Heero stared blankly at the small cloth bag that Quatre had just dropped on his laptop keyboard, then shifted his gaze to meet the other pilot’s eyes. “What’s this for?”
“It’s an o-mamori–”
“I can see that. Why are you giving it to me?”
Quatre shrugged, pulling a similar bag out of the collar of his shirt. “Duo says that one’s yours. We’ve all got one.”
Heero looked again at the bag on his keyboard, still not picking it up. Quatre’s was gold fabric embroidered in blue, with a blue cord tying it shut; his was dark blue embroidered in white, with a matching white cord acting as both neck loop and closure. “And Duo is giving out traditional Japanese luck charms, why?”
“Humour me, okay?” the teenager in question called from the hallway. “I just felt like it.”
Sitting at the other end of the rickety table, Trowa stuck one hand down his turtleneck and pulled out a green-on-green bag, waving it wordlessly.
“As superstitions go, this one is harmless and not inconvenient,” Wufei said flatly, not looking up from his own laptop.
“…What colour is yours?” Heero asked, suppressing a faint smile.
“Really? I would have assumed it would be white,” Quatre said earnestly, tucking his own o-mamori away again. “I mean, everyone else got one that matches a colour they wear a lot.”
“Red means good luck in most Asian cultures,” Heero explained, reaching to pick his up. “White is for mourning–” He broke off as his fingertips brushed the cloth and tingled, a sensation like a hum or faint vibration sinking into his bones.
“Oh!” Quatre blinked, obviously re-focussing on Wufei’s white shirt and pants, an outfit he wore at least two days out of every three. “I, uh, didn’t know…” He visibly hesitated, then apparently decided not to ask.
“See, this is why I keep offering you manga and manhua to read,” Duo said cheerfully, swinging into the room on his crutches, a small backpack slung over his shoulder and one heavily-bandaged leg held stiffly with the toe not quite tapping the ground. “You get a bunch of interesting cultural stuff along with the ninjas and dragons and magical girls.”
Heero pulled his hand away from the o-mamori, feeling his face settle into a cold lack of expression as the hum faded. Duo noticed and grimaced theatrically, looking at him with wide blue-violet eyes.
“C’mon, Hee-man, I know it’s kinda stupid but humour me? It’s not like it’ll hurt to wear it!”
It hadn’t felt dangerous or threatening; in fact, the sensation had some similarities to the way the Shinigami – Nemu – felt when she was camouflaged… But I can’t say that. Casting around for something else to say, his mind belatedly caught up to something he’d seen and he frowned, looking pointedly at Duo’s backpack.
“Why are you up? And are you going somewhere?”
“I’ve got a surveillance gig I can do from a nice comfy bed next to a window,” Duo said gleefully. “Line-of-sight visuals on an airfield, plus a little light hacking on the side. Medium-to-long term, low impact, very definitely designed to not be noticed, so the chances of having to evac in a hurry are also low. I can do a bunch of rehab exercises and stuff, get back in shape, and do something useful at the same time.”
“Which hopefully means you won’t get bored enough to do anything stupid,” Wufei muttered, closing his laptop and standing up. “Or annoying.”
“Hey! Who said you’d be within annoying range, anyway?”
“Master O, when he tasked me to go with you, thirty seconds ago,” Wufei said dryly, starting to pack up. “Apparently Professor G feels that you might need backup if that ‘low’ chance of having to evacuate in a hurry comes up, and asked a favour.”
“Pfft. Well, in that case, you get to drive,” Duo informed him, grinning.
Heero sized up Duo’s stance, expression, and colouring, evaluating the other pilot’s mission-readiness almost without thinking. He hadn’t seen the wound – he’d been on a mission of his own when Duo was injured, finding out about it only when he’d gotten an encrypted message saying the other pilots had already switched safe houses to one that was better suited to staying in one place for several weeks as Duo recovered, and Quatre and Wufei had divided responsibility for helping him with wound care between them– but Sally had been optimistic about his chances of an uneventful recovery, and looking at him now…
His colour is good, he sounds right, and he’s not showing any of the signs he does when he’s hiding severe pain, Heero decided, relaxing slightly. Duo was an excellent actor, but there was still an edge to his voice and visible tension around his eyes and mouth when he was faking his usual casual humour. Relieved of one concern, he reached out to cautiously touch the o-mamori on his keyboard again, evaluating the odd sensation while the other pilots were distracted by the banter between Duo and Wufei.
…It really does feel like Nemu’s shields. I’m not getting threat or hostility from it at all. And if thirteen squads of militarily organised ghosts working to protect humans from soul-eating monsters can be real, I suppose good luck charms that actually work can exist too. Picking it up, he dropped the cord loop over his head and went back to his intelligence evaluation, nodding absently in farewell when Duo bumped his shoulder companionably as he left.
- - - - -
“Thank fuck he didn’t argue,” Duo groaned, slumping back against the passenger seat’s headrest as Wufei drove away from the safe house.
“I was wondering how you were going to handle it if he didn’t want to wear it.”
“Puppy eyes,” Duo told him. “Huge, sad, unrelenting puppy eyes. They don’t work for anything major, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve caved on this. It’s not like wearing an o-mamori is going to negatively impact a mission somehow, thank you for sort-of pointing that out.”
Wufei shrugged one shoulder, mouth curving into a wry smile. “It is in everyone’s best interests… and as Quatre said when he explained the situation, I can’t imagine Heero taking a truthful explanation well.”
“Well, it worked out okay!” Duo grinned back at him, then leaned forwards and started unwinding the bandages from around his leg. “I can stop using the damn crutches, too, so long as I stay clear of Heero and Sally until this is a bit more plausible.” The last coil of bandage fell away, taking the padded wound dressing underneath with it and revealing a perfect semi-circle of toothmarks on the front of his right thigh, matched by another semicircle on the other side, red and shiny but no longer covering divots carved out of his flesh. The skin was almost smooth, muscles sliding easily underneath the marks.
“I thought your ghost friend said he wasn’t much good at healing,” Wufei snorted, glancing quickly at the healing scars before looking back at the road.
“Ha, yeah. More like too good if I don’t want to answer some really tricky questions,” Duo agreed, gathering up the bandages and stuffing them into a side pocket of his bag. “I get the impression that this level of injury is really minor by his standards, though.”
“What does he call major, then?”
“Hell if I know. Like I said, I just got an impression, based on the fact that he was kind of tense when I told him I got bit by a Hollow, and then he relaxed when he actually saw it. Plus if he says he’s no good at healing, and then he can do this, the people who are good at healing must be able to work fucking miracles.”
“…I can’t argue with that logic,” Wufei said thoughtfully. “I’m surprised you haven’t already wormed his entire life story out of him in excruciating detail, though.”
“You mean unlife story. And I wish.” Duo scowled, nose wrinkling as he scrunched down further into his seat. “Every time I think he’s gonna tell me something interesting, he remembers that his organisation – whatever the heck the ‘Gotei Thirteen’ is – has rules against telling stuff to living humans. They aren’t even supposed to let us know they exist, though apparently he didn’t get in trouble for that because his boss says we don’t count as ‘ordinary’. I know his name is Abarai Renji, he’s a Captain, he’s a Shinigami and if you don’t think I asked questions about that you’ve got another think coming, and… that’s about it. He was happy enough to give me pointers for fighting Hollows, but any time I tried to find out more about him, he clammed up. And then he had to leave because he was busy.”
“I hope you’re planning to share those pointers.”
“They mostly boiled down to ‘don’t if you can avoid it, but if you’ve gotta, hit ’em in the mask’. Apparently breaking their masks will kill them even if you haven’t done any other damage, but beating on them anywhere else won’t finish them off.”
Wufei grimaced uncomfortably. “I can barely see those things at all, let alone well enough to aim for specific locations, and I haven’t had an opportunity to put the other lessons you gave me into practice yet. I don’t know if I’m doing it right, and if I’m not ‘putting my heart into it’ properly, hitting their masks won’t help.”
“Wanna go hunting together after we get to the mission location?” Duo offered. “If we find something nice and small, I can back you up while you take it out. Just so you know you can if you have to, y’know.”
“…I would appreciate that. Thank you.”
* * * * *
Two days later, Heero was doing a preliminary investigation of a possible new safe house location – i.e. driving through the area looking for overt signs of OZ surveillance – when he caught sight of a familiar flicker of black on top of a building.
…I should ask her about the o-mamori, he decided, and started looking for a parking space.
As he climbed the fire escape to the building’s flat roof, he glimpsed something else; something out of the corner of his eye that faded as he turned to look at it squarely. Something grey was draped over the parapet, tangling around the upper sections of the fire escape’s handrail, insubstantial strands that gave him a brief cold sensation as he swiped his hand through one. Cold and… anger?
Squinting, he turned his head, trying to bring them into focus. They seemed a little more ‘there’ when he concentrated on looking at a spot slightly to the side, gaining definition and glinting like dulled metal.
Nemu was waiting as he cautiously lifted his head over the parapet, attention apparently divided between him and an indistinct pale figure standing on the edge bordering the street. Gray chains coiled around its – her? – arms, stretching out to drape and knot around every projection on the roof.
“Heero,” Nemu said quietly, nodding to him as he paused uncertainly. “She will not notice you if you keep your voice down.”
“Understood. What is she? –Hello, Nemu,” he added, belatedly responding to her greeting. Duo and Quatre had pointed out how many ‘social conventions’ he ignored in day-to-day communication, and it was good practice for undercover work as well as being polite.
“An Earthbound spirit. Unlike a normal Plus, she is bound to this place by some strong emotion.”
“…so she’s a ghost?”
“I believe that is one of the terms used in the living world, yes.”
“Hn.” The spirit slid in and out of focus as Heero tried to look at her, and he rubbed his eyes as he turned back to Nemu. Like the chains, he seemed to be getting a better view out of the corner of his eye than when he tried to look directly at her; mid-length brown hair, draggled curls falling over her face, and a generally droopy figure slumped inside artistically ‘worn’ jeans and a ruffled top. “You said ‘unlike a normal Plus’. There are ‘normal’ ghosts?”
Nemu tilted her head a fraction, looking at him with a faintly surprised expression. “Of course. Most human spirits linger in the area they lived in out of habit, but they are not fixed to a location or person in this way.”
Heero could feel himself frown in response. “So where do they go?”
“…Usually nowhere,” Nemu said after a brief pause. “Until a Shinigami assists them to pass on, that is.”
“Then why haven’t I ever seen one?”
The surprised expression wasn’t faint any more.
- - - - -
“You have never seen a normal Plus?” Nemu asked, hand twitching towards her tiny personal recorder.
Heero scowled, but the expression looked more embarrassed than annoyed or angry. “That–” He gestured towards the spirit standing at the edge of the roof. “–is the first ghost of any kind that I’ve ever seen, apart from you.”
“Come here for a moment, please.” Nemu led him to the edge of the roof, then pointed down into the neighbouring alleyway. “Do you see anything or anyone down there?”
She watched him as he scanned the alleyway, clearly examining the shadows and behind piles of trash for anything hidden… and sliding over the elderly male spirit drifting along in the open without even a flicker of reaction.
“There’s a cat under that box,” he noted, pointing. “Otherwise, no.”
“Fascinating. Your ability to see spiritual entities seems to be developing exactly opposite to the usual pattern. I wonder if it has anything to do with your offensive abilities?” Nemu mused.
She didn't realise she’d fallen silent until he scowled again. “You are going to explain that, aren’t you?”
“Ah. My apologies. Of course.” Folding her hands in front of her, she quickly revised the standard lecture on living sensitives, editing out several sections that were only relevant to Shinigami and making mental note of areas that she would have to add extra detail to.
“Mortals who are able to see spirits are rare, and usually limited in what they can see,” she began. “Almost all of them can only see Pluses – ordinary spirits. Earthbound spirits, like this one, and Possessing spirits, those bound to a living person by similar emotional ties, are harder to see. This seems to be a function of both their nature, which is somewhat removed from the world in general, and also their strength; they tend to be… spiritually ‘concentrated’ might be the best term. Only a few living humans can sense them.
“Shinigami and Hollows are even further removed from the living world by nature, and also many times more powerful. We also do not want to be seen, usually, so a portion of our energy goes towards concealment even when we are not using sealing and camouflage kidou. Recorded cases of living humans being able to see Shinigami are… incredibly rare.”
“But I saw you, and Hollows, first,” Heero said flatly.
“Yes. You also developed and used an offensive reiatsu flare even before you were able to see its targets.”
Heero shrugged uncomfortably. “I could tell where they were even if I couldn’t see them, and they didn’t feel friendly, so…”
“You pinpointed their location by feeling hostility?”
He shrugged again, then nodded. “Threat, I suppose. Yes.”
“That suggests a possible avenue of investigation,” Nemu said, hand twitching towards her recorder again. “There is a Plus in that alley, but you cannot see it. It is very unlikely to possess offensive abilities, and even if it does they would not be strong enough to harm you. It poses no threat. You can see the Earthbound spirit… how clearly?”
“Not very,” he admitted, turning his head and looking sideways at the spirit. “It’s blurry, and I can’t focus on it. I get a better view if I’m looking at something near it instead of directly at it.”
“It is likely to be developing minor offensive abilities, and is strong enough to use them in ways that could injure or possibly kill you. It is a moderate threat. Hollows pose a definite and immediate threat, and while I do not intend to do you any harm, I certainly have the ability… and you have demonstrated the ability to see me even through strong sealing kidou. Your ability to detect spiritual entities seems to operate entirely based on the level of the threat they pose to you, independent of their ability or desire to hide.” Fascinating.
“…You’ve got a notebook or something you want to pull out, don’t you?” Heero asked, relaxing into a faint smile. “Go ahead.”
- - - - -
Fifteen minutes later, after answering several rapid-fire questions (despite having no idea what his diet for the last week had to do with his ability – or lack of ability – to see ghosts), Heero finally remembered his original intent.
“By the way,” he said, pulling the o-mamori out of his shirt, “can you tell me anything about this?”
“Hmm?” Nemu glanced up from her tiny hand-held recorder, stared blankly at the o-mamori for a second, then nodded. “Yes; it appears to be a custom-made Shinigami camouflaging kidou, designed to hide the wearer’s reiatsu signature. I believe Subject 1 requested several from Captain Abarai in order to prevent you and your allies from continuing to attract Hollows as your abilities develop.”
“My apologies. I believe his name is actually Duo Maxwell.”
Bankai Wing 6
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