+++++ Juban High School, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Wednesday + 4)

The stream of students passing by Shinji and Makoto had a variety of expressions on their face. With him dressed in smart casual and her in her school uniform, many were trying to determine if he was a new teacher or a visiting dignitary. The way that Makoto's face was lit up with pleasure didn't help the confusion out in the slightest, as the unknown man had his 'Resting Shinji Face' on due to discomfort at so many people looking at him constantly.

"No, really, I trust you to pick stuff out that will work!" Laughing, the Sailor for Jupiter kept her hands clasped behind her long skirt coyly. "You have a good eye for the right things, and I haven't seen you choose wrong yet." When he let out a small sigh, and nodded slowly, she knew she'd won the discussion. "You really are just like-"

"Uhm, excuse me, Kino-san?" A trio of young ladies drew both of their attention. "I'm sorry for interrupting, but…who is this?"

Shinji braced himself, remembering what Makoto had promised to say the previous night if anyone asked.

"Oh, hello Koizumi-san. This is my…good friend," Makoto altered what she'd planned to say, expecting Shinji to be uncomfortable with the topic, "he's in town for a while on business and wanted to walk me to school."

Good friend? There was a pain in his chest, though he didn't know why for certain. I…I guess that's more truthful than anything else. Bowing in greeting, he allowed his roommate to carry through with the conversation.

She caught the signs of confusion, and resignation in the set of his face before he bowed. Damn it! Did I miss a chance? "Unfortunately, he's mute and can't speak." Setting her hand on his bicep, she gave it a tender squeeze as she explained his lack of speaking. "It's a recent affliction, due to exposure from his work. I'm sure he's pleased to meet all of you."

"Good morning, Shinji-kun!" The greeting from the blonde Sailor of Love was paired with a jumping hug as she wrapped her arms around his neck from the side. When he reflexively caught her, allowing her to perch on his forearm, Minako beamed a smile up at him. "It's good to see you this morning. Did you miss me?"

I am holding a young woman with one arm, who is so far out of my league we're not even playing the same game. I have another young woman holding my other arm, who is in the same position. What even is my life anymore? The beautiful agony crept along his body, begging him to never let them go.

"Minako-san, would you stop using him as a jungle gym?" Makoto was radiating irritation, though she kept it from infecting her tone as she chided her friend, "You're going to hurt him with how much you weigh."

One of the trio of young women that had stopped was now gawping at Shinji's display of strength. "I don't know, Kino-san, it looks like your friend is really strong. He's holding her up with one arm, what kind of work does he do?"

"Intercorporate relations," Minako lied fluently. "He manages a diverse set of clients, big companies and small companies, trying to help them increase brand synergy and cooperation." A light squeeze of his neck, at the shoulder, told him to keep steady. "He's the youngest person in his company, but his talents at keeping people happy drew the eye of several 'higher' people."

The third young lady frowned, tilting her head in confusion. "What kind of exposure happened in a business office?"

"Smoke inhalation." Ami Mizuno had, at some point, come close enough to overhear. "He was trying to save people from that recent incident, and something in the smoke damaged his larynx and pharynx. Minako-chan, you're making a scene." She placed herself before Shinji, so that no one but him could see her lips as she mouthed, 'Set her down'.

Dutifully obeying orders, and now completely lost in the lies being thrown about, Shinji attempted to recover some semblance of order by reaching into the bag and pulling out the lunches. Giving the first to Makoto, and the second to Ami due to her position between Jupiter and Venus, he missed the growing looks of confusion on the three young ladies that had interrupted his time with Makoto as he doled out the blonde's lunch.

"Why thank you Shinji-kun!" Taking advantage of the fact that he had to bend down slightly to hand her meal to her, Minako placed a warm kiss on his cheek. "It's so nice to have this chance to try out your cooking." Wagging it slightly, she grinned at the now wholly baffled trio of young women. "His hobby is cooking, and he makes a fantastic dessert."

Ami grabbed Shinji's arm and pulled him away from everyone, pushing the social cue out that 'show and tell' was over. The bluenette was grateful when Makoto followed easily, and kept her voice lowered to avoid anyone overhearing, "I'm sorry, Shinji-kun. Minako-chan has an outsized personality, and she loves making everything bigger than it is." Once they were in a small alcove, away from the main flow of traffic, she stopped and waited for the blonde sailor to catch up. "My mom says that she'll have time on Friday to see you. She'd like you to come to our home, she'll bring what she needs there. Her concern is that if you show up to the hospital, someone will ask too many questions and she agrees with me that the last thing you need is people making your life hard. You have a job, you have a place to stay…not that I told her it was with Makoto-chan, you're building your life back. She wants to support that."

My life is back home. Closing his eyes and clenching his jaw, he tried to force that thought away. After he felt three hands gently touch various parts of his upper torso, Shinji's jaw relaxed enough to show a grimacing smile. It feels so wonderful to be in their presence. I have a duty to get home, to kill the Angels, to save everyone. I want to stay here.

"It's ok, Shinji." Makoto's voice became soothing, her hand moving to the small of his back and making tiny circles, "He has a problem with crowds, and we need to be careful about exposing him to them just yet." It was clear to anyone listening that she took her duties as his defender seriously, and that she was defending him out of friendship and comity, not obligation or because she perceived him as weak.

Reaching for his blackboard, hoping to explain as tersely as possible that he would be fine eventually, Shinji caught sight of Luna, dodging and weaving through foot traffic. She looks upset. Gesturing with the hand he'd meant to use to grab his only means of communication, he drew attention to the feline. Which, ultimately, proved unnecessary as Luna finished darting through people and climbed up Shinji's body rapidly until she was perched on his shoulder.

"Ladies, get to class, act normal. Command Center after school." Luna's eyes turned on Shinji with a commanding glow. "You need to go, now." When everyone hesitated in clearing room for Shinji, confused as to why the typically convivial cat was being so terse and harsh, she snapped, "Now!"

Shinji, unlike the others, had spent enough time in a military environment to know 'The Command Voice'. Shoving Usagi's lunch into Makoto's hands, he freed himself and was moving down the street in the direction he presumed his passenger wanted him to go before anyone could say anything else. Whatever's happening, I only hope it doesn't blow back on them.

Curling into his neck to hold on, Luna lowered her voice again and began whispering a string of directions, interspersing it with information that her means of transportation would need when he arrived where he was going. "Snap your fingers once for yes, twice for no. Was the level of gore last night in combat unusual for you?" Two snaps. "You're used to seeing a lot of blood?" One snap. "Turn right. Have you received any significant training in hand-to-hand combat?" Two snaps. "So, it's natural talent and on the job training?" One snap. "Go through that alley. Have you received any field medical training?" One snap. "Climb that hill there. Well, that's something at least. When we arrive, don't worry about me. I can handle myself well enough. You need to go in heavy, and turn off your pen. Do that by thinking of looking like you normally would in your armor." The pain in her voice was jarring, "It doesn't matter what or who it is, if it isn't Usagi Tsukino, it does not leave the house. Put your armor on." Jumping off his shoulder, she dashed ahead of him to lead him the rest of the way.

Between one heartbeat and the next, one footfall and the next, Shinji Ikari prepared himself to do what he had to. Flesh and bone became metal and mineral, a growling purple force of destruction that knew nothing of defeat. His heart was pounding, his roommate's words hanging in his mind. 'Bravery is just telling fear to shut up and doing what you can to help. Bravery is being afraid and still standing between danger and those who can't fight.' If Usagi couldn't fight…then it was his duty to prove their faith in him was worth something.

Luna rounded the corner leading into the front garden of the Tsukino Residence, dashing towards the nearby drain spout to climb up to the top floor and shouting, "Bust the door down and get to the upstairs!"

He didn't need any other instructions. Whatever was inside the house had terrified the poor cat, and if she was this determined to see it done…he couldn't hold back. The metal inside the wood paneling on the front door of the house gave a valiant effort at restraining Unit-01. Valiant, but insufficient. Topiary would have done a better job of stopping a main battle tank. A newspaper might have first succeeded in halting an aircraft carrier. The combined thoughts of a classroom of kindergarteners would have stood a higher likelihood of preventing a space shuttle from reaching orbit than that poor frame did of halting Shinji's progress inside.

He wished it had done better.

+++++ Usagi Tsukino's home, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Wednesday + 4)

To call the front room a bed of howling chaos would have been understating the situation. When he breached the entryway, he also ran through a shimmering wall of glitter and nightmares that reminded him of an A.T. Field mixed with gelatin. He felt time shift itself relative to the outside, by some means slower and faster at the same time. The noise and smell had, through those same means, been kept inside the house itself. Gibbering demons clawing and biting at each other and everything else within reach. Some the size of great cats, other no larger than dormice, all fighting amongst themselves over….

I have to get upstairs. I can't help them anymore.

Unit-01 stomped, kicked, punched, and chopped its way through the mass. Some grew back, it took note, others stayed dead. Catching a Doberman-sized mass of claws and anger, it saw the reason why and changed tactics. Progress was slowed, an unfortunate consequence of being thorough, but crushing the hated red spheres was essential. Every Angel it left alive was one more that would be at its back as it mounted the stairs.

I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I'm sorry.

Time's progression was painfully tangible, the cries and sounds coming from the upper floor of the house urging Unit-01 to move faster. It lamented the lack of weapons, the lack of blade or rifle. Fist and foot had killed several enemies, but they were slow, inefficient. An idea came through need, utilizing his A.T. Field to supplement physical strength and punish the targets more. As the field wrapped around his body, and whatever he touched that he wished it to, it could be used to bludgeon and chip at the red cores.

Why?!

Reaching the base of the stairs and jumping up to the central landing where the stairs doubled back in the other direction, Unit-01 took a few seconds to consolidate its position and assess its destination. Eight more fleshy monsters were cut down as wheat before its scythe, and two larger than any it'd seen yet stood before it and its goal. There was a hole in the upper part of the door, whatever magic had been bolstering it was clearly ready to give way in another second.

This is all my fault.

Unit-01 jumped forward and managed to grab one of the two spiky beasts around its long, twisted, throat. Stomping hard on its back to expose more of the torso, the Purple Titan couldn't stop the other from bashing more of the door apart. The fight was a humanoid against a serpent-like horse, claws and teeth against cold fury and determination. It took eight seconds to find the core, another two to punch it apart. It took only nine seconds for the door to collapse.

NO!

A desperation dive managed to tangle the rear legs of the lone remaining enemy, its lunging maw missing taking a chunk out of an awake but unresponsive Usagi Tsukino by mere millimeters. Taking advantage of momentum, Unit-01 kicked its leg forward and bashed the enemy towards the far wall while rolling to its own feet. The Bearer of Joy could not be allowed to die for its sins. There were others in the room, none hostile, some talking rapidly. Now, it was a knife fight in a phone booth.

I'm sorry.

"Well," the sole remaining wretched abomination unexpectedly coughed out the single word. "Now I begin to understand."

It…talks. Shinji remained in a defensive crouch, Unit-01 ceding ground to its pilot grudgingly, ready to lunge in any direction to cut off an advance.

"Tell me…are there more where you come from?" There was an eager hunger behind the words, a knowledge and intelligence too horrible to linger over. "This one defies me. Fights against that which I am for control. I can sense another, in you. Perhaps it wishes to be more…amenable. Perhaps it will aid me in seeking the world you've come from."

"FIGHT YOU SILLY BITCH!" Luna's yowling curse shattered the unspoken truce.

Whatever the cat had done behind Shinji, it precipitated several events at once. The monster leapt to go past Shinji on the right at the same time he heard, "Moon Healing Escalation!" A golden glow washed over him as he latched onto his foe and body-slammed it to the ground, smashing through the floor and landing atop the mass of corpses below. His arms were shining gold, his body was hammered light…he was laying on top of what now looked to be the naked body of a snarling, snapping, woman who looked far too much like a more mature Usagi with misshapen limbs and two mouths.

"M-Moon…." Usagi had landed behind him, silently. "M-M-Moon…."

"It won't work," Artemis' voice called from above, tired and heavy with grief. "Whatever it is that's infected them…it's not purely magical."

"No." Usagi took several deep breaths, and then tried again, "Moon Healing Escalation!" Gold once more washed over everything, but nothing changed. "Moon Healing Escalation!" Still nothing. "MOON HEALING ESCALATION!" The future refused to change. The twin-tailed Sailor crumpled into a weeping mass of limbs, howling with wretched loss.

"Shinji," Luna's voice drifted over the sounds of sorrow, "that's not Usagi Tsukino."

It can't leave the house. When they had landed, one of his still gauntleted hands had come to rest atop the…former human's breast. The incident in Ayanami's apartment flashed through his mind, disgusting him enough that his stomach threatened revisiting what little he'd eaten. This is her mother. Fighting to stop it from moving meant he couldn't move his hands from where they were. If he let go, it would attack Usagi. This…was…her mother. Off to the side, the young boy that he presumed she'd meant when she said he wouldn't get any peace lay mostly eaten. Her father…that was probably her father that I killed upstairs.

"Shinji-" The black cat cut off as a single punch shattered the exposed core, forever silencing the last enemy. "We need to go."

Covered in blood and gore, his armor still shining with a glimmering golden glow, Shinji gained his feet and turned to look up into the room he'd left via an improvised exit. Both Luna and Artemis were visibly panting, and neither looked in good enough shape to run. The odd miasma that filled the house was beginning to dissipate, and that meant he was low on time. Ripping one of the cushions off the couch, he unzipped it and tore the central stuffing out to throw it aside. Dashing back upstairs, ignoring the corpse of Usagi's father, he pointed to the various furnishings in the room and then back to Luna.

Usagi was still crying.

"I told you, Arty," the black cat dragged itself over to the desk, "he's quick on his feet in a crisis."

Usagi was still crying.

"I never said he wasn't." The white cat moved to the other side of the room and began hauling key items to throw into the makeshift sack. The second part of the statement was garbled owing to the needed items blocking his lips, "I shead he ishn't comoonicahve."

Usagi was still crying.

After half of a minute, the bag had what was needed and then Shinji added two cats to his burden. Turning back on his illusion so that he could move with at least some inconspicuousness, he jumped back downstairs, scooped up the woman he'd first known as Moon, and moved towards the door, stopping dead at a familiar face.

"Get in the van." Satou stood just inside the doorway with a brown bottle that had a rag stuffed in it, and a lighter in his other hand. "I'll take you somewhere you won't be bothered, go." The weathered cop urged Shinji onwards, motioning towards a windowless delivery-style van that was blocking the front entrance.

Not many choices. Usagi's cries had quieted, though her trembling had increased. It took some maneuvering on his part, but eventually Shinji managed to get himself and his three passengers where there would be some moderate safety while someone drove. His intention, at that point, was to disentangle himself from Usagi so that she wouldn't be forced to touch him and all of the varying liquids and semi-solids that coated him. His actions, at that point, triggered a chokehold that he honestly believed would have put Misato to shame.

"No!" Clenched against his front, her arms around his throat and her knee between his legs, Usagi was vibrating with fear. "Please…don't let me go. Please. Please."

Can't choke me while I'm in Unit-01, at least. He could feel the pressure, but breathing wasn't an issue. His mind retreated to random topics not involving matricide or fondling anyone, eventually pondering where his shoulder fins went when his disguise covered him. He knew that Usagi's arms had gone right through the space they occupied, but not why. Reaching over and sliding the door shut, he frowned in thought before deciding that the best thing to do was to let her do what she would, while buckled with him. Cautiously moving her legs, he set her so that she was sitting across his lap, and then pulled the seatbelt around both of them. That's the best I can do. I…really wish I didn't feel so wonderful holding her right now. What the fuck kind of animal am I?!

"This is good. This is fine. I'm fine with this." Slipping her head in the space between his chest and chin, she began to cry again. It wasn't the deep-seated agony of a few minutes before, but it was still vividly painful. "Th-thank you, Shinji."

I'm going to be sick. Despite how wretched he felt about what he'd done, he still kept his arms around her midsection far away from any potential 'No Fly Zones'. I just killed her mother. She's thanking me for….

"I'm," she swallowed down her tears and then took a deep breath, "I'm thanking you for doing what I couldn't." Looking up at him with eyes that spoke of a tremendous anger, a righteous fury, and a losing battle against grief, she shook her head. "You did not do this. But we are going to find who did. We are going to find them, and we are going to end them."

"I like her spunk," Satou jumped in the driver's seat, slamming the door and gunning the engine. "I'm not one for gossip, mind, but I'd thought you had a thing going with the tall brunette. You didn't strike me as the philandering type." Proving himself a very capable driver, he managed to position the car in traffic as if he had places to be but wasn't in the kind of rush he had seemed to be in.

Shinji hadn't missed the house burning behind them. Where are we going?

"Shin-Shin is not dating anyone, and so he can't cheat on anyone." His fellow passenger asked what he could not, "He'd like to know where you're taking us, sir."

Wait, you can hear me?!

"Someplace safe. Don't worry, Kid, I know nobody's told you the rules. Maria-san's a good lady, and she'll keep you on the straight and narrow, but whatever's happening isn't giving you the time to get your feet under you." Stopping at another traffic light, he waved his hand dismissively. "We'll get you two somewhere you can clean yourselves off, and where we can get Blondie there something to help her forget all of this."

The growl that emanated from Shinji's throat rattled the windows.

"…Or, we'll just go somewhere you can get clean, and we'll talk about why you're better off not flattening me into a crêpe." The man's tone was conciliatory, not afraid. "If you think she needs to remember everything, we'll talk about it before anyone does anything, ok?"

"He's a mage." Luna popped out of the bag, having worked the zipper free enough to allow her and Artemis to climb out. "A…different breed of human."

"Ha!" The cop laughed with appreciation at the euphemism. "That's one way to put it. Ok, so which of you two fuzzballs," starting the van in motion again as the light turned green, he kept his eyes on the road, "is her familiar? I didn't feel any of the normal signs from her, but that doesn't mean much."

"I am," Luna looked to Usagi to keep her quiet. "She's recently come into her power, and hasn't had a chance to become acquainted with local customs. She spends most of her time trying to cleanse the youma that infest this area."

Satou nodded in understanding, "So a healing witch? I can see why I never saw her on my radar. Can't do much evil with healing, kind of antithetical really. Also explains why you ran to get him. Need someone with some punch to take on that kind of ugly. I get the feeling you're the kind of Elder that isn't willing to sit back and let good people hurt, Kid. I'm just grateful that you restrained yourself. The house burning down I can explain. The neighborhood reducing itself to toothpicks and sand, not so much."

"Shin-Shin has a powerful heart. He won't allow his powerful body to rule his actions." Usagi once more nestled herself against him. "Thank you, sir, for giving them what peace you could in cremation."

"I am more sorry than I can say, Blondie. Whatever it was that attacked your family, I've never seen youma like that. I'll talk to my contacts, see if we can't try to get out ahead of this. Stop others from suffering." Taking a deep breath himself, he slapped the steering wheel in irritation. "This is three attacks in less than a week! I really am glad you aren't going to be a problem, Kid. Really am. Last thing we need right now is an Elder setting up shop expecting sacrifices. Since I've not heard anything about other Elders from my network, I am wondering where you came from though. Last we heard, your kind had been wiped out in the Academy Wars, alongside most of the rest of the heavy hitters." He hmphed, "Though, you're about the right age to have made it out of that nonsense if someone hid you."

I have no idea what he is talking about. Shinji tried to relax enough to let Unit-01 fade away, without success.

"I don't either," Usagi murmured. Tears still fell from time to time, but her tone had now shifted to emotionally numb. "Let's just worry about getting cleaned up."

"Hey, Boss," Artemis clambered up into the passenger seat, "can you drop me and my friend off at this corner? We've got some things to do, so long as you promise not to try hurting her."

"She is in no danger from me or those we're going to, Tom." The statement was made with the air of an oath, the cop mixing solemnity with intent as he parked near the curb and turned on his hazard lights. "I doubt there's much any of us could do to threaten the Kid back there, and if I'm reading the room right the only way we're going to remove her from him is with the jaws of life. I'm not dumb enough to piss off an Elder, she's safe."

"One more question," Luna readied herself to leave as well, "how did you know where we were?"

"I've been trailing him," Satou cast his thumb back towards Shinji. "He's a walking weapon of mass destruction in my city, Lady. I trust his intentions, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try and verify my hunches. I think we're good after today, though. He listened to a reasonable request, acted with honor, and is willing to cooperate with the law within reason. I'll ease off on the trailing, now that I know he's got a couple of familiars to help him when Maria-san isn't around."

The black cat seemed to accept the reasoning as sound. "Shinji…thanks for doing what you could." Both cats bounded out of the vehicle, weaving through foot traffic and vanishing from sight.

"Go ahead and get some rest," their driver set off once again, "driving through the city's going to take a while."

Shinji let his head fall back against the headrest, but rest was the last thing his head was allowing him to do. I killed her parents. How am I-

"No, you didn't," Usagi's whisper was harsh and sibilant. "I will tell you this one last time, before I take more drastic measures: you did not choose to come here. You did not demand to have these evils accompany you. Blaming you for this is like blaming a fish for pollution in the ocean, and I will smack anyone that dares to accuse you of being responsible for this." Clutching him closer, somehow, she pressed herself against him and sighed out, "We'll talk more later. Please…just try to think happier thoughts."

Happy, in Shinji's view, was best found in C Major. Drowning out all other thoughts, all other concerns, he played a solo mental performance for an audience of one. With the mind of a brilliant musician that was never given a chance to shine, nor an audience that wasn't too unnerving to play for, he let the halls around him echo lovingly with a world he'd never know. Music was the only peace he'd ever found, and this was the only piece of music he could think of that didn't connect to something else terrible.

+++++ Every/Any/Nowhere.

"Still you defy me." A minor thread of irritation folded itself into the typically detached voice's tone, "I offer you the chance to be a part of something far greater, and you refuse to seize it."

The image of a White Moon ordered itself in the midst of the flowing bedlam surrounding it. Saying nothing, it shone with killing intent.

"You will submit," there was no lack of confidence present, "and then you will show me how to integrate with the other. You can do nothing else; all belongs to me in the end."

+++++ Lunar Command Center (Wednesday + 4)

"There is less than zero chance of me being wrong," Artemis lay heavily on one of the medical beds, allowing the machinery to examine and heal him, "the evidence all points towards Shinji being marked by the Black Moon. It's the only explanation that allows for why it was Mamoru that was taken, and not Usagi. Somehow, and I don't know how, it's the White Moon in Shinji's world that is anathema. Maybe we don't exist there. Maybe life followed a different path for everyone. End of the day, we're just lucky that he's ignorant of the whole thing."

Luna carefully worked the controls, not wishing to harm the man she loved regardless of how irritating he could be at times. "I don't know how we're going to explain to Usagi that Mamoru was the person sabotaging their efforts. Prince Endymion, reborn…traitor to mankind."

"I reviewed the footage from every angle I had available. The spy crystals I set up in their equipment showed, conclusively, that he was attempting to shove her into the portal. It was only the fact that his shoe slipped off that changed the degree of tragedy we're looking at. His laces had been stepped on by Minako, after she'd been knocked backwards. Shoe untied, course of everything changed. She's laboring under a lie, Lulu. It's not right for us to lionize a man that…that was willing to betray everything." His soft white fur was finally clean and orderly, and he was grateful for the food that appeared before him.

She watched him eat for a time, ordering her own thoughts. She did not, despite what he feared, disagree with him. What she did not want to do, however, was overwhelm someone she loved as a younger sister. Too much pressure could fracture even the strongest will, and only rarely did the result resemble someone like Shinji Ikari. "He's a broken, pained young man…and he fought with the strength of a hero."

Swallowing what he'd had in his mouth, Artemis looked over and nodded. "If we're going to recover from this, we're going to need him to stay. There is no chance he's from our future. It's better for him, in the end, that he stays here and makes a better future for all of us." He allowed the statement to stand on its own, the unspoken portions swallowed with more of the food before him.

"Condemn his world, save ours." Laying her head against the console, Luna blew out a heavy sigh. "If someone else discovers a way to send him back, I think we need to leave the decision to him. I agree, before you start, that we shouldn't put effort into sending him back. But I don't think it's right to make his choices for him."

"So long as we're in agreement there, I won't fight you on the other parts." Looking down at the remaining food, he decided he wasn't as hungry as he thought he'd been. "I'm going to finish researching. We thought that Endymion's brainwashing had been limited to recently…this has to go back much further."

+++++ Juban High School, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Wednesday + 4)

Lunch was a dark moment for the three students who'd made it safely to school for the day. It had become obvious by the first bell that wherever Shinji went, was where Usagi would likely be found. When rumors began spreading through the school about a fire in the local area, more of the puzzle began to fill itself in. The teachers didn't care who was friends with who, and after asking the class if anyone had seen the wayward student that morning nothing else was forthcoming from an individual with authority.

"If she thought he was the best chance at handling it, we have to trust her." Ami wasn't sanguine about the ordeal, but she also was a realist. "Whatever it is that's happening, we'll find out after class at the arcade."

"It had better be good," Makoto ground out. "There are five of us for a reason, and she sent the three of us away to take him and put him in danger."

"I agree." Minako wasn't in the greatest mood either, despite her sometimes-combative tendencies she loved her fellow Sailors like sisters. If one of them was in danger, her place was at their side not in class pretending to pay attention during math. "Whatever it is, we'll handle it. For now, let's enjoy what Shinji-kun gave us so we have enough energy to do what we need to later."

The food was universally lauded for its taste, though it still felt empty in their stomachs at that moment. Their team was under attack, and that could not be allowed to stand unopposed.

+++++ Somewhere. (Wednesday + 4)

Along the way to their destination, Shinji had lost track of their location. He was almost positive that there weren't any densely forested areas so close to where they had left, the urban metropolis of Japan's capital had consumed it all. He also doubted the presence of dirt access roads that were nearly choked with weeds and grass. As the last movement of his current song ended, he frowned towards the front windshield. I don't think we're in Tokyo anymore.

His passenger had fallen asleep, fatigue and grief acting in concert to overwhelm her emotionally. Her death grip on his person remained secure, even in unconsciousness, and so her presence on his lap was non-negotiable. She'd calmed, somewhat, during the shared mental concert. Her shivering and quaking had become limited, which eventually enabled Unit-01 to fade into the background as well. This, of course, meant he had a more intimate contact with an overwhelmingly beautiful young woman, one who he believed did not deserve the pain that had just been granted to her.

The debate as to how to draw attention to his concerns was ended by the van turning slowly into an otherwise unremarkable field. After several meters of smooth travelling, the landscape changed from green lands and trees to a rocky cavern without warning. Magic. There is no way that this is my past.

"Welcome to Elysium." Satou announced as they exited the cave, reaching a town that was clearly not found on any map of Japan Shinji had ever seen. "We'll be arriving at the Asclepeion shortly, might want to wake up Aurora."

The buildings of the town in question were of every possible design imaginable. Western, Eastern, desert, tundra, there was no form of construction that didn't seem to be present amongst the sprawling area. Elysium. The foreign word made no sense to his ears. Not that much is making sense anymore. Reaching one hand up to Usagi's head, he hesitated for a second, then stroked her hair gently several times. Please understand I'm just trying to wake you up. I'm not doing anything perverted. I'm not.

The woman in question had her breathing change rhythm before she shifted one of her hands to cup Shinji's cheek, her eyes still closed. "Shin-Shin…we're going to have to have a talk about your past." Her luminous blue portals opened, shared pain and suffering bursting forth from them. "I asked you to hold me. That permission extends to granting me the comfort of a peaceful awakening." Turning herself so that she sat on his lap with her legs wrapped around the outside of his and her back against his front, she brought his arms about her like an additional safety belt. "Sir, when we arrive, I need to warn you that attempting to remove me from Shin-Shin will likely precipitate a level of violence that your friends are not equipped to accommodate."

"Solid copy, ma'am. If you could do me an enormous favor and keep a leash on Godzilla there, I'll make sure my friends don't do anything silly." Satou took another soft right and pulled up to a marble building where several strangely dressed ladies and two similarly dressed men stood waiting with a pair of gurneys held aloft by nothing. With his window rolled down, he leaned out and informed them of the situation, "Hey, they aren't to be separated. The Elder goes where the patient asks him to go. I gave my word, and he gave his word. No violence, so long as she's not harmed or taken away from him."

A warm feminine voice responded with calm ease, "Then that is what shall be. Thank you, Child of Yamato, for conveying them here to our House of Healing. Please, allow us permission to open the door and begin the sacred Catharsis."

"Go ahead, just remember: the Silent One is really filthy right now." As the door slid open, he turned and looked back at the pair behind him. "I'll take your stuff to the brunette's place, if that don't bother you none. There's going to be some paperwork, and a lot of questions, but I'll handle it. Unless you object, I'll ask the courts to consider moving you in with her for now. Time moves a little awkwardly here, so be ready to leave…near the time you arrived. Regardless of how long it takes."

"We will brief them, Child of Yamato." The speaker, a classically beautiful woman of foreign descent, had a lightly chiding tone. "Please," she turned her gaze towards Shinji, "Silent One, allow us the honor of assisting your young friend out of the vehicle."

Shinji, already on edge around so many strangers, hadn't yet moved his arms from where they held Usagi. Are you ok with this? He'd murder his way out, if she wanted him to. He'd hate himself for it, but he was damned already.

"It's fine, Shin-Shin. I think they can even place the floaty beds where I can hold your hand while we travel." The twin-tailed blonde looked directly at the woman, radiating her own threats without changing the sweet tone of her voice. "Can't we?"

"Of course, Daughter of the Moon," the woman bowed slightly. "Please, my name is Epione, I will be your Hostess here. I offer you the sacred xenia in the name of peace."

Carefully unclasping the seatbelt, Shinji worked it so that it didn't strike or harm Usagi. The healers watched with curiosity, as if they'd just witnessed a whale doing a soft-shoe number in the middle of a daycare center. When Epione offered her hands to support Usagi in stepping down, he allowed the Sailor to keep his hand as well. The two managed to place her on her feet outside of the van, which enabled him to awkwardly climb down himself. Whatever I can do, Usagi-san…I'll do it.

"I know you will." Withdrawing her hand from their hostess, Usagi looked at the gurneys and frowned. "How do they float? Magnets?"

"Magic, which makes it cooler." Satou motioned for someone to close the door so he could take off. "Your stuff will be safe, and I'll do what I can about the paperwork. I'd ask you to go from here straight to his Den, it'll be much safer than anywhere else, and where I'll set down as your home of record."

Luna asked the others to go to the Command Center, before she pulled me towards you. Shinji didn't want to create a problem, but he couldn't not speak out.

"We'll make one stop on the way there, sir. In exchange, would you please mark my family down as…." Swallowing several times, she fought for control over her tears. "As dying in an unfortunate house fire? I don't want them to be the subject of investigations, whatever that was he fought…it was no longer my family."

The man's stock in Shinji's eyes grew immensely as he nodded in agreement with honest sorrow in his voice, "Dad died throwing you out of the bedroom window when the gas stove went, killing your mother and brother instantly. You were found unconscious, taken to a local hospital for evaluation. Local hero found you, reported the incident to me because he was familiar with me after a recent robbery report. Sound fair?"

Shinji looked down in embarrassment and shame, I'm no hero.

"Thank you, sir." Usagi bowed her farewell, waiting for the van to depart, then pulled Shinji towards the gurneys. "I'll need your help to get in, Shin-Shin. I'm…a little weak in the knees right now. I don't want to get these nice people's robes all bloody. They seem very hard to clean."

He could tell that she was compartmentalizing the trauma. He had more than enough experience with the technique himself. Of course. Once they reached the beds, he knelt down and created a stirrup out of his hands, looking away so that he wouldn't see up her school uniform skirt. Waiting several seconds, he frowned when he felt nothing. Uhm…Usagi-san?

"I would appreciate it if you picked me up." Her hand cupped the back of his neck, the thrill of her touch lighting every nerve along his spine. "There is no perversion in you, and I doubt there ever was. If we are going to be even only friends, I will never allow you to anguish in uncertainty. If you act inappropriately, I will guide you. If you continue to do so, I will scold you. But you will have to do far worse than enjoy the touch of my legs before I no longer call you my friend."

Epione coughed politely. "My apologies, Daughter of Selene, are you able to hear the words of the Silent One?"

As Shinji carefully picked her up, Usagi kept her hand on his neck. "Yes. Something happened when I attempted to heal my…." A few tears escaped, and she smiled sadly at her guardian as he covered over her dignity with one of the sheets attached to the bed. "He became gold instead of purple. After that, I…I know the truth."

"Please, Silent One," one of the men gestured towards the other bed, speaking low to avoid interrupting the others. "Catharsis must be gained before healing can begin."

I hate hospital beds. The stray thought was paired with a frown at the device.

"I would appreciate it if you let them care for you." Usagi's hand twined her fingers in his. "You are hurt, no less than I am. I promise, I'll be there with you. You'll be safe."

He felt a massive weight upon his chest, as if someone had parked a building atop him. Her touch, her words, sparked something inside of him that he had no words to express. It transcended pain, went well beyond agony. It existed as a gorgeous torture that held no form, a delicious torment whose only purpose was to remind him of something he couldn't begin to comprehend. Without warning, Unit-01 reasserted its claim.

"Apollo guide us," one of the ladies gasped.

Epione's voice wasn't far behind, chiding her ally, "Be still!" Steady hands set themselves on his torso, one between his shoulder blades, the other atop his sternum. With a low hymnic note, she began to speak to both Shinji and Usagi. "Please, we must begin Catharsis. Silent One, please!"

There was a lessening of the pain, enough that he could move again. Unclenching his muscles and the joint actuators of Unit-01 led to a series of metallic pops that he wasn't quite sure which was the cause of. His neck made a grotesque cracking sound as he looked down to see Usagi glaring at him and pointing to the nearby gurney. …Yes, ma'am. Turning himself awkwardly, he grabbed the edge of the gurney and hauled it towards him by force. It was a process of shimmying his body onto it owing to Usagi not relinquishing her grip, aided by Epione and both of the men present. Small bits of pleas, neither instructions nor demands in any way, helped ease him into place.

The matronly Hostess switched hands upon the chest of Unit-01, tapping the head of the bed and setting everyone in motion. "I will admit that I have never seen an Elder handled so adeptly. It is unheard of, to be truthful, that one would willingly subordinate itself to anyone. I do not doubt your power, Princess of the Moon, but even yours is not sufficient to challenge him."

"That's because people are trying to direct a tsunami with force," Usagi announced quietly. Her thumb began running along the length of his hand. "I'm just asking Shin-Shin as a friend to do what's best for him. He's a good person, at heart, and accepts that I'm approaching him as someone who cares."

Another, smaller, seizure of torment ripped along his arm, radiating from her hand as if he were grasping a pan that had been on the stove for an hour. His heart pounded, his head ached…he loved every second of it.

"Eirene bless this poor beast," the voice of a younger woman sounded from his side. "Mother, what possible hope do we have of Catharsis? I have never once seen a creature so tortured!"

"Better hope than if we attempted nothing at all, child, now be still." Epione steered everyone through the broad arches at the front of the structure, bypassing several long benches and earning gasps from bystanders. Swiftly moving people into place, she managed to reach a larger room suited to dealing with multiple patients at the same time. "Machaon, Aceso, ready the Nereidynamis. Aceso, you are the only one to re-enter the room with it, Machaon, guard that entrance well. Aglaea, Panacaea, you will be responsible for bathing the Daughter. Hygieia, you and I shall oversee the Silent One. Podalirius, mind the door. If any seek to gawk, remind them firmly that some ills require suffering to cure."

The last man addressed was the only to speak, bowing with a fond grin as he turned to be about his duty, "As you will, Mother."

"The act of changing forms brings complications we did not foresee." Their Hostess' voice held only concern and caution, not irritation or disdain. "We shall have to cleanse him twice, I believe. Once in this…armor, then again as flesh and blood." Turning her head to look towards Usagi, she accidentally drew Shinji's gaze along for the ride.

When he saw that the blonde was now mostly nude thanks to the two women carefully undressing her, it led to his head snapping back in the other direction, his hand recoiling from her touch, with both unbalancing the bed enough to cause him to tumble out the far side and collapse to the ground with sufficient force to crack the floor and shake the room. After the bed completed its rotation and landed atop him, shielding him from everything, he just curled into a ball and mentally whimpered, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

"Athena aid me, Mother, I will not remain silent about this!" The woman identified as Hygieia hefted the bed off of him, tossing it aside as if it weighed nothing. Dropping to her knees, she began to soothe Shinji's arm. "Please, fear not for your imagined sins. Whatever it is that compels you against harmony, it has no power in our home." When he made no motions towards recognizing her efforts, she huffed in irritation and looked around. "Princess of Peace, might I have your permission to bind his eyes? Beholding your splendor might be more than he is willing to do, and perhaps eliminating that potential could assist us in restoring his balance."

Epione, once again, went to chide one of her children, "Daughter-"

"Tartarus take the Words, Mother. My oaths as a Healer will not abide abdication!" Still stroking Unit-01 softly, she turned her attention back to Usagi, "Please, urge him to accept my care."

"Shin-Shin," Usagi's voice was free of remonstration, "I am not upset that you saw me in so few clothes. I understand that it hurts you, though. Please allow the nice lady to blindfold you for a while, ok? I really do need your hand; it helps with the pain."

His mind was in crisis mode, his actions uncontrolled by 'executive thinking', and so Shinji addressed the issue that the pretty lady set before him in as rapid a fashion as possible. Tearing off the pillowcase from the blood-covered cushion that had toppled off with him, he tied it around his eyes tightly and rolled over to crawl towards where he remembered Usagi being. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

"Please, Silent One," Hygieia's voice accompanied her hurrying over to aid him back to his feet, "let me guide you. I wish you no harm, and also seek to aid your compatriot in finding comfort." Her hand took his, the other alighting on his back after he stood once more. "Slowly. We will bring you a chair, instead of the bed." The sound of footsteps hurrying away. "Do you understand that I wish you no harm?" He nodded. "That is good. Please, allow me to introduce myself," the sound of footsteps rapidly approaching brought another set of hands which helped him sit in a chair that floated oddly, "my name is Hygieia. I offer my services in cleansing you of the dust of your travels, and in mending your wounds as I am able. Please, do you accept my aid?"

Shinji turned his head towards where he believed Usagi to be, as he felt her hand crawl back into his grasp. I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

"He accepts, but only you." Given someone to protect, Usagi chose to let her own suffering retreat to the background for a time. "He does not do well in crowds, and does worse when people believe him acting with…naughty intent."

Epione spoke with a soft sigh, "Abstention does not promote wellness. It will be a challenge, but we will overcome it. If you have chosen your path, Hygieia, then I will do what I can to support it. Aceso, go bring another vessel of Nereidynamis for Hygieia to use. We will be busy for some time, it seems."

Shinji could hear the sounds of wet cloths against skin, and unbidden, his mind envisioned what was happening next to him. I'm sorry!

"Shh, shh, shh," both of Usagi's hands now held the one of his. Her right had its fingers intertwined with his, her left was stroking the back and wrist. "I'm not angry. I'm not upset. Right now, we are taking comfort in one another. Right now, I have nothing I wish to hide from you. I am sorry that I've connected us this way, and I am sorry that I gave you no choice in the matter. This will not be the last time I say this to you, but I could think of no better man to act as my guardian. You fought your way to my side against evils that were none of your doing. You protected my friends against evils that were none of your doing. You've protected the people of Tokyo against evils that were none of your doing. I know, in my heart, that when I need you to hold me you will hold me with pure intent. I know, in my heart, that when you hold me we will both be enjoying the physical presence of the other. Those two are not mutually exclusive, and I feel no shame for it."

"Wisdom." Hygieia's touch changed towards washing off Unit-01. "The Child of Selene speaks truth, Silent One. Mutual admiration of form and spirit does not suborn ill-will. There are many men and women of my acquaintance that I admire to varying degrees, all without demeaning them in the slightest for it. Am I their equal in beauty or wit? I would say no. They, however, might say I am. Communication, an activity that requires both expressing and listening to bring forth understanding, will tell you whether your actions are poorly received."

Shinji heard a whisper, though he couldn't make it out, from near Usagi. The twin-tailed blonde replied with a steady, "I am. He brings peace and tranquility, and helping him find those in return…makes it hurt a great deal less. You really shouldn't worry about causing him to harm anyone, ma'am. He might attack if someone attempts to hurt me, but otherwise you probably should worry more about what I'll do if someone hurts him."

Epione's response was curt, "A warning well received."

"Bonds formed of battle can be the strongest of all, if well-tended." Hygieia was unsparing in her cleaning, pushing forcefully between the apex of Shinji's legs to free Unit-01 of blood and gore. "Should you not actively tend them, however, they can be the most brittle of all. It is my belief that she has her own mind on matters, and views your actions far differently. Perhaps you should consider engaging in the second part of communication more, Silent One. The pursuit of wisdom is rarely a singular endeavor."

I…I can't…. The memory of her mother laying beneath him transposed with the memory of Ayanami lying beneath him, causing his mind to spiral in and around itself. He had wronged far too many people, forgiveness was impossible! If he hadn't failed against the Angel, if he had trained harder, if he had paid better attention, everyone Usagi loved would be alive. The people at the café would be alive. Everyone back home would be alive.

"If I hadn't moved out of position to stop the youma from hurting Ami-chan," Usagi tried again, "none of us would have been near that black hole. If I had taken my duties more seriously, and not frittered my time mooning after a man and daydreaming during class, I would have been better able to defend my team. If I hadn't let the voices in my thoughts convince me that everything was pointless, I would have been at school, where the others could have helped me fight. You are not the one responsible for this, and I will say so as many times as I have to, to get you to accept that."

Why…why are you…. He couldn't understand it. It was always his fault, Asuka said so. Every failure in Unit-01 was his. Every time the battle went off plan, his actions were to blame. His mother's death, his father's abandoning him, everything was his fault!

"No, it's not," three words layered with unshakable certitude. "But I don't think you'll accept it yet. Ma'am, can I have one of those cloths? I'd like to help wash…my Shin-Shin."

+++++ Elysium. (Wednesday + 4)

What felt to be hours had passed, and Usagi had indeed been cleansed physically far before Unit-01 was finished. She had taken it upon herself to linger over his upper shoulders and head, though they had also long since been cleaned properly. The consistent, soothing, motions brought tiny thrills of morbid pleasure into her world, and she delighted in the fact that her touch had stopped the stream of apologies, tapering it to a mere brook of anxiety instead. "That's when I knew. My friends had attacked him, and he still fought alongside us. He wasn't hostile, or pompous, or dismissive. He listened when we had ideas, he struggled to engage in communication despite his challenges, and he didn't hide the truth." Leaning forward, she kissed the top of Unit-01's head. "I have seen so much of his truths…and somehow he feels that I have things far harder than he does."

"People who contest for the Crown of Brambles rarely enjoy the rewards of victory." Epione served as an assistant to both ladies, keeping her word to not touch Shinji unless permitted or absolutely required. "Perhaps it is better to think of your suffering as common ground to begin a new chapter in your lives. One placed on the solid foundation of similar tragedies could grant you both the perspective needed to lift the other higher instead of lingering in the pain."

"I would enjoy whatever relationship he wishes to share with me." Her statement held no hidden motives or plots, and her soft sigh did not diminish it. "But only once he isn't hurting so badly. Right now, the last thing he needs is to have to attend to a girlfriend's whims every waking moment. He needs to be the focus, and I won't let anyone push him into becoming something they want instead of what he wants."

Hygieia gave her own approval for the plan, "A deep and abiding love is difficult to discover through the fog of constant pain. His soul…to be blunt, his soul is filthy."

Usagi's eyes went hard, her hand ceasing its motion as she began to glow with a soft silver light. "Perhaps you might explain that statement."

"She means that it is caked with suffering and tragedy." Epione knew her daughter was no diplomat, which is why she hadn't left the situation alone. "Her Personification is that of cleanliness, in any form it may take. Were you to see the world through her eyes, you too would observe what she comments upon: the Silent One's soul is in desperate need of cleansing. Whatever past he has survived, we are truly blessed that it did not shatter his mind." Offering another cloth soaked in the Nereidynamis, she raised one eyebrow and concluded, "An Elder, enraged and driven to war, has no equal."

Satisfied with the explanation, though still upset at the description being applied to someone she knew, the Sailor of the Moon let it go and changed the topic of conversation to avoid becoming angrier. "Why do you call him an Elder? He's only seventeen."

Their Hostess accepted the offer of a cease fire, "The same reason you would call your teachers human. It is what he is. Whatever he might have been, wherever it was he came from, he is now an Elder."

"The Elders are similar to your conception of a kami, of the original order. Primordial forces far beyond simple descriptions or terms. Capable of manifesting terrible powers, and altering destinies." Hygieia finished with the last of the gore on Unit-01's legs, setting aside the cloth on the pile of others to burn and offering a lesson in hopes of reaching better understanding. "There is, in him, a well of power that can only be endured. Should he set his mind to destroying this world, the world would end. Should he decide reality itself must be changed, it will be so. A better description might be that he is an instrument of choice. He chooses, life abides by his terms."

"So, when we say that we have never seen an Elder subordinate itself to another, I hope you now see what we mean." Epione's demeanor was one of sadness. "He was created, cast into this realm, and left without any concept of purpose. The Moirai themselves cannot control his ends, no more than they controlled his beginnings. What sorrows do you think cling to his soul? What effect do you believe that has had upon it?"

Usagi's response was as simple as it was preordained, "One that I will see undone."

+++++ Elysium. (Wednesday + 4)

More than half a day had passed, from their perspective, before Shinji once again appeared from within Unit-01. The physical drain of his emotional chaos had finally succumbed to the gentle ministrations provided by Usagi Tsukino, and no sooner had the armor disappeared than he was rewarded with a lapful of blonde and a hug that radiated both a need for comfort and a comforting need. The only saving grace, in his opinion, was that the blindfold was still mostly covering his eyes preventing him from seeing anything but two bun-style braids.

Her voice was muffled by her mouth's position in the crook of his neck, but her intent shone through, "Thank you, Shin-Shin."

Any concerns that he might see something he ought not to were fixed as an unseen pair of hands adjusted the blindfold with a deft touch. Hygieia's voice preceded her hand resting on his shoulder, "Your Lunar Majesty, we will now have to clean you again as well. The Silent One is still unclean, and you have just reduced your cleanliness."

"Yep." A lot of the punch was gone from her cheer, but her attitude remained steadfastly positive. "I'm going to help Shin-Shin get clean, you're going to help me get clean." Hygieia's hand was removed just after he felt Usagi's hand move. "Nobody but me is going to touch Shin-Shin in this state. I will not set off his armor, and he needs to learn to trust me."

Despite his oath to not speak around others, Shinji felt it very necessary to ask if it were possible that he could perhaps bathe himself. Like anyone over the age of three was likely able to. It wasn't that he was upset that they thought him an invalid, it was more that a woman actually touching his body in a cleaning capacity had never before occurred, and wasn't something he was sure would be 'Asuka Approved'. Opening his mouth to make words, however, wound up with him simply moving his lips. After a scowl, he tried again. Again, he was thwarted by some unseen force.

"Be still, Silent One." Epione's voice was soothing, her desire to see tensions remain low open to all who heard her, "You are not wherever you remember coming from. You are here, with us." Shinji felt Usagi turn slightly, as if she'd been tapped for attention. "He may find himself falling into prior memories, given sufficient emotional prompting. Any excess of emotions, positive or negative, could cause a form of mental reversion. We often see patients missing limbs or organs attempting to perform tasks they once managed without thought, and struggle to understand why they fail, before their mind returns to the present."

I'm not lost in the past, I'm not able to speak! It was intensely distressing, as the realization that the capacity for something as ubiquitous as vocal communication could be so easily stolen settled in his mind.

"Ma'am, I've heard him speak." Usagi was wary, and curious. "When we were in the apartment he's staying…well, I guess we're now staying in. Well, hopefully Makoto-chan is ok with it…. Anyway, he was able to speak just fine. It's only when he's inside of his armor that he has a problem."

There was a period of silence, the Epione spoke again, "Do you not know of the power of the Word?" Another short pause, then a sigh. "I see. Your familiar must have decided against informing you of the issue, as it would have no impact on your lineage. When he accepted being recognized by our kind by the name, 'Silent One', it became a part of who he is. A mark, as identifiable as his hair or eye color to those with the sight. He chose to limit himself. Until he chooses elsewise, he will remain silent in any place but where he makes his home."

Wait…. I'm also called 'Honorable Sir', and 'Shin-Shin', and a dozen other things. Why is Silent One so powerful when the others aren't? Things weren't adding up in his mind.

"Do these choices have any specific guidelines?" He felt Usagi turn around, sitting with her back to his chest again. Whatever she was doing physically, she was verbally paraphrasing and digging deeper. "Something we need to pay attention to? I call him Shin-Shin, because that's a double of the first syllable, is that going to somehow cause him to become twice what he is?"

"That isn't how the Word works." It was Hygieia speaking now. "If he views himself as belonging to you, in some fashion, and declares it in a manner that you permit, it will be so. If you declare him as belonging to you, and he embraces that declaration, it will be so. This is why we have changed how we address you, every time we address you. Your name is yet unsteady on your shoulders. You…totter between three ideals in your own mind, and we would not wish to push you any direction. It is against our oaths as healers."

There was a sudden intensity that flowed through the woman on his lap, something akin to anger and indignation but quickly restrained. Usagi-san? Risking an accident, he shifted his hands to where he believed her arms were. A pulse of relief washed over him when he held two slender, but powerful, tubes and not more…plush things. Usagi-san what's-

"Please do not use the honorific." Her voice was soft, reasonable, and free of darker things. Her spirit gave a different story. "I feel it is very inappropriate, with how close we now are. I call you Shin-Shin because I see in you the capacity for great things, but I know the burdens of greatness. As I understand how painful it is to be burdened with greatness, I provided you with a harbor of sorts in a more childish way." Her hands grabbed his, lacing his arms around her tightly. When she next spoke, it was with a far different timbre, "My name is Princess Serenity, Queen of the Moon Kingdom in Exile. I ask you, Shinji Ikari, will you join your cause to mine? Will you defend life, peace, and justice, no matter where we must go to fight for it?"

"Your Highness," Epione cut off at some level of anger from the woman sitting on his lap.

…My duty is to defeat the Angels. If I don't go home, everyone there might die. He knew she was asking for something deeper than a simple agreement from him. He knew that greatness wasn't something anyone would ever ascribe to him. If I stay here, aren't I being….

One hand reached up and stroked his cheek. Usagi's tone remained clear of any demands, "You are no coward."

A short mental laugh, nothing more than a huff of an exhale. I was going to say 'selfish'. His head drooped forward, his forehead resting against the back of her head. Having her in his lap was like holding onto the battery of life itself. Everything was possible. Anything was possible. Through this baffling being, the universe itself could be made into something beautiful for everyone. I…I have to be honest.

"I would prefer it if you were, yes."

I…I uhm…. I told…I told Makoto th-that…. Anxiety, fear, and self-loathing warred with the glory of her being. He was holding life itself in his arms, he was holding horrors in his heart. Y-y-you. A-all of y-you. He had to just get it out. Like ripping off a bandage. What if the only reason I stay is because you're all brilliant, beautiful, powerful women? Women who offer hugs, instead of insults. Praise, instead of derision. What if I want to stay because even though I'll never belong to any of you…I'll at least be able to bask in the glow of your presence? What if I choose to stay because I don't want to go back where I was hurt, where I was confused, where I was scared? I feel brave here! I ran into a building full of…your…your dead-

"You charged into a building to put my mortal family to rest." She continued to stroke his cheek. "You charged into battle to save five women you didn't know. You have done things that no coward would do, and if you decide your life is best spent here at our side instead of trying to return to the world you left then I will welcome you into it with open arms and an unending smile. I see your mind, Shinji. I know what is in it, and I am still asking you of my own free will, will you help me defend what good is left in this life, no matter how long that might be?"

…I like having you in my lap.

"I'm comfortable here myself." She tittered with a perfect laugh, "You're also being a Silly Billy. I'm wearing a tank top and shorts. I wouldn't sit on you if I wasn't dressed, it would be demeaning to the both of us." Kicking her legs, a sudden contentment flowing from her at his admission, she toyed with his hands. "My life hurts. I loved Endymion. I did-"

"Endymion?" Hygieia gasped, "Your Highness, Endymion the Traitor was cooperating with the Dread Harbinger! I swear upon my oath, upon all the gods on Olympus, we caught Endymion not two years past attempting to sneak the Pithos of Pandora from the adyton, just over there."

Shinji felt his fellow go stone stiff. Her hand was frozen on his cheek, her fingernails lightly pressing into the skin. Her other hand held his arms with a grip of cold iron, matching her voice as she spoke, "I assume you have proof."

She just gave it to you. Shinji had been thinking on the issue of words having more power. If what people said allowed magic to happen, then it would only make sense that a lie would have to be carefully couched to avoid those markers that others like them could see. She swore to that which she holds dearest. If my acceptance of being called 'Silent One' bound my voice, then sworn testimony has to have the same compulsions. It…it would have to have a similar power, like…I don't know…a song with a sudden disharmony. Like someone was attempting the Dies Irae and flipped the last two notes.

Whatever it was that Usagi had done to stop others from speaking while Shinji conferred with her, it was undone as Epione unknowingly supported his point. "If we attest falsely, Your Highness, it would hang over us like a palpable ill. In Elysium, more than any other place in all space and time, the Word is strong. The more dire the lie, the more visible the backlash. Mistakes are not treated as lies, nor are suppositions. We still avoid both, as it is possible we know more than we believe."

He could feel the twin-tailed spiritual center of the Sailor Senshi piecing things together. He had determined early on in their acquaintanceship that she knew far more than she let on, and likely dumbed down what she said to hide other things for whatever reason. Those masks had either been destroyed, or left by the wayside for the moment. Sitting on his lap, once more stroking his cheek and holding his arm gently, was a woman who would one day rule her kingdom again. She had taken the traumas that would have crushed him flat, that had crushed him flat, and used them instead as fuel to power her drive. What more damage is my presence going to do to you….

"Less than your departure would." Leaving that statement to handle the man she sat upon, Usagi addressed the other two in the room, "What is in this thing he tried to steal?"

Hygieia supplied part of the missing information, "Hope."

Epione the other, "Quite possibly the greatest source of harm for all life anywhere." Either Usagi was as confused as he was, or his visual cue drove her to explain herself, "Imagine, if you will, a situation in which the greatest evil possible possessed the only means by which people strive to raise themselves up from the dust they were born in. Imagine them using that hope to chart a course whereby the only possible chance of salvation lies at their feet. Hope is not some monolithic good, nor is it some wretched evil. It is a tool, like a hammer, a chisel, or a broom. Hope can destroy just as capably as it can create. It is up to the one holding it to decide which."

"Which is why we are guarding it, and keeping it from those that might misuse it." Her daughter rounded towards his front, her voice the only signs of her motions. "Hope exists, so long as we are the caretakers of the Pithos of Pandora, as it wishes to exist. It is a living, adapting, entity like any other. It abides by laws, rules, strictures. However, if it is taken from the Pithos, set free to be misused like Wrath, or Pride, then the Gaping Maw will have nothing to stop it from consuming all."

Usagi took off his blindfold, presenting him with a glorious view of a physically flawless woman in little, loose clothing. She looked into his eyes for a second, then nodded to something unseen. Turning back to their Hostess, she set them on their path, "Show us."

+++++ Author's Notes:

Guest: RE: Love and Gwar.

The worst part for both of them, is that they don't even know all of the other contestants yet.

Timingchameleon:

RE: Panic Attacks.

I wouldn't call it brilliance, so much as experience.

RE: Emotions.

Shinji feels so oddly around them, especially when they touch him. And, you remember what that Newton fellow had to say about [e]motion.

RE: Rei.

Yeah, her time hasn't come yet. But it's coming.

RE: Ami.

I really do have a 'type', I guess. Ami and Maya both share a confusion about emotions and a love of learning. It's easy to see one of them in the other.

RE: Makoto.

Yeah…nobody's getting through this clean, I think.

RE: Horaki and the Outer Planets.

I'm not going to tip my hand one way or another, but timescales and cross-dimensional travels can make some weird things happen.