“Wu, I hate to tell you this, but if you keep staring at ghosts that way after we get back with the other guys, Heero is gonna notice for sure.”
Wufei… twitched. Then he blinked, and looked away from the ghost – a young OZ soldier who looked pathetically confused, the victim of a training accident judging by what Duo had gathered about this base’s so-far uneventful history and boy was that ever going to change soon – but he didn’t say anything, and thirty seconds later he was back to staring at the ghost.
That was not normal Chang Wufei behaviour. Especially not the twitch.
“Dude, I know I described this plan as ‘stalking a ghost to use it as Hollow bait’, but I didn’t mean stalking stalking. You aren’t actually required to burn holes in him with your eyes.”
That got an annoyed snort, but it didn’t sound sincere. Not that Wufei’s standard annoyed snort actually sounded sincerely annoyed most of the time, either, but there was an indefinable quality to the genuine article that was lacking here. True Wufei-brand pseudo-annoyance was subtly tuned to let you know that you hadn’t actually succeeded in poking a nerve, and you certainly hadn’t made him laugh, but you’d done well enough to earn a scornful noise with a delicate underlay of tolerant amusement. Or at least, that was how Duo interpreted it. There were nuances involved. This snort had conveyed almost no scorn, and no amusement at all, and while it hadn’t been one of his better shots Duo felt that it had been worth at least the audible equivalent of a form letter.
“What’s wrong?” Duo asked in his best non-judgemental voice.
“Nothing,” Wufei said flatly, not looking at him.
“Hey, if you don’t want to talk about it you can just tell me to back off and I will–”
“Or you could simply accept my word that there’s nothing wrong.”
Duo twisted around to look directly at the other pilot. “Normally I would, but you’re twitching, Wu, and that’s not normal for you. Your choice, cough it up or tell me to shut up.”
There was a tense pause, and for a moment Duo thought Wufei was actually going to go for Option B, in which case he was going to have to resort to something devious to find out what was up… but then Wufei sighed, and the tension went out of his shoulders.
“I keep wondering. If I went back – if I took Nataku or a shuttle, and went to where my colony used to be… would I find the ghosts of all my clan? Would I find… Meiran?”
Oh. Ow. “Nope,” Duo said matter-of-factly. “One or two might still be there, but I doubt it. And definitely not Meiran.”
Wufei tensed again, hands knotting together. “Do you actually mean that? Or–”
“–or am I just saying it to make you feel better? This is me talking, remember? The guy who doesn’t lie?” Duo reached out and gently thumped his friend’s shoulder, reproach and comfort in one gesture. “First of all, most people don’t hang around after they die; they go straight on to whatever’s next. As for the people who do hang around, they don’t stay forever. Most ghosts are gone in a couple of weeks, couple of months at most, and it ain’t Hollows eating them all.”
“How can you be sure?”
“There was a ghost on the corner of the block when we moved in to the last apartment,” Duo replied promptly. “Car accident, I think. He was gone when we headed out for this mission, and if a Hollow’d got him Q and I would have felt or heard it even if you and Tro didn’t. I think mostly ghosts are confused – like that guy,” he added, nodding towards the drifting OZ soldier. “I mean, look at him! He doesn’t even know he’s dead, so he can’t find the way on. Maybe he’ll work it out eventually, or, yeah, maybe a Hollow will get him… or, and this is just a guess but I think it’s a good one, maybe Renji’s lot do something about stray ghosts. I mean, they call themselves ‘death gods’… Anyway. It’s been long enough since your colony went that even the confused ones should have moved on by now.”
“…Including Meiran?” Wufei asked quietly.
“Did she know she was dying?”
“Then she wouldn’t have been confused, would she?”
“…No.” Wufei almost laughed. “No, she… she wasn’t the type to be confused about anything.”
“There you go, then. She’s probably reorganising the afterlife to run more efficiently as we speak. Would she be setting things up the same as your home colony?”
“Dear gods, no! She had furious arguments with our teachers over the Neo-Confucian definition of a virtuous woman’s place in society–”
“Okay, that phrase alone is enough to explain the problem! Eesh. If you gotta define someone’s ‘place in society’, chances are you’re putting them at the bottom.”
“Well…” Wufei began weakly, then held one hand out and rocked it from side to side. “Not at the bottom, exactly, but definitely restricted from reaching the top.”
“And the guys making the rules were perching themselves right up there?”
“Yeahuh. Egalitarian promotion-by-merit stuff only appeals when you’re down kinda low and pretty sure you can haul yourself up a few levels. Once you’ve got a position worth protecting, you suddenly realise that everyone’s status is set and immutable.”
“That’s a very clear explanation of a rather depressing fact of life.”
“What, that assholes fart their way to the top? –That’s better,” Duo added, grinning as Wufei choked on a genuine laugh.
“Oh, thank you so much for that mental image!”
“Yeah, it’s a good one, isn’t it?”
“That depends on your definition of the word ‘good’!”
“I reckon ‘effective’ will do. I mean, it got you smiling, which was the desired effect, and I’m pretty sure it would work as a sinus cleaning regime if you handed someone a drink right before saying it, which is a bonus.”
“And that depends on the drink. I wouldn’t want to have tea leaves stuck somewhere painful– what the hell was that?!”
Duo flicked a pair of knives out of his boot sheaths, eyeing the treeline as a deep, nerve-grating howl shuddered into silence. The drifting soldier’s ghost was looking around frantically, reacting to something outside his own memories for the first time. “That is proof that you can at least hear Hollows, Wu. Now we get to find out if you can stab one.”
* * * * *
“My apologies. I believe his name is actually Duo Maxwell.”
Before Nemu could respond, someone else did. The ghost – the Earthbound Spirit, Nemu had called her – swayed in place, lifting her head slightly, and moaned. The sound sent a cold shiver down Heero’s spine, twanging nerves he would have sworn he didn’t have weeks ago, and he yanked his gun out and aimed at her head without thinking.
“Wait,” Nemu said, lifting one hand to stop him. Her other hand was on her swordhilt – She’s carrying a sword? Did she have one before? I don’t remember seeing it… – but she didn’t draw the blade, merely watching quietly until the ghost swayed again and let her head droop.
“…Sorry,” Heero muttered, lowering his gun but not holstering it yet. “Forgot to stay quiet.”
“I gather you were not aware of Sub– ah, Duo Maxwell’s contact with Captain Abarai?”
“No. No, I wasn’t,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Then no apology is necessary.” She turned back to face him again, folding her hands together and bowing slightly. “That was in fact quite a restrained reaction to discovering that you lacked pertinent information.”
“Hn.” He thought about it for a moment more, feeling a muscle jump on the side of his jaw, then grimaced. “To be fair, it’s not exactly something that falls under our, uh, ‘normal’ information sharing. If he’d tried to explain all– all this,” he said, gesturing comprehensively towards Nemu and the now-quiet ghost, “before I actually met you, I would have thought he was insane. I would have told him he was insane.”
“I understand that is a common response among non-spiritually-active residents of the living world. Captain Kurosaki has been eloquent on the subject.”
Heero snorted. “I bet. …Huh. You called Duo ‘Subject 1’?”
“That implies Subjects 2 to N. Do the other pilots know about–” He gestured again. “–ghosts and Hollows and so on?”
“Subject 2 has personal experience matching that of Subject 1, in that he has encountered and perceived Shinigami on patrol and demonstrates similar reiatsu levels, allowing him to fight minor Hollows on a better than equal footing,” she said promptly. “Captain Abarai reports his name as ‘Winner’. You were originally designated as Subject 3. I have observed Subject 5 joining Subject 2 on anti-Hollow operations, but his abilities and perceptions appear to be significantly weaker. Subject 4 has demonstrated the ability to sense and avoid Hollows, but I have not as yet observed him confronting any.”
“So Chang and Barton are 5 and 4,” Heero muttered. “Which is which? Uh, which has brown hair like this?” he clarified, mimicking Trowa’s long bangs with one hand.
“Right. …So they all know.” Duo and Quatre trusted Wufei and Trowa to believe them… but not me?
Nemu’s reply erased the slowly growing feeling of hurt and replaced it with something significantly angrier. “I believe the explanation was precipitated by an incident during which Subject 1 was wounded by a Hollow.”
“Woun–” Heero managed to throttle the rest of his outburst down to a noise rather like a hissing cat. The chain-bound ghost swayed again, but didn’t moan.
“…Perhaps we should continue this discussion elsewhere?” Nemu suggested politely.
- - - - -
Nemu settled herself onto a convenient bench in the small park Heero had suggested, hands folded in her lap, and watched the mortal subj– him pace back and forth, muscles tense and expression grim. The news that one of his allies had been injured by a previously unknown enemy – that all of his closest allies had been fighting an enemy without even telling him that the enemy existed – had clearly upset and angered him.
“Sorry,” he said abruptly, glancing towards her and then immediately away again. “This is– I’m trying to be reasonable about this, and it would have been almost impossible for them to convince me of the truth without concrete proof, especially since it was perfectly reasonable for them to assume I wouldn’t even be able to see most of what they were dealing with, but I still–” He threw up his hands with a frustrated noise and kicked viciously at a pebble.
“I repeat,” Nemu said calmly, “no apology is necessary. Your reaction is not unreasonable.”
“What I want to do is unreasonable,” he muttered, not quite quietly enough to go unheard. Nemu politely pretended otherwise.
After a few more minutes of silent pacing and fuming, Heero took a deep breath and straightened up, working his shoulders to release some of the tension. “Right. So. Duo and Quatre can see Shinigami and fight Hollows. Trowa is learning how. Wufei is… Wufei has some level of perception and knows about them, at least. All of them presumably decided that I wouldn’t believe them if they tried to explain.”
“I believe that to be an accurate summary, yes.”
“And Duo got wounded.”
That statement didn’t seem to require a response.
“Do you know what happened?”
“Not in great detail,” she said regretfully. Mayuri-sama had objected to the lack of detailed information, too, much more emphatically than Heero. “Given that his injuries were able to be resolved by Captain Abarai, however, I believe them to have been relatively minor.” Heero’s expression invited further explanation, and she added, “Captain Abarai’s knowledge of kidou in general, and healing kidou in particular, is… widely known to be below the standard usually expected from a Shinigami of his rank and ability.”
“Ha! That’s something, at least.” Visibly relieved, Heero rubbed at the frown-crease between his eyebrows with the heel of one hand, then sighed and started to knead the back of his neck. “Can you– would you be willing to teach me more about Hollows, and ghosts, and– you called your organisation the Gotei Thirteen, didn’t you? Because I’m really tired of not having all the information I need to understand a situation.”
“I cannot guarantee that you will have enough information to deal with every situation that might arise even if we agree to a full data exchange,” Nemu cautioned.
“I’ll still have a better chance than I do now,” he countered, and she conceded the point.
“Very well. Are you also willing to reciprocate?”
“Within the limits of operational security, yes.”
Nemu waved that aside. “I have no interest in data relating to political or military conflicts in the mortal world. My enquiries would be restricted to information on your abilities as they develop, and limited cultural studies.”
He nodded sharply. “Agreed, then.”
“Thank you. First– oh.” Heero cut himself off, looking embarrassed. “Do you have time to talk now, or do you need to get back to what you were doing before?”
“My observations of that spirit are not time-critical. What would you like to discuss first?”
He suddenly grinned, looking a lot younger for a moment. “Everything. I don’t think that’ll work, though.”
Nemu smiled back.
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