+++++ Hikawa Shrine, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Thursday + 12)
Rei only remembered at the last moment, as she saw Minako approaching, that she hadn't helped Shinji create anything that might be used by way of apology. She then idly looked around for anything that could be appropriated, or could act as a distraction, and was summarily startled by Shinji summoning some spun-silk swallows. The cloth had been folded, much as paper might have been, with immaculate care to present a branch holding three young birds singing their hearts out. With Shinji looking down and away, the unspoken desire was clear. He'd forgotten too, and this was what he could come up with. Fortunately for them both Minako was a sucker for cute things and anything involving singing.
Minako planted herself before Shinji, her guard up and her face set. To someone who didn't know her, which included Shinji, she looked like anything but someone who was about to give a heartfelt apology. Her mouth opened, then closed quickly as her sword leapt into her hand.
Shinji turned around and saw the source of her aggression. Haruka and Yukiko came tumbling out of the portal Shinji had created, each carrying a pair of non-humans with them. The crack and snap of lightning, the roar of shattering ice, and the howling of creatures from beyond his worst nightmares carried through the portal next. He moved to cross through the portal himself, and was stopped short by Haruka.
"No. That floor is barely holding together. You go in there and start swinging, it might collapse the whole building." Sailor Uranus' grip on his shoulder was firm. Looking through the portal with him, she saw Mizore continue falling back towards escape, buying enough time for a grandmotherly woman to haul herself over to safety. "Something's changed, kid. These aren't like the zombies from before. They're…smarter." She scowled, disliking the word. "It's like they know what they need to do to counter what we do. We're going to need a bigger portal, or a stronger away team."
Minako was tapping the flat of her sword against her calf in thought. "Once they're clear, I can send in some Hearts. Each one we kill out there is one less we worry about making it here."
The grandmother hobbled through, with Mizore backing out afterwards. The yuki-onna summoned another barrier of ice, and growled out, "Shut it."
Rei protested, knowing what Shinji was worried about, "Where's Hera-san?"
Mizore looked dead at Shinji, her words as cold as her spells, "Shut. It."
Unit-01 released its hold on the tear in spacetime. The dents in its armor creaked as it looked to Haruka for answers.
"It's like they heard the portal open, even though it doesn't make any sound that I can hear." She knew it was on her head, and she didn't shy away from the After-Action Report. "We heard motion below us, assumed that because it was below us we'd have time to get all of the people out. In a straight-up fight, we win. Hand to hand, we still win. So they changed tactics."
"Tactics?" Minako scoffed, "Zombies don't have tactics. They head towards you groaning for your brain."
"Which is why I said something's changed."
Mizore had recovered enough of her energy to join the conversation. "Hera paced too much. The Skymother kept still, her voice low. 'Yukiko' never touches the ground, neither do I. Large lady, large steps…large sounds."
"They brought the floor out from under her," Haruka stated without much eagerness. "Dropped her down right in the midst of them. When we saw her next…."
"That was not her." Yukiko sat on Unit-01's shoulder, reminding it of her presence. "That was a demon wearing her skin. This was no 'virus angel', this was something else entirely." Her voice lowered, "If you do not stand down and return power to his control, I will become creative with your name."
The change from 'Unit-01' to 'Shinji' was obvious to everyone, despite the armor remaining intact. The slackening of his posture, the way he looked from person to person anxiously, a million little mannerisms that dictated who was who. His emotions began to vary again, worry and fear over the blame others would rightly put at his feet for the death of an ally. Finally, when he looked up to Yukiko himself, they were left with no time to react.
"You know my answer," the small woman stated unequivocally.
A new portal to near the same location as the last opened, directly beneath Shinji's feet. Gravity quickly carried him down and through into open air dozens of meters above the building they'd freed people from, allowing the tear to seal back up behind him before anyone else could follow him. Controlling his fall through small movements of his limbs, he scanned the ground around the barn they'd located the latest group of survivors in. The creatures looked distinctly more humanoid than those created by the Virus Angel, their gait unsteady enough to cause someone pause even from a distance but otherwise seemingly 'normal'. After a few seconds, he saw what he had come for and made a further series of small adjustments to his descent.
As soon as he had, however, what he had come for turned and looked directly at him.
We are going to have to fight more than just that one. Yukiko spoke in his mind to avoid having to shout over the wind rushing past them. Focus your efforts on it, and those near it. I will protect your rear.
He nodded, agreeing with her whole-heartedly. This was unlikely to be a simple strike, and he didn't dare send what used to be Hera to the dimension he'd stranded the Angels in. Whatever this was, it might not be so easily constrained. 'Willful ignorance is as good a method of suicide as any in combat', as Misato put it. Another set of quick calculations and he reached his hands down towards the ground, creating and summoning a pair of labryes from the materials beneath the soil. His arrival on the ground was paired with each of the double-bitted axes cleaving one of the weaker zombies in half.
The sky was dark where they were, with only cloudy moonlight to see by. The air was cold, the ground was soft. The poetic soul Shinji possessed thought it tragic that such a calm and tranquil evening had to be despoiled with violence. The rage that boiled within his gut, however, did not care about such fancies. These animals had killed not only his friend, but countless other innocents. They would continue to kill until they were stopped. Nobody else would be safe from them, and so killing them was now his goal.
What had once been Hera watched him as he gifted oblivion to scores of semi-intelligent mobile corpses. Watched as Yukiko paced herself and her usage of magic. Watched as, despite the crippling casualties inflicted upon their horde, the zombies threw themselves mindlessly into the maw of death itself. She watched, nothing more.
Covered in what had once been inside the zombies he'd killed, Shinji frowned as he was left standing alone, several paces away from what had once been his ally. He could hear Yukiko calmly dispatching anything else that required it, trusted that she was just as safe as he himself was, and so he followed Misato's advice. He would not remain ill-informed and rush into a fight against a being that was more than capable of giving an Angel pause. He could not afford to be recklessly suicidal in this fight.
The blood and scratches on her legs and arms told the tale of her fall, the tattered robes spattered in mud and bile. Even in death, she appeared beautiful and alluring. Her eyes cold, her gaze haughty. Her voice, worst of all, compelling, "I had faith that you would come, Shinji."
Her use of his name was enough of a dissonance to stop him from dropping his guard.
"Would you say that the trade was worth it?" She unfurled one hand, languidly gesturing towards the barn. "A dozen minor spirits, a few handfuls of elderly humans," that same hand slowly recalled itself to alight upon her breast, "for me?" Slowly walking to her side, her course intent on spiraling around to his flank, she watched him as he moved to counter her motion while keeping his distance. "You know you wanted me. Wanted my touch, my rapturous cries, my love. So why, then, did you waste my life rescuing those who can never give you any of that? Those 'fae' can never gratify you. The old women will never moan beneath your thrusting might. None of them will gift you endless affection. We could have brought peace to the world, together. So," she smiled, a wicked curve to her lips, "was it worth it?"
He had his answer. Taunts, attempts at psychological manipulation, this was not an enemy comfortable in a fair fight. This was someone who needed the advantages given by undermining their opponent's psyche. Without warning, Unit-01 charged in to begin his offensive. The enemy's weakness was its ignorance of the truth of Shinji Ikari. You can't damage what's already broken beyond mending.
A downward slice of the axe in its left hand, a feint, forced Hera to take a shorter step back than she would have had she known the true threat. When Unit-01's boot cut through the air on a return angle, it managed to connect with a vicious blow that dropped the woman to her knee. Following through on the looping motion, Unit-01 planted both feet under itself in a crouch and launched itself shoulder-first into the face of its foe. Hera's head snapped back violently, her body exploding up off the ground in an uncontrolled tumble. Unit-01 was already in the air before she completed her arc, both axes coiled back behind it prepared to shatter their target on impact. Mercy was not a virtue it was guilty of possessing.
Hera was shocked when her back struck the ground, when her attempt at using both of her feet to kick Unit-01 back and away only resulted in her legs snapping in several places, her skin and bones fragmenting in awkward directions. She was incredulous when both axes split her chest, driving completely through skin and muscle and bone to the ground below. She was silent, forevermore, when Unit-01 smashed its helmet down into her skull, pulverizing her brain and the guttering spark of life that it had possessed.
Shinji slowly moved to his feet, the gravity of what had just happened gaining traction in his heart. He'd allowed his dark twin to handle the fight. Used its strength to counter his weakness. Now, looking down upon the ruined beauty of the last of the Olympians, he allowed her words to process. Not those this beast wearing her skin had stated, but those she'd given him on their walks. She had thought so highly of him. She had believed him her equal. She had wanted a future together. For her sins, he had killed her.
"Let's go home." Yukiko took a seat on his shoulder, hugging his head. "We've done what we came here to do."
Crafting a portal, Shinji followed instructions. She was right. There was nothing more for them to do here. Crossing tens of thousands of kilometers in a single step, he ignored the women greeting his arrival. He ignored the hurt, the fear, the anger. He ignored the worry, the concern, the offers of solace. He walked towards his tree, beating back the grief that grew in his gut. He couldn't escape any of it. No matter how far he went, he knew that it would still be there. That didn't mean it had to be dealt with in public.
"Please have someone decontaminate this area," Yukiko called back. "We are going to do the same, in private."
+++++ Hikawa Shrine, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Thursday + 12)
"That stupid, self-centered, idiot!" Minako exploded into Haruka's apartment, Rei and Haruka herself moving more slowly behind her. "You would think that he would listen to the person he put in charge of this crap, but noooo, he has to cut everyone else out so that he can drop everything on his own damn shoulders!"
Rei was about to try and calm her friend down when an unexpected voice spoke into Venus' pause for breath, "It was the tactically correct decision." All three women looked over to see Motoko Aoyama calmly sitting between Sarah's bed and Michiru's bed. "There are only two people who do not run the risk of being infected by someone capable of fighting Angels as easily as Ikari-sama is. The few remaining non-demonic entities on Earth are barely able to remain untainted against 'normal' demons. If he allowed one as powerful as her to roam freely, there likely would be none left to save before the sun set tonight. He knew her location, he knew what weapons he had at hand to summon. He acted. Do not seek to belittle him for taking up a burden no other could safely bear."
Haruka cut Minako off before the blonde's anger could spin to a new target, "She's right." Weathering Minako's glare, she shrugged helplessly. "We all accepted the risks when we went in to save lives. Every time we go into a fight, we go in accepting that someone, including ourselves, can die. He was the only person capable of going toe to toe with Hera and not coming away infected. How many more people do you want to risk bringing her down? Ranged attacks keep the regular assholes at bay, but they probably wouldn't have even scratched her. Do you want to go hand-to-hand with her, knowing that you're one weak floorboard away from becoming the next person we have to kill? We have to accept the truth, kid. If we get turned, it's Shinji that is going to have to put us down."
"And he will weep, just as he is right now." Motoko's pride kept her body posture perfect, but she could not prevent herself from sharing the strong emotions Shinji was broadcasting. Her eyes openly leaked tears, her face remained unemotive. "I beg you, warrior to warrior, do not increase his pain by taking your own out upon him."
Minako's temper was boiling over, and even on her best day she had a tendency towards jealousy, neither of which helped prevent her from snapping, "Another fucking woman chasing after him?!"
Rei and Haruka braced themselves to intervene as Motoko slowly stood up. Taking her sword, still in its scabbard, and setting it down on Sarah's bed, she calmly walked over to stand in front of Minako. There was no fear in her, no anxiety, no hesitation. She was at peace with her fate, if this was what it would be. "I do not need to chase him; he chose to accept me. Until I feel that my debt to him is complete, I am as much a part of him as Akagi-sensei. He fought through hell itself to save my family. He tore open a building to attempt the same a second time. He stood deathwatch over my sister as she sacrificed herself to save anyone else from the pain of killing her. He struggled against a compulsion that no other man could have even hesitated in fulfilling to stop himself from erasing the very idea of Shinobu-chan from existence. My debt to him will never be paid. Never. Do not make the mistake of thinking my calm is somehow weakness. Threaten him, threaten his safety, his holdings, or his emotional well-being, and I will see you dead." She held her gaze for a slow count of five to drive the point home, then bowed politely. "Please keep your voice down, there are unfortunates here that are healing."
Minako's hand twitched, a clear eagerness to slap the other woman raging to be released. Without another word, she turned and stormed away into the spare room that she'd been sleeping in of late. Haruka and Rei looked at each other, silently sharing their tiredness with the entire situation with one another. It was the latter, however, that addressed the thin-framed elephant in the room, "Please don't threaten my friend. I understand the urge, believe me, I do. But I won't abide threats of force unless force has already been used."
"He is afraid of her." Motoko stood upright, addressing one of the few women she knew he had no fear of. "She reminds him of someone, though he is loath to make the comparison. Her flash temper, her mercurial disposition, even her flirtations all cause him pain. He does not know how to handle her, does not understand that she flirts and fights as a means to learn more about him. She is causing him pain, and I will not abide that."
Blowing out a heavy sigh, Haruka groaned. "Yeah. That sounds like Asuka. Should have seen that one coming."
"I appreciate your position, Aoyama-san. Please, for my sake, speak with me before doing anything…permanent." Rei gave the other woman a hopeful smile, the kind one stranger gives another that speaks of the hope of a closer acquaintance. "We're all on the same team, after all."
"A fair request, Hino-san." Motoko returned a weak smile, Shinji's pain too raw and grating to truly put force behind it. "Thank you for bringing him some small measure of hope. His breakfast with you this morning was quite possibly the brightest point since I accepted my current role."
Haruka made a small humming noise. "I don't normally like gossiping about what we can sense from others, especially when they're our friends…but it sounds like you've got a much better feel for what's happening. What's his opinion on Rei-chan, here?"
"Honest affection, bordering on the purest love possible." Motoko shrugged. "I don't need my connection with him to know that, his aura screams with it whenever he stands near her. It is a rare trait to be able to adapt one's own aura to another's, especially another as powerful as that of the few he's truly synchronizing with of late. You, the odd tiny woman, Hino-san, Mizore-san. You all have powerful auras, auras that speak of true emotional strength and mental acuity. That he can adapt himself when standing next to any or all of you is…unprecedented. That he feels as he does about each of you is undeniable."
"Wait…what about Usagi-chan?" Rei suddenly became very worried. She knew she shouldn't have asked, but the stakes were too high to not use what she had available.
"…I am not certain I know what to describe his feelings for her as." There was some anger present in her voice, "What she did with…."
It was Haruka's turn to become 'insistent'. "What did she do with him?" There was no room for evasiveness, no room to mince words. The Sailor for Uranus would know the truth, one way or another.
"I am uncertain if it was 'with' or 'to' that I should use. It could be either, or both. This is no small matter for me to-"
"It involves my favorite guy, so you're damn right it's not a small matter." Keeping her tone level, and her voice free of anger, she stepped closer and leaned in to pressure the issue. "What did Tsukino do?"
+++++ Hikawa Shrine, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Thursday + 12)
It had taken the combined efforts of Naoko and Yukiko, both women eagerly and willingly working together to help Shinji process the fresh grief he was feeling. Each agreed with the other that it was worrying how much of his sorrow was turning into anger, and how the only emotion that was countering that anger was a worrying mix of gloom and futility. Neither lavished attention on him, understanding that he wouldn't understand or accept it, but they had managed to get him clean and coax the tears out of him that he'd shed.
It had been hours since he'd made any noise other than that of a man aggrieved by too much happening for any one human to handle. His voice was hoarse, his throat raw and ragged, and his statement caught both women by surprise, "We…we need to finish tonight." Shifting how he sat, determination pushed desolation away in his eyes. "If they're learning, if they're adapting, we need to hit everywhere we can at once. Split their attention, force them to choose where to focus. We're going to lose civilians, there's no changing that. This move lets us save as many as possible. We can have Kyoko's forces keep antagonists away from each other while the Mujina build out new areas. I'll put a dome out to keep everything but Angels away from us for now. We don't have time for me to sit here and be angry at Hera for…for…."
"For dying?" Naoko believed she understood what he was feeling, thinking it natural for someone to reach a certain anger with the one they lost.
Shinji took a deep breath, then shook his head. "For making me think that I loved her just because I wanted to…do things with her. That wasn't love." He pushed himself to his feet, and surrounded himself with Unit-01. "Love doesn't exist."
He was two steps out the door before either woman was able to even hazard a guess as to how to address that particular bombshell. Yukiko hurried out after him, catching up and readying herself to do what she could to aid him in accomplishing the impossible. In her mind, now was not the time to have a deep philosophical discussion. Too many women had tried too many things in too many ways and had caused too much damage already. She would need to use her longevity, coupled with his longevity, to bring him around on the matter. She noted that Naoko had also hustled out of his room, closing the door behind her and running off towards the apartments.
His course took them to the gateway that led from the Shrine to the stairs down into the new village area. Ignoring the worried greeting of the duty guard, Shinji flipped the switch that would sound the alarm for the station he was standing at. Sending runners would have allowed people to protest, or slow-roll their response to what he was asking of them. This wasn't time for debate, this wasn't something that measured actions would help. This was time for action.
One of the first to respond was General Soryu, wearing her PT outfit and jogging over to where the noise had originated from. "Pilot," she called over the klaxon, "are we anticipating incoming?"
Yukiko also had to raise her voice, something she hated to do, to be heard, "We are about to attempt something…daring." The barrier Shinji had promised crawled upwards, amplifying the moonlight through cerulean-shaded crystal. "It would be best that you have your Marines perform a quick sweep of the boundaries of the dome. Nothing will be allowed in, or out, while it is up."
"Sergeant Yokawa, get it done." Kyoko apologetically stepped around Shinji and flipped the switch for the alarm to a point midway between on and off. This allowed the light to continue to rotate, but stopped the blaring sound that had already served its function. "Sorry, Pilot. It's easier to speak without that deafening us." She looked back to Yukiko for any amplifying information.
"There are currently one hundred and sixteen additional sites that have non-zombie entities present. We have only freed a portion of the population, but every minute we delay the number of living decreases in drips and drabs. The Silent One has decided that he is going to…flex his muscles and push himself past his comfort zone. We will be opening portals to each location that has living present, all at the same time. We will be asking for volunteers to enter the portals and retrieve these people. Then we will need your forces to keep any…agitators, away from those they might agitate while we construct new housing."
Haruka had heard enough as she approached to know that she didn't like what she'd heard. "Kid, that's not-"
"Our decision to make," Mizore interrupted. "Skymother, you know that I respect you and your experience has been invaluable in navigating this crisis. I urge you to consider whether or not you believe you are going to talk Shinji out of this, as opposed to draw his ire for risking more lives before he does it anyway." The yuki-onna set down next to Shinji, touching Unit-01's breastplate and looking up at him with her violet eyes. "Because it will be the Silent One that does this, not the abomination itself."
Shinji looked away from her, to avoid making any mistakes with his words, though he did touch her elbow and squeeze gently in fond approval. She knew his intent, and she was trying to be part of the solution instead of part of the roadblock others were building in their minds.
"One person per portal. We'll send our heavyweights to the camps with larger numbers of people, I'll task some of my forces to encourage the others that don't have as many. Any of them that's heavily armed, we'll want to try and send people that are…less allergic to bullets." Kyoko gestured to a few of the remaining gate guards as she spoke, then towards the assembling units to explain the battleplan. "is Pilot Ikari able to go through while we're doing this, or does he have to remain here to hold everything together?"
"If he goes through, it risks much. Concentration is essential to the task at hand." Yukiko wasn't answering for him, she was simply informing everyone of the possible answer.
He wanted to go through, but he knew that was too great a risk. He didn't want to be the reason anyone else died, and a lack of attention would lead to just that. His place was at the Shrine for the moment, that was that.
Kyoko listened to a report from one of her higher enlisted members, then nodded. "I can provide two hundred bodies, Pilot. How many to whichever gate is going to have to be coordinated based on the remaining number of gates and what non-military forces are available."
One of the Jorōgumo spoke from near Mizore, "They might be a little frightened, but my sisters and I can ensure that the more dangerous groups are brought through. Our silk is very durable, and we can disarm them, bundle them here, and allow…friendlier faces to unwrap them."
A Tengu leaned on his staff, rocking his head in time with his thoughts. "We will keep everyone from hurting one another here, freeing up more of the humans to assist as they can. They are more flexible in ability, and we are built for righteous defense."
"Fantastic," Kyoko gave an appreciative nod to the Tengu, "that will let me put the last twenty I was holding in reserve for guard duty in play."
Shinji noticed that Rei had something she needed to talk about, and was hesitant to do so in front of everyone else. Looking down to the ground, he was not surprised when Yukiko floated off his shoulder and drew everyone's attention towards herself to finish arrangements. Walking idly over to the clearing they'd used for the single gate, he made it obvious that he didn't want to be bothered.
Quietly approaching, attempting to keep attention away from them, Rei took the hint and stood by his side, speaking generally. "I heard some rather distressing news recently. Something I'd like to verify at the source, but she happens to not be around to question. After we succeed here, and I know we'll succeed because failure is not an option, I'd like to sit down with you and hear your side of things. No pressure to talk, because I know you're hurting after having to…do what was right. I'm just worried about someone I care for, and don't want to ignore something important."
If love didn't exist, what he felt for Rei had to be something else. He knew it wasn't hate. It felt too wonderful to be that. It wasn't pity, though he did feel pangs of that from time to time when he thought about her grandfather's untimely demise. The positive nature of the emotion confused him, doing an effective job of negating most of the negative possibilities he broadly recognized. His head turned towards the tree, looking at it for several seconds. What Rei would infer from that was up to her…but he knew she'd understand.
"I won't be going on rescue trips, myself." She took his arm, turning him towards the people organizing themselves for action. "My place is at your side. You have to hold up the sky, to give people time to find safety. I'll stop anyone that tries to prevent you from succeeding, and act as a second pair of eyes to see when gates can close."
He couldn't have asked for a better partner. He wanted her with him at all times. He knew he couldn't have either of those things.
"Ok, Pilot," Kyoko had finally taken note of where he was, approaching with her PDW on a sling hanging from her shoulder, "Yukiko-san is going to produce a list of target locations, number of people present, and anticipated armaments. She says she can't be too specific, but it should be enough for us to go on. You and her know how to accurately target these portals, but what I need from you is to place them in numerical order from the list. Ten in a column, as many rows across as we can fit. Portal snaps into place, we execute the mission, portal snaps closed. If I call out a number, that means it's clear. You're going to hear numbers from other people, please ignore those numbers. They have to communicate to me, and I have to verify that we're clear. I don't want fatalities any more than you do, and this lets me keep people safe."
That conflicted with what he wanted from Rei. The idea was sound, the plan sensible. He did not like that it would not be Rei speaking to him.
"Hino-san, if you would do me an enormous favor," she continued, "and watch for any incursions. My weapon is accurate, but my lines of fire are going to be limited. I've seen what you can do, and trust you to make sure that we're not going to be invaded ourselves. If you see a portal that needs to be shut, call it out. He trusts you, and I trust your judgement. I will not hold you responsible for any judgement calls, and I am not going to Monday Morning you. This is our only shot, and we can't afford to be timid."
"My place is at his side, General." For some reason, Rei's tone was cold. "I will do whatever is necessary to keep him safe."
Yukiko hurried over, holding out a pair of clipboards that had the necessary information on them. "We have triple-checked that the numbers are consistent between the two. Silent One, I am taking the most dangerous location myself. If necessary, close the portal. You know as well as I do that I am capable of returning to you as I wish to. Trust in me." She placed a kiss on his forehead, and spoke in his mind, You have chosen to do this. I will support you in it. But you are going to owe me a favor in return. We'll talk about it afterwards.
Shinji took a few deep breaths, shaping his rage to give him the strength he'd need to hold more than a hundred portals open at once. He saw, but did not watch, Minako approach him quietly. When the blonde was right before him, he kept his mind on what he was doing, and not on what she said.
"I'll try to hurry back, Shinji." Her voice was gentle, despite there being anger and hurt beneath the words. "I drew the Arctic Circle. Sounds like there's a group of scientists and police from the United States that made it up there somehow. Once I'm back, I'll go from portal to portal, see who else I can help." She stepped up next to him, standing on her toes and kissing his jaw. "Thanks…for the birds. I am sorry that I was so pushy. I…I'm just not the kind of gal who can stand back and do nothing. I'll try to be better about it, for you."
There it was. The apology he'd never believed he'd hear, and always wanted to have. She'd been honest with him, both in her declarations before and her admission now. And it was given…because she might very well die tonight. Dismissing the fear from his thoughts, he looked around and saw that everyone had taken up positions far enough apart from each other that the portals he'd open would have enough space for both infiltration and evacuation. Now it was up to him. Now, he had everyone's attention. He had everyone's trust. He had more than enough reasons to be absolutely tired of what the world had been doing…and now it was time for him to do what only he could do.
+++++ Hikawa Shrine, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Thursday + 12)
The complete silence seemed, to Rei, to be wholly inappropriate for what she witnessed as Shinji created more than one hundred portals at once. Even in his armor he still quaked with physical strain, with his elbows tucked tight against his ribs and his hands constraining an orb of pure crimson fury. It had become his central point of focus, the curves battling to grow beyond his control, his gauntlets refusing to allow it any freedom. Sinewy tendrils of half-seen and ethereal plasma extended outwards through any barrier, living or otherwise, to touch each of the portals and keep them intact. Sounds of motivation broke her fixation on what Shinji was doing, and drew her attention to where it needed to be.
From the entry of the first rescue effort to the exit of the first evacuees was five long minutes. She heard and saw flashes of gunfire, explosions of magical energy, war cries and howls of determined rage. Expectedly, though, first victory was granted to the Jorōgumo. The spider youkai had used their webbing to restrain the evacuees, allowing them to carry the scared and confused civilians to freedom faster than others might have been able to convince them to go on their own. Six portals were closed in short order, with twenty-nine people saved.
"Close thirteen," Kyoko's tone was emotionless, a fact that drew Rei's eyes as she hadn't seen anyone exit the portal in that area.
She frowned, pained by the knowledge that first blood had apparently been drawn. That was two military members dead, and however many civilians along with them. Rei kept her bow of flame at the ready, watching warily as several more portals ejected people other than those who had entered. Any one of those crossing could be the indication of a zombie invasion, and the sheer volume of motion made it difficult to separate chaos from intent.
The Tengu were as gentle as was necessary, prodding people and using physical gestures to get them to move away from the area. Organizing the refugees, for now, had devolved to those that had returned with their charges. Japanese men and women trying to help people who didn't speak their language understand that they were far more safe now than they were before. That the large scary youkai weren't actually scary. That they'd been bundled up into silk cloth for their own safety. There were some injuries, a lot of crying, and more than a few scuffles between groups that blamed one another due to their outward appearances and rumors that had spread during their desperate initial rush to safe harbor. But there was also a lot of sharing of resources, people seeing other people who were hurt and trying to help, attempts at communication between multiple languages. Broken Japanese into fluent English into broken Spanish. The best and worst of humanity, all in a little box.
Her first shot was towards a retreating engineer, the man returning alone after their partner had apparently fallen in combat. They'd managed to rescue forty-three people from their gate, and the engineer was covering the rear of the civilians' line. Rei sent a swift barrage of arrows in, making certain to arc them around the sailor who finally stepped out into freedom and shouted the number of his portal for Kyoko to relay to Shinji. He turned and looked at Rei, tapped two fingers to his eyebrow in a friendly salute, and then urged the group of civilians on to their temporary station. She hurt knowing that they'd lost another member of the remaining military forces…but the best of humanity frequently came at a price.
"Looks like we're down to a dozen or so," Haruka announced as she wandered over to assist Rei. "I hate to admit it, well…not really, I know he's full of good ideas with bad executions, but this might actually have worked." Picking up the clipboard Shinji had dropped, she checked it against Kyoko's and nodded. "Damn…not good enough for my taste."
"We've lost far less than I'd thought we would," Kyoko replied without looking. "Considering this strategically, I'm perfectly willing to trade eight people whose sacrifices will be remembered for around six thousand and counting. It's a cold calculation, but I didn't get a vote in going to war either."
The last two gates on one side of Shinji were closed, allowing Rei to look only in one direction. She could make out Yukiko calmly herding an orderly procession of people onward while flattening zombies with dismissive gestures. Another portal showed Mizore scaring people into running, apparently having tired of diplomacy. Several Marines had gone after a pair of their fellows, providing reinforcements and casualty assistance in extracting the residents of a hospital ward. As the portals dwindled down, she frowned at the one Minako had entered. She couldn't see anything. Wind-driven snow, darkened skies, and a few immobile corpses.
Haruka joined her in watching the area. "That's not good."
"No, not really." Only three portals remained, and Rei was beginning to itch to go after her best friend.
Mizore's portal closed, and the snow maiden hurried over herself, allowing the Tengu to handle her remaining charges. "…Mmm…I still think I should have taken that one." She closed her eyes, seeming to feel for things the others couldn't understand. "There are still living around there. Is there a reason we're not going in?"
"Because if it's a trap, sending people in a few at a time is only going to increase the body count." Kyoko finished making marks on her clipboard, handing it to a nearby sailor to hold. "Once Yukiko-san is done with her operation, we'll recon in force. I'll stay here with Pilot Ikari to watch his back while he keeps the portal open, everyone that bats above standard human average goes in there and makes certain what's going on."
Haruka scrubbed one hand through her hair. "Yeah, that's the best plan available. Let's go help the midget get her people motivated. The sooner she's done, the sooner we can go after Venus." Mizore and several other youkai hurried off to support her as she loped off to the portal.
"If you feel your efforts would be better spent supporting your ally, Miss Hino, I can ensure Pilot Ikari remains unbothered."
Cold fire drifted across Rei's eyes as she looked askance at Kyoko. "It is not only the enemies without that I am protecting him from, General. My place remains at his side, come what may."
+++++ Hikawa Shrine, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Thursday + 12)
The best word Shinji had to describe how he felt was 'empty'. Empty of life, empty of energy, empty of emotions, empty of thought, just…empty. He had hoped that as he released each portal the strain on his mind would decrease. As it turned out, he might as well have hoped that the war was over and everyone got free ice cream. Keeping Yukiko's and Minako's portals open required ten times as much effort when compared against holding the more than one hundred original portals open. Every single person that exited or entered was another enormous weight dropped on his shoulders. Shielding them from the harmful effects of existing near, let alone crossing, a rupture in space-time twisted what remained of his soul in knots. Making sure that they arrived at their destination took those knots and knotted them further.
He wasn't oblivious to the conversations happening around him, just incapable of processing anything beyond the words they'd chosen to use. The plan to send in people to help Minako was a good one, it made certain that safety was accounted for to the highest degree possible in a combat situation. The problem with that plan was that he wasn't positive he could support it. He was sweating like he'd just run ten marathons. His muscles burned with the heat of a solar forge. Every ache, every scar, every scrape on his body was screaming at him to stop.
His breaths were labored, his eyes stinging as sweat dripped down his face and became trapped in the folds and creases of his helmet. The blurriness was what slowed his response down, as he couldn't be certain if what he saw through Minako's portal was actual motion or just the effects of his eyes attempting to process information so that his brain could squeeze some semblance of sense out of it.
Living in a state of hyperarousal has significant health drawbacks. The toll it takes on your body and mind can cause permanent, irreparable damage. One of the reasons combat veterans often don't seek help for the condition is that it was what got them through any number of situations that would have invariably become fatal for them. You don't break your knife before going to war, and you don't turn off your mind so that you're blindly strolling through a minefield. No sooner had Yukiko's portal finished disgorging the people who had gone through it than Shinji slammed both portals shut, opening another beneath his feet to drop himself on top of the figure that he saw moving in the arctic snow.
It had not been his intent to allow the portal to close behind him, he had honestly wanted people there to help him win the fight. Unfortunately, he did not have enough strength to leverage it open long enough for more than he himself to use. Increasing his mass was outside of the realm of possibility with how little he had in reserve, but he was able to simply relax his constraints on how much Unit-01 typically weighed. Several thousand tons of angry Ikari landed squarely on its target, knocking Khlorya face first into the rock-strewn floor of the Greenland coast. His punches were lethargic, and he had to rely on his weight to keep her under him in the prone position. The ground around him shook as he pummeled the back of her head, his exertions draining him further.
Eventually, Khlorya managed to wriggle free from him, playfully shoving his back and laughing gaily. "You silly goose, we're not supposed to be attacking each other!" If she had been damaged, it wasn't evident from looking at her. "If you'll sit there for a few minutes and catch your breath, I'll duck inside and kill everyone else. Once I'm done, we'll find a room inside and keep each other company for a few years. How's that sound?"
Digging deeper, and gasping sharply as pain wracked his gut, Shinji summoned a single labrys from the earth beneath him. Wobbling to his feet, he readied himself to do what he had to do to stop her. It was no longer a matter of his oath keeping him quiet, he didn't even have the energy to scream out a battle cry as he rushed towards her. Part of his mind felt relief when plans changed and he altered the attack to a feint, keeping Khlorya's attention on him as Minako came flying in to strike the villain from behind.
Khlorya pushed Shinji aside, then spun around and grabbed the crosspiece of the Sword of the Silver Crystal. "Dear, I'm speaking to my widdle puppy right now. Would you kindly go join your father? I hear him calling for you."
Shinji was perplexed for a brief instant as Minako let go of the Sword and launched herself back and clear of what became an enormous fireball. He recognized the explosion of rocket-propelled ordnance of some variety, felt the heat and pressure wash over him where he lay. Two more impacts from similar platforms combined with the heavy 'brrrt' of a pair of mounted machine guns, buying enough time for a stranger to sneak around to where he'd fallen.
"Hey, you mobile?" A big bruiser of a man, with professionally cropped hair and a loosely trimmed beard made to lift Shinji's arm, giving him something to lean against as they evacuated. "Let's clear off the 'x' so Clare can drop the hammer."
Unit-01 disappeared, removing most of the problem with his mass preventing extraction. Then Minako appeared and took his other arm over her shoulders to hurry them along. "He doesn't speak English very well, Redfield-san." Pressing a kiss to Shinji's cheek after they were half a football field away, she grinned with heartfelt joy as a half-meter thick beam of coherent light smashed down onto where Khlorya stood. "Play along. It'll cover for the mute thing."
A military jeep spun to a stop in front of them, preparing to head back the way it had come from as soon as they were onboard. Driving was a brunette woman with a ponytail that came down to just between her shoulders. "Get in! C'mon, c'mon!"
'Redfield' scooped Shinji's legs up and set him heavily into the flatbed back of the jeep, then climbed up next to him and racked a round into the heavy machine gun mounted upon the vehicle. Minako jumped atop Shinji to keep him down and in place, the driver floored it, and the big man laid down effective fire as they raced away. All Shinji could hear was explosions, the engine revving, and Minako's heart through her chest pressing against the side of his head. It was a strange lullaby to fall asleep to, but fall asleep he did.
+++++ Hikawa Shrine, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Thursday + 12)
Yukiko was quiet. She could distantly hear Shinji's song, could feel the thrum of life that animated him. It was enough to know that he lived; if he was alive, chances were better than not that he was fighting. The discontent that was brewing around her at the moment, filled with recriminations, defamations, and allegations, was something she ignored. This was not to say that she was sanguine about the current state of affairs. 'Livid' would be a somewhat tame way of expressing her emotional standing at the moment. The only problem with allowing that particular emotion out at the moment was that it would not be truly helpful. She knew for certain that he hadn't intended to do what he had done. The portal hadn't been shut, it had been fumbled. That she'd been able to shield the local environment from a backwash of ionizing radiation was owed to her attentiveness to the man.
"-need to get out there and check on him." Rei, the only other woman that had remained wholly calm, had been watching Yukiko carefully. "The problem remains that I don't know if we are going to be able to do so. Yukiko-san?"
"The shield he put in place around us prevents me from leaving." She wasn't going to beat around the bush on the issue. "It's not even permeable to the atmosphere. He intended it to keep everything from passing through it, and so it was built to do just that." The effect her statement had on everyone was as she anticipated. "I am going to test the barrier for potential inconsistencies. I recommend you focus on calming our new citizens." She glanced at Rei. "If you would accompany me, I would appreciate it."
+++++ Station Nord, Greenland. (Thursday + 12)
Shinji woke up suddenly, the lack of noise more jarring than anything else. Gasping for air, he partially sat up before falling back against the bed he'd been placed in. An unfamiliar face framed by a short-bobbed haircut appeared over his, a woman…mouthing something in a calm, steady cadence. Her hand smoothed his hair back, and it became clearer that she was actually talking. He, however, was not hearing anything she was saying. He wasn't hearing anything but the jackhammer at work in his chest.
His hand trembled as it reached up and gripped the woman's shoulder. He managed to verify that she was real, the feel of her sweatshirt matching the look of it. Using that hand as an anchor, he pulled himself up to a seated position. He tried to be as careful as possible, the lady was much smaller than he was, but he had to sit up and see what was happening. Khlorya was about, which meant that combat had to be ongoing. They couldn't have stopped her, he himself could barely slow her down.
The nice woman, whatever her name was, quickly packed some pillows up under his back to help keep him upright. She offered him a smile, which shifted to a smirk he recognized all too well before she rolled her eyes and tapped her temple with a 'finger gun'. It appeared that she was speaking English, and suddenly remembered that he probably wouldn't understand her. She didn't know he was deafened.
Another woman, with reddish brown hair pulled back into a high-set ponytail came walking over from the other side of the curtained room he was resting within. She too gave him a comforting smile, and a pat on the shoulder while asking the first woman several questions. When Shinji went to lift his hand to gesture to his ear, she swiftly grabbed the limb and shook her head, tapping the I.V. that had been implanted and mouthing more words.
Freeing the hand that had been holding onto the first lady, he batted at the side of his head. It wasn't the smooth gesture that he'd hoped for, intending to communicate the current problem, but it drew both of their attention to his head. The first woman blinked, bit her lower lip, then turned and moved to grab some tools from a nearby cabinet.
The second woman sat down on the bed by Shinji, facing him, and attempted to communicate with her hands. You. No. Hear. She wasn't fluent in the dialect he was most familiar with of sign language, but he recognized her intent through the gifts his necklace gave him.
Shinji nodded, relieved that he might be able to get somewhere. Carefully using both hands, he emphatically stated, Recent.
Her lip curled down in commiseration, her eyes gaining a hint of understanding. She looked back to the first woman and said a few more things, which caused the first woman to nod and throw her hands up in exasperation before gesturing at the mostly empty cabinet. The bobcut woman looked back at him and gestured to the woman on the bed with him. C. L. A. R. E. Then to herself. R. E. B. E. C. C. A. Her hand extended an offer for him to identify himself.
Which, unfortunately, was not something he believed he should do. Giving them the name would allow the Laws to set it in stone. Using any communication was ultimately risky, and he had to be very judicious with its use. He was mentally trying to solidify some sort of plan for asking where Minako was, when Clare patted his knee to get his attention again.
Don't fear. Will return. She tapped her own head. Brain damage. Forget things.
Rebecca raked her fingers up into her hair, growling with anger before stomping her foot cutely and causing a bit of jiggling inside of her sweater that caused Shinji to blush and look down in embarrassment. This wasn't going how he'd hoped. But if they were calm at the moment, chances were good that things weren't as bad as he'd feared. There was no chance of people being calm if Khlorya was rampaging through the halls murdering people. The pain in his gut worsened, accompanied by a cramp that forced him to bend forward in half. He'd pushed way too hard, burned way too many calories. There was no chance of him opening a portal anywhere, let alone holding it open safely.
Hands far larger than Clare's or Rebecca's firmly pressed him back into a seated position, revealing the giant of a man that had hauled him out of the kill box he'd stumbled into. 'Redfield' checked both of his eyes for something, then offered a quarter of what appeared to be a protein bar. When Rebecca went to take it away, he shook his head and warded her off easily. It was clear that he had a veto over things, and just as clear that he was some type of consensus builder instead of 'rule by force' individual.
He'd eaten far worse than what was now in front of him, and he took it up in trembling hands to carefully eat a few bites. Slow, methodical, chewing motions reduced the chance of him puking everything back up. It was the first lesson he'd learned after having been stuck in the LCL tank for too long one day, rapid eating meant rapid vomiting. As he consumed the bar, his hearing began to return. A dull ringing overcutting everything, dimming down to a general buzz at halfway through the portion, and a manageable static when he put the last bite in his mouth.
"-out there doing what she can. Whatever these magical wards are, they're doing a good enough job of keeping that bitch out. Venus doesn't think she's really trying anymore, though. It seems that Iron Man here has something to do with that." 'Redfield' gently took the used wrapper out of Shinji's hand, tossing it in a nearby trash bin. "She thinks what happened is he's out of gas. Too many calories burned, not enough calories ingested after burning, bad way to make good muscle gains. He was apparently holding open more than a hundred of those portals, all at once. Doesn't look like there's much of him to begin with, makes sense that he ran out of juice if we were the stragglers."
Rebecca growled again, folding her arms and scowling at the window leading out into the main hall. "Have Leon and Jill made any progress? I could make him a twelve-course meal, if that door wasn't welded shut!"
"No. Leon's checked the seal; says we'd need the cutting torch to get through. The scientists did a good job, unfortunately. Jill crawled through several miles of ducts, no joy there either. Too many collapsed portions, too much debris in the way."
Clare had watched Shinji's movements, noticed that he was listening and not just looking at their lips anymore. "Hey…Chris, I think it worked."
Shinji struggled to wave but gave a weak smile of gratitude. The pain was diminished, but not diminishing. He could only partially understand some of what they were saying, their English too fast and his understanding of the language spotty at the best of times. The three people in the room with him seemed polite enough, none of them looked at him like he was a freak of nature. He couldn't sit there and do nothing, though. With the untethered hand, he gestured to the I.V. He'd give them the option of removing it themselves, but one way or another he was going to go look for a solution to his problem.
"Here, Chris, move. I'll take it out. I think he wants to get up and walk around." Clare swung her legs up and over Shinji's, rotating on her posterior to push herself off the other side of the bed. She was not the type of woman to sit around and wait for things, and was very clearly used to feats of athleticism and grace. "Do you remember what Venus called him?"
"Shin-gee?" Chris managed part of the medical tubing, shutting off the flow of the intravenous saline while Clare cautiously unhooked the tube from Shinji's arm. "She also said the thing he uses is called 'Unit-01'."
"Yeah, well we're not going to go around calling him a unit," Rebecca declared firmly. "And it's pronounced Shinji, I had a guy named that in my pre-med class." Once Shinji was free of most of the tethers, she leaned down and took another look into his eyes to see how well he was able to focus. "He's definitely alert. Kinda cute. I didn't think blue eyes were common among Japanese."
"You can ogle him later, kid." Chris snorted out a laugh, offering Shinji a hand in standing up. "For now, let's see what he wants to do."
Shinji accepted the offer and found that standing was only slightly less daunting a task than stopping a runaway bison with his bare hands. He was quickly buttressed by the remaining five hands that were not attached to him at the moment, steadying him without forcing him to stay upright. Each of these people were 'doers'. Self-motivated, willing to respond to any crisis that might arise in front of them. Taking a few more deep breaths, he refocused his thoughts towards getting them out. The Shrine needed people like them. Needed people that would dig deep to help others. Straightening his spine, he started the slow process of walking to the hallway door. He needed the lay of the land, if he was to be of any use to them himself.
+++++ Station Nord, Greenland. (Thursday + 12)
Minako watched the external camera feeds with bewilderment. Khlorya was sitting on a pile of corpses, scowling at the front entrance to the facility. The yellow-ish green youma had been pounding on that door not five hours earlier, cackling about how much fun she was about to have. There had been no doubt in the Sailor for Venus' mind that the woman would be able to get through the former nuclear blast door, even as reinforced as it was, but ever since Shinji had shown up she'd…stopped.
There were still zombies roaming the corridors, locked behind security doors that would only open with the right corridor access card and PIN combination, but Minako had been able to handle the bulk of the monstrosities upon arrival. She'd been impressed with the efforts of the humans present. They worked well as a team, each stepping up to perform those tasks best suited to them, and they all appeared to enjoy one another's company. The scientists they'd protected on the journey from the midwestern United States had been far less useful. The latter had only been in the same city as the former to introduce a new biotech company intent on researching pharmaceutical products; of the former, most lived and worked for the police department in the city they'd fled from.
More than a small part of her wanted to be in the room she'd left Shinji in to recover, but at least she could trust that he was being well-tended. That freed her up to check on the remaining security barricades keeping Khlorya out, and then led her to where she stood in the security control center of the former joint Danish-American military facility. There hadn't been any follow-up appearances from anyone else at the Shrine, no further attacks from outside the facility, and no indication that either situation was in immediate danger of changing.
"The things you learn to take for granted," she muttered to herself. "I thought that travelling by plane was fast not a week ago…now I'm upset that the only person I know that can teleport people around is out of commission." The situation was a stalemate, and she had the opportunity to observe her enemy, so she did the most responsible thing possible and flopped down into a chair that allowed her to watch all of the security feeds at once. "What are you up to…."
+++++ Author's Note
Ghost Man: RE: Riding herd.
To ride herd on something/someone (as you likely know) is to monitor the situation with close attention. Managing all aspects of that situation as it branches out and moves from place to place. The specific etymology comes from the folks that moved herds of cattle from one train station to the next across the grasslands, they sat upon their horses 'riding the herd'. Usagi said that since Yukiko is going to be all up in her business (since Shinji is Usagi's business) then Usagi was going to be all up in her business as well. Fair is fair.