict, or playful, or mean. She didn't make sense, a lot of times. She tried, though. I think she was hurt, in the past. Abused. She was beautiful. Beautiful like you.

Crushing the ice covering the wound and blushing warmly, Ami tried to keep the conversation moving as he trailed off. "Oh? Did she have blue hair, like me?" With the wound exposed, she noted that there was a great deal of healing that had already taken place. The area was still very traumatized, but it had begun to seal itself during their rush to her apartment.

Purple. His head shook, more of a wobble than a purposeful motion. But that's not what I meant. I meant…eyes. They could be kind. Or focused. Or sad. Always beautiful.

Debriding the wound, and flushing it with purified water, she was both impressed and worried when he didn't recoil from what had to be a painful sensation. "I'm surprised you've paid that much attention to my eyes. I haven't had much of a chance to spend time with you where we weren't fighting something or around arguments."

Eyes…. His breathing slowed, until she slapped him again and he startled back awake. E-eyes, uh…eyes don't lie. Not like words. Words confuse me. Eyes fill in the gaps.

Interesting. Is he…maybe autistic? "That's a very good point. You seem like the kind of man that doesn't talk much, yourself. Do you have a hard time communicating with people?" She could see the skin continuing to mend itself, and so she kept her attention on keeping the wound clean and as much blood inside him as possible.

He chuckled, and had his hand slapped away from the wound when he went to scratch at an itch near it. I've never understood people. Never had friends. Lost my mom when I was three, my dad left me with a stranger who abused me a month later. Spent fourteen years being taught by that man…. Being taught that questions meant pain. That failure meant pain. That selfishness was for other people, not for me. Yeah…I don't communicate well.

"You…." She saw his thoughts as he struggled to express them in words. Saw the pain. The torment. The constant teases of attention or affection. The misunderstandings. His life scrolled past her eyes, and it made her sick to her stomach. "You…are rather strong evidence that nature is stronger than nurture." I'm not letting you go back there. Nobody deserves to live in that place.

I don't know why you think that…but you're smarter than me, so I'll just- Oh. His pause carried sufficient weight to indicate that something had gone 'wrong'.

"Ami-chan, I'm going to assume there's a reasonable explanation for why there's a young man lying shirtless bleeding all over your bathroom." A woman who, were Shinji to take the easiest guess ever, was the mother of Ami Mizuno was standing in the open doorway to the bathroom with a cold, calculating look about her. With perfect bone structure, elegant hair, and a well-proportioned figure, he had no more difficulty believing that genetics played a large factor in making a person who and what they were.

Meeting calm with calm, the younger bluenette gave Shinji something of a shock when she replied simply, "I'm trying to keep his blood inside of him. Would you prefer I did that on the carpet, mother?"

A single blink of her dark blue eyes. "Hmm." The sound wasn't upset. It was more impressed than anything. "Well, I would appreciate it if you would scoot forward some. I appreciate that you have been studying hard and likely know a great deal, but book learning is only a part of success." When her daughter complied, the elder Mizuno sat down on her knees to look at the hole in his side that was now nothing more than a bad gash. "Hmm…I'm going to assume someone attempted to rob him with a knife? This looks like it was caused by a blocked stab." Her fingers probed around the wound some. "The problem being…the scarring indicates it was much larger. Recently."

Huh. She's smart too. But she is a doctor. That probably is a job requirement. Shinji tried to get his mind to focus, but fatigue was pummeling him hard. I'm sorry, Ami-san. I think I got you in trouble.

"It's healing on its own." Doctor Mizuno placed her tongue thoughtfully between her teeth. "It's healing very rapidly." Her eyes shifted up to Shinji's. "Recent trauma to the orbital socket. Blue eyes. Rather uncommon. Pale. Not a great deal of sun exposure." She lifted one of his arms, looking at the underside near the armpit. "Fitzpatrick type II. Very uncommon in a young man with your level of musculature." Taking his hand and turning it over to see his palm and fingers, she frowned. "No signs of manual labor. Grip pattern indicates-"

Ami snatched Shinji's hand from her mother. "Mother, this is Shinji Ikari. The young man I was asking you about?"

"Oh. Oh yes." Placing her own hands on her lap, she gave a polite bow from where she sat. "I'm very sorry, Shinji-san. I've not seen someone with as many unique qualities as you before, my curiosity overwhelmed my good manners."

I got you in trouble, didn't I? His face grew sad, the look mixed with his growing fatigue to create the perception that he would soon begin to cry despite not being anywhere near the mark.

"A healing factor such as this probably requires a great deal of caloric intake." She took one more glance at the now-sealed wound and nodded. "Ami-chan, please take him to the dining room. I'll make something quick for him to tide him over until I can make something properly nutritious." Standing up and turning away, she called back over her shoulder, "And you can skip school today if you want to spend some time with your friend. Whatever happened clearly was unpleasant."

Ami, while still holding Shinji's hand, waited several seconds before speaking. "I…cannot believe that went as well as it did." Her wand, settled in amongst the trauma kit, beeped quietly in a musical pattern, drawing both of their attention. She quickly grabbed it and whispered, "Hello?"

"Mercury?" Artemis' voice was no louder than Ami's. "Is everything ok? The energy signal went away all of a sudden, as did the Tin Man's. Nobody else responded, we were worried that something happened."

"He's injured, I'm taking care of him, and my mother's here. We'll talk more tomorrow, but the situation is handled." She needed to hurry up, she knew her mother would be suspicious if they dawdled.

The relief in his voice was tangible. "Ok. I'll try to let the others know. Bye!"

Dismissing her wand completely, the bluenette Sailor stood up to help Shinji stand. "Ok. She's not wrong, and you should eat. We'll talk more after you've had some food. Hypoglycemia is not going to help you heal."

It was Shinji, however, that noted the major problem after gaining his feet again. Ami-san…my pants are bloody. I can't sit in your house with bloody pants. It'd get your house bloody. With my blood.

Low blood sugar, for certain. "Ok." Once more, the genius of the Sailors began to triage potential fixes for the problem. "My mother would have noticed. There's no way she didn't. I will definitely need to change too, because I have your blood on my clothes." Kicking one of the stools intended for sitting on to wash oneself over to Shinji, she helped him sit. "Stay here. I'll be right back."

Sure. Right here. He nodded, his head bobbing up and down uncontrolled.

His hostess for the moment hurried off, leaving the room silent for a time. Aside from the blood he'd added to the décor, he noted that the room was immaculately clean. Everything was properly color coordinated, organized, and practical. The scents displayed were non-offensive, intended to promote calm. The colors on items were sedate, nothing garish or attention grabbing. It was, in his opinion, a very far cry from any other bathroom he'd ever seen. Especially when he considered that it was the size of Makoto's living area.

Resist it. The words floated into his mind out of nowhere. Control your own fate.

There had been no sound in his mind, no voice or song. He had 'heard' the words, the way that one remembers words from the pages of a book. It was a memory of a memory, but a memory that had no memory to support it.

Resist.

The voice was much different than the one he suddenly recalled telling him to submit. Feminine. Loving. There was nothing compelling about it, no aura of command. It was, instead, a plea for a man to grab onto a life preserver. The call of someone who was fighting in your best interests even if you couldn't understand what those interests were yourself.

His focus was once more shattered when the elder Mizuno walked into the bathroom with a bedside smile adorning her classical beauty. "It seems that in my abstraction I forgot that you were recently emancipated from a challenging situation. Seeing as you have no other clothing," she extended a nicely folded robe in a size large enough to cover him from shoulder to ankle, "I would be more than happy to see about washing your pants, socks, and undergarments while you eat. However," her smile turned towards firm control of the situation, "I will require that you allow me to help you clean yourself. You are far too unsteady to trust in a tiled bathroom, and leaving you covered in blood is both dangerous and rude. I am a medical professional, and I assure you I will not make this awkward in any form or fashion."

He blushed, hard. His mind may have been uneven, and his emotions all over the map, but he was still self-possessed enough to understand that he was about to be naked in front of a woman for the second time in his conscious memory. The first, when Misato teased him after Pen-Pen scared him, was bad enough. This would be far more…intimate.

"Please." She set the robe down on the sink and crouched down to be at eye level with him. Reaching out, she took both of his hands with a gentle kindness. "I know that you are not able to vocalize properly, and that it may very well be trauma-induced. I applaud, wholeheartedly, your dedication in becoming a productive member of society and making your life better than it has been. I even approve of you becoming friends with my daughter, the spirits know she needs more of them. I will not complicate your life by attempting to bond with you any further than you wish me to. I am a healer, by training and by temperament. Again, please, let me help you."

The memory of the last attempt at healing him caused both anxiety and acceptance. It was incredibly unlikely that she was in possession of an ancient relic that contained something that would cause him to flee in terror and harm anything. However, the memories of the now previous day climbed back into his forebrain. He nodded, twice. He couldn't accept only part of their help, and he had to trust that a doctor knew her business.

"Thank you." Squeezing his fingers, she reverted to the more affable bedside smile. "You should feel honored, you know," her hands moved to help him draw down his pants, "normally it's a nurse that's doing something like this. I haven't been given the opportunity to perform an assisted bath since my first year of residency." Filling the room with tales of the horrors of general patient care, she distracted him from her actions. Amusing anecdotes, unfortunate events, strange happenings, a mighty array of thoughts to linger over or consider, all teaching him more about the way she viewed the world and calmly bringing him closer to her.

He was grateful for the help, after the first time he managed to fumble the soft-bristled brush she'd brought out to help clean away the blood. Ceding total control of the pace to her when the washcloth managed to tangle itself in his fingers, he slouched with frustrated embarrassment for only a second before she managed to rouse his spirit with a well-timed joke about an orderly that wound up chasing an I.V. stand down the hallway because he'd accidentally coated it in medical-grade lubricant. His silent laughter managed something that would stay with him for a time, it made the smile reach her eyes completely. She's…very nice. Despite being nude with a beautiful woman caressing him, he couldn't have been more comfortable if he had been dressed and alone.

With the finishing touches done, she helped him stand and once more kept his hands in hers with honest pleasure coming from her words, "I realize that you may never say it aloud, that your voice may not recover, but I would be more than happy to have you call me Saeko instead of Doctor Mizuno. You strike me as a rare man, Shinji-kun. Honest, even if you close yourself off from the world to spare yourself further pain. If my husband had half of your emotional depth, I might still be married." The same smile resided in her eyes. "Let's get your robe on, Ami-chan should be done with some food for us. She might not look it, from how thin she is, but she's not a bad cook. I hear, from her, that you're quite the chef yourself."

When she turned to pick up the robe, he felt his heart clench with fear. The image of Usagi's mother, mutated and maimed, reclaimed his mind. I…I really should go. I shouldn't be here. I'm going to-

"Shinji-kun," Ami's voice came from just outside the door, where she wouldn't see anything she ought not, "I'll ask this as a yes or no so you can have my mother relay the answer: are you allergic to oranges, or any form of citrus? I'd really like you to stay for a bit, I think you need a chance to talk some things through after being attacked tonight, and a trip to the ER would put a massive crimp in that."

The not-so-subtle reminder that she could hear his thoughts brought him back to the present. Ami was telling him that she wasn't worried. That things would be ok. She was doing it in a way that kept his secrets, but was firmly opposed to him continuing to run. I'll never forgive myself if either of you are hurt, Ami-san. He shook his head no, and accepted the robe. He could summon new clothing and run, but that'd risk exposing Ami as well as himself. He had to trust, and that was something he didn't do very well.

+++++ Kino-Tsukino-Ikari Apartment, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Thursday + 5)

"What do you mean he went to Ami?" Makoto's terse whisper was further shielded by the closed kitchen door. "He stormed out of here like I'd just spit in his face, and he somehow knows how to get to Ami's apartment?!"

Luna was tired. She was sore. She wanted her lover. All of which made it easier to forgive when she hissed out, "I didn't say he went to Ami! I said he was with Ami! He got attacked by something, something huge. Something along the lines of a flying bus thrown at you huge. Long story short for the hearing impaired, Ami responded to our S.O.S. when none of you received it because her apartment is seven stories up. The carrier signal got diffused too much and didn't punch through your apartment walls at ground level. She showed up, they beat the Angel somehow, and now he's getting medical care for a wound he took. Now, are you going to listen to me, or are you going to deflect your anger at yourself onto me some more?"

"She'll listen," Usagi mumbled sleepily as she pulled the door open. "Because I'm going to listen, which means she can shut up and listen for a bit."

Shit. "I'm sorry, Usagi-chan." Makoto moved over to physically support the drained spiritual center of the team. "I was too loud. Shinji's ok, Luna says he's being treated, you can-"

"Stand here and listen to what happened to someone who has shed blood in my defense. Time bows to none of us, Jupiter. If I need to make my way to Hiro-o I'd like to do so before he goes somewhere else." Turning her gaze on the only entity she now considered family, Usagi asked the furry feline a simple question, "Why did Shin-Shin leave?"

+++++ Mizuno Apartment, Hiro-o, Japan. (Thursday + 5)

Writing down simple phrases, but amplifying them with Ami's ability to read his thoughts, Shinji managed to eat, drink, and talk all at once. I'm only ever 'good enough' to be a replacement. That's…that's what it feels like. Everyone who's ever taken an interest in me, in any form, had a use for me. It makes me angry. It hurts me. So I left. I don't want to sit there and be told that people want to go on dates with me because I remind them of another, better, man. I'm never going to be someone's 'senpai'. No one is ever going to look at me and say, 'Yeah, I'd follow his lead!' And it's my own damn fault. I'm just a pathetic shell of a human being that gets down on himself constantly. All of you say you want to be my friend, and all I can think about is how that will change in a matter of days.

"Antidepressants." Saeko murmured. Her presence was accepted by Shinji, as he could edit most of the information mentally and convey it to Ami while still making sense on the pad of paper he'd been lent. "I think that maybe you're suffering from GAD as well, but an antidepressant would also help with the anxiety. It won't be as useful as therapy with a licensed specialist, but since you are trying to avoid the people who were abusing you, I think it will help. Ami-chan?" Her daughter dutifully looked over. "You are not his therapist. You are his friend. Friends listen, they empathize, they support. I do not want you to try and take a role you are neither qualified for nor trained in, is that clear enough?"

"Yes, mother." The poised proto-adult nodded firmly. "It only does more harm to the one you want to help if you wear more than one hat during crisis situations. A therapist can't have a personal interest in their patient, it violates ethical guidelines and threatens the safety of the one who needs help."

With a small smile of pride, Saeko silently applauded with a golf clap. "Full marks." Turning her attention back to Shinji, she reached over and covered his writing hand in a display of warmth and understanding. "If I prescribe you some antidepressants, would you swear to take them as prescribed, not give them to anyone else, and stay in touch with me so that we can modify dosages as needed? It's not technically legal, as you aren't officially a patient, but I can treat you as both homeless and indigent through the medical system and write the medications off as donations to a local charity." Her eyes remained locked on his as she dropped an unexpected bomb, "One that specializes in those who aren't fully human or those who have the capacity for manipulating scientifically verifiable phenomena."

…Oh. Shinji couldn't keep the surprise from his face, not that his ally did much better. When Ami gasped, it confirmed his suspicion that she hadn't known her mother knew of the 'other world'. All he could do was nod, with his writing hand covered.

The elegant doctor squeezed his hand with pleasure. "Excellent. My price, in exchange for helping you climb partway out of depression, is that you come over more frequently. Cook some meals, spend some time with me. If I'm going to help you, I'm not going to do so in a slipshod manner. I will want to observe you, speak…well, speak to you and you can respond with writing. Or," she tapped her forefinger against his wrist, "we could learn Sign. It would certainly be an intellectually stimulating exercise, and a wonderful addition to Ami-chan's résumé. To say nothing of broadening your own potential for future employment."

If I'm around here more often…would that be something that gets people killed? Would I make her a target…or would that protect her. He looked to the table, then to Ami, fear written plainly in his unease.

Sailor Mercury could credibly be accused of a number of things. Cowardice was never one to be given a moment's thought. "He's worried that whatever is coming after him, might target you." Her jaw tensed slightly. "I am too. Usagi Tsukino's family was killed yesterday, and her house burned down. Something, much like what attacked Shinji tonight, murdered them. Shinji fought to protect Usagi-chan, and did what he had to, to protect her. He believes that he's responsible, that his presence is responsible."

"Only if one believes in predestination, which I hardly do." Saeko placed both her hands around the one of Shinji's she already held. "If a man held a gun to my head because he was looking to harm Ami-chan, and you did what you could to prevent my death? You are free of guilt, even if he kills me. It is the man with the gun, not the man who failed to protect me, that carries that burden. My daughter has never once lied to me, and if she says you protected her friend, and that you protected her earlier, then I can't believe you are guilty of anything. Besides," her eyes trailed over to her daughter, "it seems more likely that they're going to be coming for Ami-chan. Whatever it is her and her friends have been doing, they seem to have provoked a strong enough response that poor Usagi-chan is now an orphan."

She's taking this…a little too calmly, don't you think? Shinji didn't have a history to call upon with the woman, but he had to imagine Misato losing her mind if she found out that one of his classmates had watched their parents get slaughtered the previous day, only to find out that he'd jumped in and saved their life.

Ami was fairly certain she had the reason for that already. "Mother…how much do you know about what I do?

"Enough. Though, I suppose some mothers might respond 'too much'." She hadn't let go of Shinji's hands. "He's speaking to your mind, somehow. My supposition is it involves your magical abilities." Her smile became slightly amused, "Or did you think I hadn't noticed several of your recent wardrobe choices, and how I hadn't given you the money you'd have needed to purchase them, or your laundry not needing to be done as often? You're many things, daughter, but you are no whore going about earning her money on her back. You aren't misusing your abilities, you're not creating extravagances, and you're maintaining proper respect for yourself. A lack of action does not imply a lack of knowledge."

Shinji was becoming confused, as he'd never seen a parent actually calmly engaging in what he believed to be actual parenting. She…isn't upset?

"I don't believe she's upset, Shinji-kun, because she was keeping her knowledge about the magical realm to herself. We, in our tendency to only rarely see one another, were keeping secrets from one another about the same topic." Ami's world revolved around facts and questions. The truths hidden behind the lies everyone told themselves. She was proud of her mother, knowing now that her mother knew and had let her be who she was despite it being dangerous. "I guess I get to thank you for helping us talk to one another."

"He does make that easy," Saeko agreed with a soft, amicable, laugh. Her eyes weighed him again. "He has this…presence about him. His pulse has been all over the charts as we've talked. Which means that while he can be calm under pressure, he's not always in control of himself. It's-"

The gentle tones of the apartment's call box drew everyone's attention away from the conversation. Ami quickly hopped up and hurried over to tap the intercom's button, "Mizuno Apartment."

The unmistakable voice of a tired and irritated Usagi Tsukino came back through, "It's me, Ami-chan."

Fuck me. Shinji let his head sag forward. He hadn't wanted to rush this conversation, nor had he really been interested in having it around Saeko. If he were truly honest, he'd say that he didn't want to have it at all.

Pressing the button to unlock the door down below, Ami let go of the button that allowed her to be heard. "I'm sorry, Shinji-kun. But we have to try and find a balance here. Usagi-chan is…well, you know how she is. You were there."

I know. Slumping forward, displacing the last of his food to the center of the table and laying his head down under the one arm that wasn't being held by someone, Shinji wished that life would stop kicking him in the face for a day. Or an hour. Really, he'd take five minutes.

Saeko changed her seat to be right next to Shinji, running her hand along his upper spine and whispering, "Can you change your clothes, like Ami-chan? I'm afraid I don't know what kind of abilities you possess. Normally when we help heal a hyacinthum exemplaris they're either heavily sedated or in no position to speak."

Letting out a heavy exhale, Shinji asked his pen-wand to clad him in clothing that wouldn't disgrace his hostess. Standing, with a small ache at losing contact with someone showing genuine compassion, he doffed the robe and began to fold it. Now wearing a sharp pair of slate grey slacks and a striking blue collarless dress shirt, he looked every centimeter like what he felt. Mostly due to the appearance of a thick, braided, black leather collar around his neck. Setting the robe on the table after it had been properly folded, he wrote down on the pad of paper, 'I apologize for not being able to wash it.'

Lacing her fingers together to let her arms hang before her, the elder Mizuno tilted her head slightly to the side. "I'm reading from your body language that it was not only young miss Kino that has managed to run afoul of your personal traumas." When he looked away, unable to meet her gaze, she knew she'd found the mark. "A series of tragedies, and not a moment to recuperate. That you stand against things that would kill humans speaks well of you, Shinji-san. Many men would have simply given up."

The knock at the door stopped his reply, and like a man condemned he turned to face the instrument of his destruction. Emotion had left his face, a feeling of true disconnection replacing all of those things that might have once caused him to feel anything at all. His life back home, his life here, his life anywhere…it was all focused around suffering. It was inevitable.

Ami opened the door, well aware of Shinji's thoughts. "Oh, hello Makoto-chan." Looking between her two friends, both Moon and Jupiter each displaying a vividly different emotion, she hesitated to ask them in. "Usagi-chan."

Usagi Tsukino was nowhere to be found, at the moment. In her place, Princess Serenity walked boldly into the apartment, past her friend, and towards the man that she would have words with. She was intercepted, however, by someone she hadn't expected to be present. This gave Shinji a chance to write down a quick note to his host, as he anticipated what followed.

"Perhaps, in your grief, you have some small defense for your lack of manners." Saeko stood as a living wall between the Rabbit and her target. "I certainly cannot begin to express my condolences for the loss of your family, or for your home. This is a very trying time for you, to be sure. Perhaps, in that vein, I could ask a small favor of-"

"The man who saved my life is laboring under a misconception." The Princess was done being polite for the moment. "It is a misconception that is founded upon a lifetime of abuse, pain, and suffering. He has never, to my knowledge, known actual, heartfelt, love. The kind of love a person discovers in themselves when another risks everything they have to save them. The kind of love a person feels when their savior demands nothing in return. The kind of love a person has for someone who stares death in the face time and again, all to defend what good exists in the world. I realize that I am being rather rude, Mizuno-san. But I will ask you politely, once, to move out of my way. My Knight and I will be leaving. He has work in a few hours, and I need to make sure he's properly cared for."

Shinji couldn't allow there to be a fight. Not another one. Yet again, a woman displays caring and empathy. Once more, someone threatens that woman. Shifting around Saeko, he pressed the small note he'd quickly scribbled down towards her as he bowed his gratitude. The offer was obscured from everyone else's sight by how large he was, and he hoped it had gone unremarked. Standing back up after she'd hurriedly accepted the paper, he turned and presented himself to Usagi. Where are we going?

"Somewhere else." Lacing her arm through his, she glared both Ami and Makoto out of her way and walked Shinji back out of the apartment. As they reached the elevator, she whispered quietly to him, "Please. Please. Don't leave me again."

+++++ Mizuno Apartment, Hiro-o, Japan. (Thursday + 5)

Makoto remained behind, still standing in the doorway until Shinji and Usagi had entered the elevator. Looking downcast, she could barely muster the strength to ask, "I'm sorry for bothering you, Ami-chan…could I come in?"

"Come in, Kino-chan." Saeko wasn't pleased, but she could easily see that Makoto had been a bystander to the hurricane. "Ami-chan, please go heat up some more water for tea." Gesturing to the portion of the main room that featured an L-shaped couch overlooking the city, she took control of the situation. "Please, take a seat. I get the feeling that we're going to have to contact your school later this morning."

"I'm…uhm…." Makoto, unaware that Saeko was well aware of what she truly was, and far too tired to think clearly, went along with the pressure to sit. "I'm really only here to explain to Ami-chan what just happened, ma'am. It's complicated…."

Saeko took a place on the other end of the couch, to avoid seeming to commiserate. She was rather displeased at the moment, but didn't want to take it out on someone who was only tangentially responsible. "Hmm…I would disagree. Traumatic experience which led to the need for a coping mechanism, a convenient way to outsource her emotional turmoil just happened to be a little over one hundred and eighty-eight centimeters and incapable of speaking up for himself. I'll need you to help Ami-chan pressure Tsukino-chan into speaking with a doctor to set up therapy. I would intervene, but at the moment I've already committed myself to helping Shinji-kun, and would be biased as a result. It's all rather simple, once you understand human nature." Smiling with polite thanks to her daughter as the younger bluenette set down a tea service, she gestured for Makoto to be served first. "His nature, being…only somewhat related to humanity, is the only true complicated factor."

Makoto was too wound up to stop herself, her anger flashing at what she believed to be a pejorative. "His nature is very human! He's just as much of a victim as-" She cut herself off at a sharp gesture from her hostess.

"I do forget, as I haven't interacted with all of you often enough, that you have a tendency towards being direct, literal. My intent was to let you know, with some subtlety, that I am aware that Shinji-san is capable of far more than any human. What specific clade or phylum he belongs to is something that would require far more intrusive research than I'm willing or even really capable of undergoing. By extension, however, I was letting you know that I'm aware of your magical abilities." Accepting her own cup of tea from her daughter, she nodded a second motion of thanks. She was impressed at her daughter's calm, and appreciated that she would only have to deal with one surly teen.

"You…know about…." Makoto looked towards Ami for an explanation.

The younger bluenette shrugged with a weak grin. "She caught me off guard with it too. Apparently, she noticed a few things, put two and two together, and dropped it on me tonight after she caught me trying to keep Shinji-kun from bleeding out on me."

With too much happening all at once, the Sailor for Jupiter showed that while she wasn't an idiot, she wasn't the smartest of the group, "I'm…I'm lost. Ok? Shinji stormed out, dropped Usagi on my lap, went out somewhere and got in a fight. Luna says she doesn't know more, and I'm here because Usagi dragged me with her to tell you that…." There was a short argument fought before she just blurted out, "That she's going to try and push to find a way to send Shinji back. I don't know what's going on anymore, and every time I tried to ask Usagi to explain she told me that she wasn't talking to me about it because I would have to ask Shinji. Except Shinji won't talk to me because…because of something. I don't know. Luna didn't know, and Usagi wouldn't say."

"Oh me, oh my." Saeko sighed as she sat back, sipping on her tea. "Daughter, I believe that we won't be breaking any confidences in explaining the truth in this case. Once the truth is out, it's most probable that Shinji-san will be grateful to you for helping him correct his mistake."

Ami nodded slowly, seeing the branching paths the same way her mother did. Turning to Makoto, and maintaining a strictly neutral face, she offered the simplest explanation as it would likely be necessary, "You compared him to your old senpai. Think, for a moment, how it would feel if Shinji-kun compared you to someone he once held a candle for. Perhaps this Hikari-san? What would be your first response?"

"I'd…I'd be happy." Makoto wasn't going to hide her bourgeoning affections for the young man. "If he really liked her, and he thought that I was similar to her, then that'd mean he might really like me too."

Hiding her frown behind her teacup, Ami thought for several more seconds before taking another, blunter, tact. "So, you would enjoy being compared to someone. Being 'Second Place'? A replacement for 'The One That Got Away'?"

"I'm not-" Green eyes shot wide, the pieces clanking together in her mind. "Oh shit."

+++++ Author's Notes:

Once again, I apologize for the brief nature of my notes. Hopefully in two weeks' time, I'll be able to focus more completely on acknowledging all of your wonderful, and happily accepted, comments and questions.