+++++ Elysium. (Wednesday + 4)
He was glad that the blood around his feet was dried. He was less glad that it existed at all. Wearing a pair of woven sandals that stopped him from possibly leaving footprints anywhere, he walked alongside Usagi towards the center of the structure they had been convalescing in. To be fair, he would have much rather walked behind everyone. There, he would have been comfortable and able to look down at the ground to avoid possible eye contact with the people watching them pass. That, however, was impossible with the grip she had on his arm. She had decided his place was by her side, and nothing he could muster short of physical violence would change that. Or so he thought.
Their destination was a large, open-ceiling, courtyard in the center of the structure. There was a dome of glimmering light that seemed to be permeable to air, but there was nothing physical between the sky and the ground below. Sitting on a raised platform was a bier, resting upon that bier was a large clay vase-like jar. It was old, far older than the building around it which itself seemed ancient, and it radiated outwards with the same light that he had seen above.
It was violently terrifying to be in the presence of.
Unceremoniously freeing himself of Usagi's grip, Shinji raced back behind the wall they had rounded to reach their destination. Ignoring the cries of confusion and offers of assistance, he charged through those few people too slow to get out of his way. Unit-01 remained hidden, small blessing that it was, as he was forced to contend with an undiluted dose of something he had never once experienced consciously in his life. Once there was a permanent presence between him and it, he collapsed onto all fours and vomited, then fainted.
+++++ Elysium. (Wednesday + 4)
"Never have I seen such…Oizys herself could not concoct a worse debasement of a man!" Hygieia wrung out the overflow from a cloth before handing it to Usagi to continue cleaning Shinji. "I ache for your loss, Your Highness, please do not think that I am dismissing what tragedies have befallen you…but I honestly believed you were the one who was in most dire need of our aid."
Usagi had a sad smile briefly cross her lips as she worked the blood off of Shinji's chest with the Nereidynamis. "I was given the love of a wonderful mother, a caring father, and a playful brother. I spent many long years bathed in the warm glow of family, with good hearts, and an eager readiness to help me become a woman that would face the world without allowing fear to stop me. When I remembered my past, remembered who I was, I remembered my original mother. Her strength, her charity, her desire for the whole universe to thrive and be blessed." Her jaw clenched briefly before she continued, "I had believed that I had found a man I could love. A man who shared my desire to see a better world for everyone. Who agreed that…." Working at a stubborn spot, she let that train of thought leave her behind. "I have Ami-chan, Minako-chan, Makoto-chan, and even Rei-chan for as much as we quarrel. I have lived a life that prepared me to stand back up after evil knocked me down. He has not."
"You are a stronger woman than most." Accepting the bloody rag from her guest and placing it to the side for burning later, she made efforts at drawing out some of the wounds within the blonde before her. "That does not mean, however, that you should be bereft of assistance. Speaking of the ills often helps us bear them more stolidly."
"There's nothing really to say." Usagi moved on to the other side of his body. "I lost my family. It hurts. I loved a liar. It hurts. Every time I touch Shinji…it feels better. He won't bring back my family, nobody can. He won't change the past, nobody can. What he can do is help me through the present. Support me in the future. Accept my offer of friendship, and learn to stand for himself."
Their assistant Hostess was not ignorant to deeper meanings. "So that one day, he might stand by you?"
"Perhaps." The smile came back. "His mind is filled with wonderful images, among all the pain and hurt. I don't need you to criticize me regarding the condition of his soul, however." That smile became a weapon as it turned on Hygieia. "I know precisely how it came to be that way." Holding that smile in place for several seconds to drive the message home, she returned to her tasks. "I do not need to enter into a relationship right now. I'm hurt, I'm confused, I'm scared. He does not need to enter into a long-term relationship right now. He's never been in a relationship. I'll support him, encourage him to go on outings with our friends, see what he actually finds most attractive. If that ends up being me? We'll see at that time. If it ends up being someone else? I'll be glad that I've been the friend he needed."
A sudden massive intake of breath drew both of their attentions back to Shinji. Unit-01 slammed into place, unfortunately absorbing the blindfold they'd replaced so that Usagi could be cleaned again. Clawing at his eyes, trying to see where he was, he couldn't gain enough lucidity to even speak mentally. Pain, confusion, anxiety, and helplessness all raked their nails along the chalkboard of his mind, keeping focus at bay.
Until Usagi spoke, "No." The same golden glow that had failed at healing her parents rushed outwards without the words typically needed. The urgent call of her spirit to his granted understanding and form to the forces she could conjure, washing over Shinji and changing Unit-01 to the same golden sheen as before. Resting her hand on his chest, she continued to speak in a voice that rang like a cauldron bell in his mind, "Calm. I am here, and all will be well."
I…Usagi-san? His breathing slowed some, his mind clearing. What, uh…what happened?
A light thwap on the center of his chest spoke to her irritation. "I asked you not to use an honorific."
S-sorry. The gentle condemnation stoked more flames in his memory. Are you ok? I…I remember an enemy. A glowing…thing. I'm sorry, I left you to face it alone….
She rested her head atop his stomach, and restrained herself from snapping at him. "No, there was no enemy there. You saw the jar-thing we went to look at and-"
"Suffered from elpidaphobia. Which, were I to be honest, is not something I've ever seen or heard of." Epione entered the room and moved to where Usagi could see her. "He has a fear that is triggered when he is exposed to hope. I cannot say what madness begat this, though you yourself say that you know his mind. I do not think we can heal him here, not with the time we have available."
Usagi stood tall, leaving her hand on his chest, facing their Hostess with rage building in her veins. "You offered to heal his wounds as you are able. Those were her," she pointed at Hygieia, "words. You tell me words have power, that they bind people to concepts. Now you're telling me that after he has a panic attack that you can't do anything for him?"
"Typical treatments for phobias require talking through the triggers, discovering what it is that causes the reactions behind the reaction, then limited exposure eventually building towards full exposure in a controlled setting. Medications might be of some assistance…were he human." Hygieia moved to stand between her mother and Usagi. "He is an Elder, even controlled exposure in this environment might be more destructive to him and everyone else we are treating. Moderating that exposure to where it is functional would require at least ten thousand years, even to begin to control it. One slip, one mistake, and everything would perish beneath his might. Tell me, truly, would you sacrifice my sixteen thousand patients for one?"
He felt her fist clench, and Shinji knew that same feeling he had faced sinking into the Angel that sent him across realities. No.
Usagi's anger switched to him, though it did not infect her voice, "Shinji-"
No. Sitting up, a wobbly process that was not aided by his being functionally blind, allowed him to eventually find his own feet. You tell me you know my thoughts. Tell me, now, are you going to change my mind here? Do you think I'll let you sacrifice tens of thousands for me? I wouldn't even let Misato sacrifice one person for me.
"I will not-"
I am not him. The pain he felt at that statement was immeasurable. I…I know you still love him. Even if he, I don't know…did whatever he did. I know I have black hair and blue eyes, that we're around the same height. You're not going to save him, by saving me.
"Drop your armor." The request was gentle and powerful.
Taking a deep breath, he slowly released it. The process of asking Unit-01 to let him free was becoming clearer, despite not becoming any easier. It took three straight minutes, the golden metal slithering into his being once again piece by piece. When he was, after far too long, standing in his own skin Usagi tore off his blindfold and slapped him. His face turned clear to the side, his vision whitening and then becoming spotty for the force used.
"Never dishonor yourself with comparisons to him ever again." Gripping his throat, she pulled his head back around to force him to stare down into her eyes. "I am saving you. Not him. Not some vague ideal of a man I thought I knew. Not some stand-in for 'the one that got away'. We do not give up on our friends. That is not what the five of us have suffered this long to allow to happen. If these…people, cannot help us…. Then we go somewhere that can." Releasing her hold on him, she offered her hand. "Now please hold my hand, slapping you hurt a lot because apparently your face is made of metal instead of skin and now my hand hurts probably as bad as your cheek."
Dutifully taking her hand in his, Shinji looked down to the ground in shame. I'm sorry.
"I appreciate your apology." Beaming a smile up at him, she reached with her other hand and stroked where she had struck with the backs of her fingers. "I am sorry that I slapped you. I allowed my emotions to get the better of me, and nobody deserves to be hit by someone who cares for them."
Somehow the request for forgiveness she offered felt better than her touch. His attempt at a reply of some form was swallowed up by the realization that he was standing there with only a small strip of cloth adorning his groin. I…I'm….
"Use your pen." Usagi prevented a flare up of anxiety with a simple fix to the situation and by avoiding any sort of blushed embarrassment herself. "We had to clean you, Shin-Shin. It wasn't healthy for your skin to be all blood covered and gross."
Asking his pen, which summoned itself to his free hand, for clothing that was worthy of wearing as he stood beside Usagi, he found himself dressed in formal armor, minus the helm, that resembled an ancient Western Knight. Frowning at his pen and holding it so Usagi could see it, he blinked in confusion. I'm…sorry. I just asked it to make it so I was dressed appropriately for standing near you. I guess it chose this?
For the first time, she caught sight of the engraving on the side of Shinji's pen. "The sun?" Dismissing the matter for later, she pushed down on his hand. "Why don't you wear what you were wearing this morning, instead. We have to leave now, and we're going to look awfully silly with you all metal and shiny."
Epione motioned to bid them to stop, "Please, you need not-"
"He refuses your healing." Usagi cut her off firmly. "He will not allow any sacrifices." When Shinji's clothes materialized in place, she chose an outfit that matched his in style and coloration. "And I will not take aid from people who refuse to help those who need it more than I do. Now, will you be able to put us anywhere near Azabu-Juban, or are we going to have to find our own way home?"
+++++ Shiba Park, Minato, Japan. (Wednesday + 4)
The journey back to the region they had left was much faster than the journey to Elysium, even on foot as they were. Hygieia acted as their guide, making constant attempts at small talk which were all rebuffed by Usagi. As Shinji was muted, he could not try to respond to assure the healer that he appreciated their efforts and was simply glad that nobody was hurt when he lost control. Once the rock cavern they travelled through grew brighter, their guide came to a halt.
"Once you step through there, you will find yourself in a park where people tend to gather. Walk out confidently, and everyone will believe you've always been there." Hygieia clasped her hands before her and lowered her head, "I do wish you would accept our offer of-"
"Come on, Shinji." Usagi rebuffed any more pleasantries by pulling on his arm and marching them towards the exit.
He chose not to fight her for control of their movements, but he did try one last time at peacemaking, I-I think she-
"I will not accept healing from people who refuse to heal someone in need." Her mind was made up, and her course was set.
Turning back as well as he could, he ducked a quick bow and mouthed an apology. He held no malice towards people who were doing the best they could with what they had, nor did he wish any ill upon them for not wishing to invite destruction on their home and those who sheltered inside of it. It only made sense, in his mind, that he suffer if it meant others not having to.
Hygieia's eyes showed the pain she felt at her failure, and her tone grew mournful, "Apollo guide you, Silent One. May you find peace."
The scene surrounding the exiting pair changed to what Usagi recognized as Shiba Park, and Shinji recognized as the location he had been found by Usagi after the woman named Ritsuko had given him her phone number. He frowned at the sudden brightness and shielded his eyes with one hand. It's still so bright, despite being so cold. I had always thought it was warm because it was so bright.
"You think it's cold?" Forced cheer was in her voice, "It's a little warm, to me."
It's at least ten degrees cooler than back home. With his eyes adjusted, he let the hand Usagi was not holding drop and slipped it into his pocket. This is the temperature Asuka kept the apartment at, more or less.
"Yuck." Slowing their pace considerably, she looked sidelong up at him. "Do you mind if I hold onto your arm? Holding onto you makes things hurt less, somehow."
…Yeah…it does. He swallowed uncomfortably. S-sure. I'm…uh, I'm not….
"Not used to women treating you like a valued friend, I know," she stated glumly. "I intend to change that. I think it should start with exposing you to it more often, from me and the others." Lacing her arm around his, she rested her head on his bicep. "Eventually you won't even notice we're doing it."
I doubt that. With a mental laugh, he shook his head. Beautiful women on my arm is not something I'll ever become accustomed to. His heart eased the more she clung to him. I wish I could explain how it feels…when you're touching me.
"Like the world isn't collapsing around you, but there's danger behind every turn. Like the stars above shine only for you, but there are a thousand knives pointing at you." Usagi gave a small sigh, "We feel it too. It's a wonderful feeling, energizing and beautiful. That's why I'm not going to let you continue to suffer. Anyone that can make my friends feel like this does not deserve to spend his life lingering in wretched misery."
Silence consumed them both as their thoughts took different paths. Usagi was planning what she would have to do to address her family's death. Shinji was trying to determine whether he should continue living with Makoto, now that Usagi had a greater need for a place to call home. She drew comfort from knowing that the true thoughts of the man beside her had matched her beliefs, and used his presence to soothe the wrath she felt at having been lied to by the man she had loved. He came to the conclusion that his presence was likely to be a millstone, that all of the attacks had occurred because he had arrived in their world. The contrast became obvious on their faces, hers showing an inclination towards recovery and his showing a descent into further suffering.
His thoughts, however, were not private enough to avoid what followed. "Shin-Shin…you didn't cause this. We have discussed this, and you need to help me by not regressing at every setback. Tonight, I'm going to collapse. I'm going to need help. If you hesitate in holding me as I cry, it will hurt me more. I will be lost, confused, scared, and alone. I will want my friend to be there to see me through those feelings." Clenching her nails against the flesh of his palm, she tried to drive the words into his soul. "I will tell you if you are unwelcome. You will know, well beforehand, that I don't want to be touched. Unless, or until, I say otherwise…I give you full permission to touch me as you would like to."
I…. The sound drew out, fears of Asuka wriggling up past the pleasure he gained from Usagi's touch.
"Shh," switching her clasp to soothing, she tried to push away the bad thoughts, "she doesn't live here. It's only us, and Makoto-chan and I have made our positions clear. We own our bodies, and we decide who has the right to touch us, and how. So please, focus on being there for me once we're alone. I am holding it together in public because I have you here. When I let go…I'll need you there to help put me back together again."
What…uhm…what if I can't put you back together? Failure was his constant companion.
Her laugh, however, chased that away for the moment. "Then we fail together. You're not responsible for putting me together alone, silly. You're responsible for helping!"
There was not much he could say in response to such a simple, and earnest, statement. When faced with the chance to go with the flow, he engaged standard Shinji Protocols and accepted her word as law. Her emotional resilience was far higher than his, and ultimately, she was right in that it was her choice what happened. He would never make choices for her, and he would never mind her making his choices for him.
+++++ Lunar Command Center. (Wednesday + 4)
Shinji and Usagi found their way to the staircase leading down into the heart of the Sailor Senshi's war against evil. They had not spoken of much after she'd convinced him that his place remained at her side, and that silence gave them a hint of what they were walking into when they reached halfway down the long staircase.
Minako's voice was raised, her anger quite clear from the words she chose, "You are telling me that he was forced to kill her parents, and you two just left them with some random stranger?! Her family is dead, he had to kill them, and now both of them are off who knows where with who knows who!"
"Luna, this isn't a good time to be coy." Ami's voice was lower, but still quite audible. "Neither you nor Artemis would have let them go without a good reason, and if all you're doing is being dramatic, I'd really like it if you'd stop right now."
"I'm not being dramatic," the cat responded waspishly. "I'd give you answers if I had them!"
Artemis backed up his love, "I chose to let them go because the man taking them was the same man who covered over for that brawl at the café. The same man who helped hide what happened with that creature when Shinji first arrived. If he was wanting to hurt them, showing up and hiding evidence was a really weird way to choose to do it."
"So, what's our play here?" Rei Hino's voice was calm, "You didn't just ask us to come here to tell us you don't know anything."
"I would assume they asked you to come here because they wanted to tell you about Tuxedo Mask." Usagi, still holding firmly onto Shinji's arm, led him around the last turn of the stairs. Walking with bearing worthy of a Queen, she approached her fellow Sailors with her head held high. "To prepare you to help me come to grips with the fact that my former love betrayed us all." Her eyes shifted to Artemis, and her mouth hardened. "I'll simply cut the conversation short by asking when I was going to be told he was suspected of anything."
The white cat refused to back down from his position. "When I had something more tangible than supposition and guesses, Your Majesty." He could read the temperature of the room as well as anyone, and knew who he now spoke to. "Accusing the presumptive Prince Consort of treason without any concrete proof would not have been helpful. It would have made you act differently, which would have made him act differently, which would have hampered any investigations into his actions."
Holding out his hand for patience, the Silent One made a point to the only person who could hear him, It…does make sense. Shinji was reluctant to speak, but he had seen similar playing out 'back home'. Sometimes, you have to keep secrets from the people you work with to make certain of the truth. There were many things Misato kept from me, until I was ready to know them.
"If I asked you," Usagi looked up at him with curious eyes, "would you promise to never keep things from me?"
I'm terrible at lying. I don't doubt you'd know the truth of things before I even thought about trying to. He shrugged with a weak grin. There's also the fact that you can read my thoughts. But if you would like…yes, I will promise to not keep things from you.
The smile she gave him made some of the pain go away, and brought in new aches to replace the old. "Then I will count that as your promise," her hand squeezed his with warmth, "and I thank you for being so willing to give it."
"Hold on." Minako drew everyone's attention with a series of claps. "Why can you hear him? He's not saying anything! Is he in his armor right now?"
"It is another tragedy in a day full of them," Usagi answered quietly. "I attempted to heal…what at one point was my mother. I failed. Several times." Clutching Shinji's arm closer, she anchored herself to the present on the rock of his character. "Because I failed, Shin-Shin was forced to kill it. I discovered, however…that when I tried my healing, it turned him golden and let me hear his thoughts."
Shinji saw Makoto's jaw flex, before she asked, "How many?"
"Twenty-six targets." Luna provided the count she had gathered. "Mostly local homeless, a few stray animals. It was not a good day for anyone, Makoto-chan. That's why we called you here. We don't know who this is that's doing this. We don't even know how they're doing this. Her Majesty's magic should have cured them, instead it reverted them back to…a mockery of humanity. This could very easily escalate well out of our ability to contain, and so all of you need to be on your guard."
"Wait," Minako waved her hands again, "when did we get told that those creatures you showed us were human?"
I'm…going to be sick. Shinji dropped to one knee, steadying himself with the hand not currently attached to Usagi. I…I didn't….
Ami was over next to him in a flash, urging him to straighten his spine out. "Straighten, straighten, there we go. Shallow breathing can lead to syncope, and that won't help if you end up expelling emesis."
"Whatever spirits came with him, clearly have changed a great many of the rules." Rei's eyes were considering Shinji with a new light. "Our strategies up to this point have all revolved around anonymity. Whoever did this knew who Usagi-san was, knew where she lived, and knew when to hit her. If his world was full of this…negative energy, then we have to do what we can to cleanse everyone who's had contact with him of it. Perhaps removing the mark this evil has placed upon him will give us a chance to continue hiding while we gather more intelligence."
Usagi kept her voice neutral, "Cleanse?"
The peace was maintained, the raven-haired shrine maiden recognizing the offer to expound for what it was. "I know of a few rituals. They ask those dark spirits clinging to people to find other venues of entertainment, or simply to pass on to the other side of the river. It would take less time for us, as our exposure is lower than his. No more than twenty minutes for each one of us, but chances are high that his would require multiple sessions of possibly hours each. It depends on his durability, my stamina, and how well he reacts to something that I've never attempted before." She flicked her hand to wipe away everyone's glare, "I'm saying that I've never interacted with what is essentially a negative-image of our world. Look at him and tell me that his world was a place where goodness and light held any power."
She's not wrong. With two people holding onto him, the agonizing power flowed that much deeper through him. Choosing to sit back on his heels, instead of trying to stand, he asked the question he believed most sane in his mind, How do we protect your families? What's the best way for us to keep everyone around you safe? I'm really not keen on murdering the people responsible for all of you.
"He is asking how we feel it would be best for us to keep your families safe," Usagi translated for him, leaving out where he agreed with Rei. "Which is a valid concern, and one I share."
"It won't be easy, but between Rei-chan's plan and our continued research into Shinji-kun's affiliation with the Black Moon, we're going to do what we can." Luna thumped her tail repeatedly, irritated at the lack of order. "We're going to be working hard, but Minako-chan, Rei-chan, and Ami-chan are going to have to help us by being wary and keeping in touch."
"To that end," Artemis moved over to the keyboard attached to the central console, "we are going to be adding trackers and two-way radios to your pens. I'll need to see each of them, and their shape will change a bit, but this is the best plan I have to give us a better chance at reacting faster and saving lives. I'll also need to borrow Tons of Fun there to help me place magic repeater towers around the city so that we aren't broadcasting on open, unencrypted, frequencies."
"Wait!" Minako stomped her foot, growing angrier by the moment. "Shinji-kun is not affiliated with the Black Moon! You two are telling me that the man who's fought to save all of us repeatedly is in league with the bad guys?!"
Ami groaned, resting her forehead against Shinji's shoulder. "Minako-chan, if where Shinji-kun is from is a dark place, without hope, or love, or light, don't you think that it's possible the good guys were affiliated with the Black Moon? If everything there is the inverse of here, then we're probably fortunate he's not from Usagi's Moon." Lifting her head, she looked at his confused frown. "It'd certainly explain the…reactions."
Shinji could not understand the look she was giving him. I'm sorry, I don't know anything about a black or a white moon. We only have the one, that I'm aware of. It went through phases, just like the one here.
"It's possible that our view of 'good' and 'bad' was a bit too simplistic," Luna offered. "I agree with everyone here, Shinji is trustworthy and in no way would I call him a bad guy. What we can't deny, though, is that he's touched by the Black Moon. The energy signatures he gives off in battle confirm that."
Artemis brought up several holograms as he continued to work on the designs for the pens. "If you look at the image to my left, you'll see the magic resonance from the youma. The one to my right is when Shinji…resolved several outstanding problems."
"They…don't look similar." Makoto flicked her finger along the erratic peaks and troughs of the lines displayed. "The one on the left is a lot smaller."
"If you increase the strength of the resonance, you'll probably find that they're a close match." Ami recognized the math at work. "It's a matter of scale. The youma that you fought at the café was clearly no match for Shinji-kun, which means he's a greater conduit for the magic and will have a greater fingerprint."
Rei's eyebrows knit in thought. "I…might not be able to do anything, then." Those were not the words Usagi wished to hear at the moment, and the raven-haired shrine maiden raised her hand to ward off the explosion. "I did not say I would not try. I said it might not work. If things are as opposite as we're learning, it might be that cursing him would be more effective! I have to operate under the same principles as a doctor and think of what would cause the least amount of harm, in my attempts to do the most amount of good."
Shinji motioned for attention. Then we should start with me. He would not ask these women to sacrifice themselves, not in this or anything else. Can we bring everything back to the apartment, where I can talk? Or is this better at Hino-san's shrine?
"Speaking of…." The Princess allowed the Teenager out, as what she wanted was infringing deeply on her good friend. "Makoto-chan…I know that you're kind of-"
"Yes, you're staying with me. No, it's not a problem." As much as the statuesque stunner wanted to be alone with Shinji more often, she was being honest with him that she would not let him come between their friendship. "Did anything make it out of the fire?"
Luna demonstrated a small amount of pride in their new ally by announcing, "Shinji thought fast on his feet, and had us pack as much as we could fit into a couch cushion. It wasn't much, but we didn't have a lot of time to waste and he found the largest container he could carry."
"He's a good man," Artemis agreed. "Both to have in a fight, and to have around in general. When he thought the man who drove them wherever was possibly threatening to erase Her Majesty's memories, I was afraid the windows on the van would break for the growl he let out."
"Where did you go?" Minako made her way over to hug Shinji from behind, placing his head in her stomach and running her fingers through his hair. "I really was worried, Usagi-chan. About both of you."
"Elysium. Nowhere that was of very much help, honestly. We were able to wash the blood off, and we discovered that he had attempted to steal this jar that…." Blinking with a frown, Usagi patted Shinji on the shoulder and moved over to whisper something to Luna.
The cat nodded several times, then shook her head. "No. That's not how phobias work. Mentioning the object only tends to set people off if the concept itself is present in the immediate area."
I doubt they were right, anyway. Shinji just was not able to wrap his mind around the theory. I mean…I hope that everyone back home is alive. I hope that we don't have to kill anyone else. I hope that we can keep Hino-san, Ami-san, and Minako-san's families alive. If I'm so afraid of hope, wouldn't I shut down mentally every time I thought that I wished my luck would change enough to allow good things to happen for once?
After repeating the gist of his thoughts, Usagi spread her hands, at a loss for ideas. "One of the healers said that he had a fear of hope. When he saw the jar, which apparently contains hope, he panicked, fled, and collapsed." As Shinji blushed with shame, and looked down, she clicked her tongue in exasperation. "Shinji, you can't control a phobia. My mother is…was terrified of spiders, she couldn't be in a room with one. I didn't think less of her for it."
"She's right," Ami backed up her leader. "A true phobia is debilitating." Patting Shinji's arm she urged him to stand up. "It's unlikely that you are afraid of hope. Whatever it was that happened, it might have been something else entirely."
"Can we try this cleansing ritual anywhere," Usagi turned to Rei, "or is this something that only works at your shrine? Shin-Shin is offering to go first, because he doesn't want anyone else hurt if this goes poorly."
"It's a cleansing ritual," the Sailor for Mars rolled her eyes. "It's about as likely to hurt someone as a medical plaster. I have enough in my bag for a short effort. It'll only be half of an hour, at most, but if he thinks it's better to try it on him first…I don't see a reason to be contrarian about it." Her brow furrowed as she considered him, respect for his actions warring with her natural predispositions. Addressing him directly, she made an effort not to be 'commanding', "If you would be so kind as to sit over there. I'll need room to walk around you, and there's more open space there."
While her intent may have been not to seem commanding, her results were that Shinji moved immediately to where she had asked. In his world, when a woman spoke it was because she wanted something done last week. Pointing down to his feet once he had arrived where he believed she wanted him, he looked to Usagi. Is right here fine?
The Princess once more was out, the uneasy truce between her and Mars balancing on a pin. "He'd like to know if where he is will work for you."
"That's fine…sir." Rei pulled a few items out of her bag, then moved closer to him. Once she was within arm's reach, she flapped her hand towards the ground in irritation. "Sit."
Three of the other four ladies present had a poor reaction to his legs going out from under him, none appreciated him being treated like a dog. It was the fourth, however, that spoke first. "Rei-chan," Ami's voice was even, "wouldn't you think this will work better if he's not locked inside that armor? It will be hard for him to maintain emotional balance with you whipsawing from socially polite to irritated Shrine Maiden."
"Not the words I'd use," Makoto muttered darkly.
It's ok. Shinji hurriedly motioned off any potential offense. She asked me to sit down before, I forgot. It's my fault.
"We'll talk about it later, Shin-Shin." Usagi chose to leave what he had said between them. "Let's move this along."
Shinji was certain he was the only one who heard the raven-haired Shrine Maiden when she grumbled, "Oh yes, let's rush the ceremony. That's what the spirits want, after all. Haste."
With his hands resting on his knees, the man out of time kept his eyes down on the floor. Anything he said would clearly not be relayed in its entirety, and often only seemed to make whatever situation worse. Motion, however, managed to draw his attention as he saw Ami shift closer to Makoto. After a few words were exchanged, his roommate's eyebrow raised suddenly, then she nodded. Ami then moved to Minako, and Makoto moved to Usagi, repeating the process. By the time Rei had all of the needed materials set out where they would be used, the other four Sailors had taken up positions equidistant from him and each other. There was a moment where he considered voicing his confusion, before he instead decided that if it was important, he would be told.
"All right, this usually works best if the person receiving the cleansing has their mind clear." Standing before him and tapping her foot as she thought, the Shrine Maiden pursed her lips. It was clear that she was thinking of how to instruct him, and just as clear that she could not come up with anything that seemed appropriate.
I'll close my eyes, and imagine it's a synch test. Shutting his eyelids, he evened out his breathing. He had done this often enough that the meditative state was second nature anymore, though it lacked the soothing qualities most people ascribed to the act when he'd heard them speak of it.
"I'm not sure why he thinks testing sinks will help him, but he thinks he can do what you ask." Usagi's words drifted across his mind from the right. "Go ahead and do whatever it is you're going to do."
Shinji chuckled at the misunderstanding, then realized that his spoken thoughts were apparently formed differently than his emotional thoughts. That began him on a train of thought regarding how Usagi could read his thoughts, and what particular thoughts she could and could not read. With his eyes closed, he had no way of knowing what was going on. This, unfortunately, meant he also had no control over what followed.
+++++ Lunar Command Center. (Wednesday + 4)
Ami Mizuno lived in a world of observation. Searching for the root of any situation, the first cause, gave her a way to occupy her immense mind gainfully. She had begun to put together several details regarding their newfound ally's abilities, especially in the manner they combined with the forces she and her friends could bring to bear. The tale of Usagi failing to heal her mother, but gaining the ability to read Shinji's thoughts, had brought to mind the way his armor changed colors depending on who was casting what.
Which brought to mind what happened the last time Rei Hino used her prowess on him.
As soon as the talisman the Shrine Maiden had prepared made contact with Shinji, Ami was summoning forth as much frost as she could to slow down the raging berserker that was Unit-01. Her warning to the others gave them enough of a head start that before the crimson cyborg could crush their ally: Minako had her whip of hearts lashed around the arm it had been reaching out with, Usagi had her tiara flying to loop around its legs, and Makoto once more was tackling it backwards.
"Stop!" Makoto's shout was intended for the man she was wrestling with. "Stop! You don't want to hurt any of us, right?!"
Minako was pulling with all of her strength on the whip, but was losing ground increasingly fast. "Moon…need…help…."
Usagi rushed over to add what leverage she could. "Got it. Pull steady, don't jerk. We don't want to hurt his shoulder. Keep talking to him Jupiter!"
"C'mon, Shinji. Calm down. You can do it." Panting with exertion, shivering with cold, the auburn haired Sailor refused to yield.
Unit-01 was implacable. Three times now the meat had attempted to harm it. Twice now it had succeeded in doing damage. There would not be another time. The food was scared, it backed away without attempting to fight. It was prey.
"Please," Makoto whispered, running out of breath, "please don't make me hurt you."
+++++ Somewhere. (Wednesday + 4)
The smell of crystal rainbows roused Shinji from an unexpected sleep. His eyelids felt as if they weighed a thousand tons apiece, and cracking them enough to be blinded by an overwhelming light did not aid him in gaining awareness of his surroundings. He could hear a number of voices, many of which were vaguely familiar. There was one, however, that was more insistent than the others.
"…fighting." The voice was the most purely feminine he had ever heard. "Strong…. …this isn't…."
The fragments of sentences became clearer as his mind reached out for them, a lingering echo of moonlight.
"…not you…." It was pleading, encouraging, and compassionate. "Never…alone…."
As his eyes creaked open, a resurgent effort at figuring out what happened, he could make out the vague outline of a woman reaching her hands out to him. Not in yearning, not in need, just an offer of safe harbor in a world gone mad. She, of anyone else in all the starry universe, would only ever seek to aid him in what he attempted.
+++++ Lunar Command Center. (Wednesday + 4)
Unit-01 fell away all at once. This had the unintended result of Shinji being blasted with a barrage of magical ice, yanked backwards by his arm by the combined strength of two blondes, and smothered by Makoto with his face in her chest. The first two stopped as soon as the women involved noticed the change in the situation. The third, however, continued as the statuesque stunner hugged him tightly to her.
"It's ok. It's ok. You're fine now, right? Everything's ok." Her auburn hair was tickling his ear as she soothed him gently. "We're all ok now. Everything's fine."
Can't really breathe. Or see. Anxiety was pinballing around his mind, warring against the glorious sickness that was physical contact with any of the Sailors. Usagi?
"He needs air." The twin-tailed Princess hurried over, firmly separating her friends enough that Shinji could get his bearings. "Shin-Shin? How are you doing?"
With two of them now touching him, calm gained ground rapidly over fear. What…what happened?
Relief worked its way into Usagi's heart, the joy of touching him again joining the pleasure of knowing he had not been hurt seriously. "I think we found out that Hino-san can't use any of her natural gifts on you without negative consequences."
His head snapped over to where the raven-haired Shrine Maiden had backed to. Is she ok? The description he had heard of what had happened before worried him, and he stood up to approach her cautiously before bowing with regret. I'm so incredibly sorry, Hino-san. Please, forgive me. I…I don't know how to stop it from doing that!
When Rei's hand rose, everyone was immediately on guard, except for Shinji, who could not have seen the action. When it descended slowly, landing on his shoulder with a soft pat-pat, the tension eased down some. "Please, don't worry." There was a strain in her voice, her emotions far too tangled to give any clear reading as to her thoughts. "I'm fine. They managed to stop you before you reached me." Forced cheer entered the game, "At least I somehow turned your voice back on. That's something, right?"
My…voice? Standing cautiously back up, he eyed her askance. I still can't speak.
"Are you kidding me?!" Minako threw her hands out dramatically. "Now she can hear him? She doesn't even like him!"
The statement caused Shinji to wince, and look down again. Which…is my fault.
"No, no it is not," Usagi declared firmly. "Shin-Shin is under the mistaken impression that he's responsible for Rei-san's…peculiarities."
"It has to be something to do with healing." Ami attempted to move the discussion out of dangerous waters. "Usagi-chan used her healing, and it connected her to him somehow. What Rei-chan just tried counts as healing, right? It has to be healing."
"It isn't a 'peculiarity' to be tired of men groping me at every turn! It isn't strange to think that the old ways are better! It isn't odd to believe that if we used less machinery and more humanity that the spirits around us wouldn't be so angry all the time!" Rei was both disturbed and irritated. She had never before seen such a violent rejection of her healing, and was not taking it well. "I…I can't disagree, he's not a horrible person. But I'm not the way I am for no reason either!"
I'm sorry. Shinji's face fell, hearing what the Shrine Maiden had to say. That's…what they did to you is perverted. It's vile. I-I'm sorry you had to live that.
Usagi took a deep breath, counted to three, and then moved over to support Shinji in attempting to reach out to their ally. "And you know he believes that, don't you?" She could see the minor signs of Rei's jaw tensing. "You can hear his thoughts. You know that he agrees with you that there is merit to living with the old ways. That he recently met a youkai that was suffering because humanity has 'progressed'. He's not just saying words to make you feel better. Is he?"
Makoto found her tongue, "He squatted down to her level. A youkai no higher than his knee. We could have crushed it flat. She offered to swear an oath at his feet, and he refused to let her crawl on her knees. He offered her a hand in friendship, and she swore to never hurt a human. I was there when he spoke to the youkai. He talked me out of a fight. Told me that he fought Angels, not sanitation workers."
"…He's a man." Rei hurt; it was plain to see that her worldview was being challenged. "If I…if I give you a chance…."
I'll do anything I can to prove I'm not what you think I am. With Usagi holding onto his arm, he felt like he could destroy mountains. He felt like he was burning alive. Your friends need your help, Hino-san. Usagi needs your help.
She stared at him intently, a parade of thoughts flowing through her mind and across her face. "Cedar. You will bring me enough cedar to properly grant you wards for Makoto-san's apartment. You are going to be protecting two people who are important to me, and you will need help doing so. If I give you a chance to prove me wrong, in exchange you will learn more of the faith your spirit rejects so violently."
Before anyone could object, Shinji bowed with appropriate honor to someone who had done him a great favor. It may take me some time to find it. I'm not familiar with the area. I won't fail. Not you, and not them.
+++++ Kino-Tsukino-Ikari Apartment, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Wednesday + 4)
After receiving upgrades to their pens, which now more resembled wands, the group agreed that it would be for the best that everyone head home with support. Artemis followed Venus, Luna promised Usagi that she would hurry to the new apartment after seeing Ami safely home and checking in with Artemis again, and Phobos and Deimos were summoned to escort Rei back to the Shrine. Shinji, not terribly wishing for another fight but more than ready to die to protect the two in his care, was blissfully unaware that both women he traveled with were also prepared to lay down their lives for the two they traveled with.
Usagi had quietly reveled in the feeling. The surety, the absolute confidence that she was holding onto the arm of a man who would fight to the death for her. Who would die before betraying her. Who would never lead her on with empty promises of a future filled with love and honor. She cursed the name Endymion. She spat on the name Mamoru. She felt, in her bones, that his actions had led to her family's deaths. Artemis had shown her the recordings, had helped her see the math involved. He hadn't tried to save her. He'd tried to murder her.
"Well…welcome home." Makoto was sad. For her friend, for her ally, and for not being there when she was needed most. "I hope you don't roll too much, because until we get another futon, you and I are sharing mine." Turning the key to let them into the apartment, she wasn't ready for what was happening inside.
Three small vixens were prancing about, cleaning and organizing. Nine total tails on display, the triplets turned as one and greeted those returning to the Den, "Welcome home!" It became impossible to tell which was speaking, as they danced around and through each other to finish up their tasks. "Thank you for touching the talisman this morning. It really made it easier for us to come in and chase out the lingering bad spirits. This place isn't really in a great spot, but we have to assume the Silent One has his reasons for living here with you."
The apartment had a lingering scent of jasmine floating about, the walls covered with a fresh coat of paint, the curtains changed for thicker shades to block out the lights of the city, the floor polished to a shine, the lights changed for…something. Makoto blinked, looking around at what seemed to be a brand-new apartment. "What…happened?"
"Shin-Shin," Usagi lightly tugged on his cuff, "you…know these kitsune?"
"He does!" A happy laugh flowed from the trio. "We warned him about the attack at the feeding ground. She helped him burn the fiend leavings so they wouldn't pollute anything." The one responsible knelt in a dramatic bow. "We even calmed his spirit when the Unspoken Tragedy brushed his mind. As strong as he is, being an Elder and all, nobody is prepared for meeting that for the first time." Turning about and rushing further into the apartment, they beckoned the travelers onward. "We organized your possessions, Queen of the Moon. Cleaned them of the bad spirits, and the blood…." One of them moved a bit closer to Usagi, and looked at her with honest sorrow. "No feeling being is unharmed by the loss of kith or kin. You have struggled bravely to free this land of the youma's depredations, and we appreciate that you have not done so by killing everything you see that is not mortal. You did not deserve the events of this morning, know that we join the Silent One and the Thunder Strike in mourning for your loss."
Princess Serenity could hold out no longer. With a weeping sob, she collapsed to her knees and began to wail. Her world had been shattered, her life thrown out of its orderly path. She'd thought up was down, black was white, and now here she was at the precipice of a war she'd not known was approaching. There was no beauty in the world, now. No light.
Makoto spun back, pushing Shinji gently towards Usagi and whispering tersely, "Pick her up. Take her to the futon. Sit down, hold her. I'll make some tea."
With no idea on what else he might do, Shinji did as instructed. Picking her up was no more difficult than it might have been in picking up one of the triplets. When he did, the twin-tailed blonde once more wrapped her arms around his neck and bawled into the space between neck and shoulder. Two of the foxes dashed ahead of him and pulled the pillows out of the way, the third tugging the blanket clear. No sooner had he turned about and sat down, then he had an additional occupant of his personal space, the dappled kitsune giving affectionate kisses and nuzzling the woman he held.
The other two began to sing a somber duet. It was a dirge, low and mournful, but interlaced with it was the promise of better tomorrows. Today would hurt, the present could not be stopped, but the future would ease that pain in time. All three foxes glowed with soft flames that matched their fur, and all three took time to look to Shinji with approval and gratitude. They were witnessing his actions, and they promised in their own way to speak of those actions to all who would listen. In their eyes, the Silent One was generous with his blessings, steadfast in his actions, and honorable in his intent.
It was another few minutes before Makoto brought out some of the tea Shinji had bought for them, a type that was intended to help them sleep better. Setting it down on the small table, she poured out three glasses and smiled sadly. "I'm sorry I don't have better cups, Usagi-chan. They never quite made it on my list of priorities."
It had been a quarter of an hour since she'd begun crying, and while the poison wasn't out of her system the offer of comfort from those present had given her enough solace to accept both the tea and the chance to talk. "I'm s-sure if y-you ask Sh-Sh-Shin-Shin h-he'll b-buy you some."
The pair on the ground kept up their serenade, and the one on Usagi's lap shuffled aside to make room for her to hydrate. "He could come to our mother's store! She sells many fine dishes for humans. An Elder shopping at her store would be good for business, so he'd almost certainly receive a fair bargain for good cups."
"I'd be fine with that." Speaking for the first time where the foxes could hear brought their attention directly to him. The song continued, but there was curiosity laced through it now. "I can speak, here. But only here."
"Neat!" The vixen on their lap patted Usagi. "You will be well protected, Queen of the Moon. The Silent One trusts you to Den with him, he holds you as if you were kin!" Sniffing the air, she tilted her head, "And the Flower's Grace makes a fine tea for you. None may replace those you have lost, not directly, but it does seem these two offer you a place at their side. There is still good to be found in this life, if you look for it."
"You'll always have a place with me, wherever I end up." Makoto rubbed Usagi's back with broad circular strokes. "Just like Shinji. The three of us? We're going to support each other with everything we've got." She looked to Shinji, "Right?"
"Absolutely." Shinji, unlike Makoto, kept his hands where they were. One supporting Usagi's shoulders, the other past her knees where it grasped nothing. "I am beyond sorry that I wasn't faster. I…I know that…. That you, both of you, don't blame me for what's been happening. But my arrival changed things here. So…it may not be my fault, but I still think it's my responsibility." Braving the frown from Makoto, and the soggy pout from Usagi, he shrugged his shoulders. "It's how I feel. I promised to not hide that from you today." He turned slightly to Makoto. "I won't hide it from either of you. I won't treat one of you better than the other. Not if we're to live together. You both deserve far better than me, and it's my duty to give you what I can."
Usagi nestled into Shinji's shoulder, cradling her tea near her lips. "Then y-your duty is now t-to give us what we d-deserve." Taking several slow sips, she looked to Makoto. "H-he thinks e-each of u-us is farther from his r-reach than the s-stars."
"He's wounded," the statuesque stunner recognized that her friend wanted to speak about other topics. "But wounds heal, and we'll be there to help keep the wounds clean so they heal properly." Sitting up on her knees, she held a cup to Shinji's lips so that he could drink as well, with his hands being busy. "He'll give everything he has for us, and so we need to do what he'll allow us to do in return."
With his mouth now occupied, he thought the words instead of speaking them. I'm not doing this because I want anything….
The Princess luxuriated in the feeling of being held by a man that had a good heart. "He's a s-silly Shin-Shin."
+++++ Kino-Tsukino-Ikari Apartment, Azabu-Juban, Japan. (Wednesday + 4)
Between the tea, the company, and the songs, they had managed to encourage Usagi to sleep. Unfortunately for Shinji, even in sleep the twin-tailed blonde had an unrelenting grip on him. He settled himself into place by the futons, supporting Usagi while Makoto unfolded them and accepted the help of the vixens in laying out blankets and pillows. He made several attempts at freeing her so that she could sleep somewhere more comfortable, eventually embracing his fate with a frustrated smile to Makoto.
Picking up Shinji's chalkboard, Makoto scrawled out a question, 'Room for one more? If you sit on the futon holding her, I can curl up under your arm and hold her too.'
His initial, instinctive, reaction was an unqualified 'Are you out of your mind?!'. He was almost positive he wouldn't be able to sleep with Usagi on his lap, owing to the constant fear of doing something perverse while unconscious. His thought, however, was pre-empted by one of the trio of foxes clearing a space and the other two building a pillow stack for him to lean against.
"Here, here," they whispered. "Support her back on this, you lean against the wall, Autumn's Bounty can curl up into you on the other side!" Shepherding him towards where they'd intended him to be, they bounced off the wall to push him down by weight on his shoulders. As soon as he was seated, they switched to implore Makoto over as well. "Come, come. Enjoy his heartfelt affections, comfort him with your own. Share your kindness with the Queen of the Moon."
I…I'm not…this isn't…. Shinji tried to figure out a way to verbalize his objections to his actions being termed 'affections'.
"But you do enjoy her presence, Silent One." One of the trio of foxes stepped clear as the other two dragged a blanket over everyone. With Makoto under his arm, and Usagi curled into his chest, Shinji was unable to protest vehemently enough to stop things. The cheery vixen wagged all three of her tails as she added, "After all, she enjoys your good opinion of her person and character. She is eager to garner your attention." Her eyes moved to Usagi. "As is she…though it's choked by the loss of her blood."
He felt Makoto go stiff under his arm, which drove confusion out and allowed anger in. You will not go around speaking what is in their minds! They deserve privacy. If they want to share something with me, then they will share it with me. Just because Usagi and Hino-san can read my thoughts now doesn't mean Makoto deserves less consideration. Apologize. Now.
The foxes jumped into a line, three abreast, and performed a kneeling bow, speaking in unison, "We apologize for speaking your thoughts aloud, Watcher of the Heavens. The Silent One is right to rebuke us for speaking so freely within your Den, as this space is held most sacred to you and those you shelter." Backing away, still bowed, they moved towards the window as one. "We shall leave your domain, and return later with signs of our penitence. None shall know of what we saw." The three rapidly vanished through the still-closed window, the glass panes and curtains neither moving nor proving a significant barrier to them.
After several seconds, Makoto felt Shinji sigh. Taking to the blackboard once again to try to communicate without waking up Usagi, she scrawled out what she hoped would be a conciliatory statement, 'I did tell you that I was attracted. I wasn't ready to have someone read my thoughts.'
Shinji asked for the chalk with an open palm, and after Makoto erased the board, he marked down his reply, 'It isn't right. Your thoughts are private. What if they told me something you weren't ready for? You couldn't speak up without waking Usagi-san, so I had to voice it for you.'
She couldn't deny that she felt wonderful he'd stood up for her in that way. Wiping the board again, she added, 'I'm glad you don't think I'm weak.' What she said next, however well-intentioned, managed to sink the conversation, 'You're just like my old senpai. He was a great guy, trusted my strength enough to let me stand on my own. I had a crush on him, it makes it easy to be attracted to you.'
He could feel his brain tightening, the icy tendrils of anxiety lashing about in his skull. Am…am I doomed to forever be a replacement for other people? She's only interested in me because I remind her of another, better, man…. Why did I even think I had a chance with someone like her? Asuka was right…I'm pathetic. Dropping his hand down to the side, he set his fingers to bracing him enough to give him leverage. One swift motion with sufficient force allowed him to finally disentangle himself from Usagi and give the twin-tailed blonde to Makoto to hold. He didn't stop to explain himself; he didn't feel as if he could even if he wanted to. I'm a replacement. For Rei. For Mamoru. For their families. For her senpai. I only exist to plug holes for people, or to kill people they love.
There was an anger building as he walked out of the apartment. His wand, somehow, sensed his intent and clad him in gear that allowed him freedom of motion. The semi-intelligent device 'hearing' his desire to escape his surroundings, aiding him in that effort. His only gift to the ladies he left behind was a quiet, but firm, shut of the door. Two steps put him on the sidewalk, and then it took only two more before he was moving at a dead sprint away from yet another home that had never been meant for someone like him.
In his haste, he missed the look of confused fear on Makoto's face. Eight times she checked what she'd written down, making sure that her words were easily legible and meant what she'd thought they had. She wanted to give chase, but with her friend on her lap and thankfully still unconscious, she had no choice but to sit there and try to piece together what in her compliment had caused the man she'd been growing to care for to storm out of their home.
+++++ Author's Notes:
Sorry for the terse notes this time around. Real life happened, and I can't respond as I usually do this week.