When Shinigami Meet (Bankai Wing)
By Mel and Christy, who do not own either Gundam Wing or Bleach, but love to torment the characters anyway.
“--and we have no explanation as yet for why this… phenomenon… keeps occurring,” Kurotsuchi Mayuri finished his report, voice sour as he had to admit ignorance. “Several theories, but no confirmed explanation.”
Captain-General Ukitake sighed, rubbing his eyes. “Thank you. Captain Soi Fon?”
“I regret to report that the Onmitsukidou have discovered nothing obviously useful,” she said crisply. “Agents arriving on-scene after the Hollows have dispersed sometimes pick up traces of unusual reiatsu -- copies of their reports have been despatched to Twelfth Squad offices,” she added as Mayuri’s mouth opened, and he snapped it shut again, expression an interesting mix of eagerness and annoyance. “Agents arriving on-scene before the Hollows disperse tend not to survive. It is therefore my intent to send a combined squad--”
“Hell with that,” the captain of the Fifth Squad snorted, red hair bristling even more than usual. “Send some seated officers. Fuck, go yourself! Better yet, send me!”
“Captain Abarai.” Ukitake didn’t raise his voice, but Renji subsided, muttering an apology. “Please let Soi Fon finish.”
She shot a glare in Renji’s direction, then looked pointedly away, ignoring him. “As I was saying; the next time one of these assemblies of Hollows is detected, I intend to send a combined squad to observe, including at least two seated officers, with instructions to keep their distance if at all possible. They will attempt to gather intelligence on the Hollows’ strength, behaviour, and objectives without engaging them in combat.”
“Thank you.” The white-haired Captain-General looked down the row of captains, gaze settling on brilliant orange hair. “Captain Kurosaki? Have the Visored answered our request for information yet?”
Kurosaki Ichigo, captain of the Thirteenth Squad and semi-unofficial liaison to the Visored (and numerous other groups that had more-or-less friendly relationships with Seireitai) grimaced, scratching at the back of his head. “Yeah, but they don’t know much either. They haven’t run into any of these Hollow parties themselves, so all they could suggest was that maybe they’re being drawn to scenes of mass death. That kinda makes sense, I guess, since a lot of the time they show up a couple of days after one of those ‘colony terrorist attacks’ in the living world, but… it’s not consistent, y’know?”
Mayuri snorted. “If it were that simple, we would know it! There’s no correlation between the number of deaths and Hollow appearances, they’ve shown up after attacks that caused only property damage, they’ve shown up independently of any attack--”
“Yeah, yeah, we heard you the first time! Don’t pull out the damn graphs again, sheesh!” Ichigo glared Mayuri back into silence, then turned back to Ukitake. “Like the face-paint freak says--”
“--it doesn’t match up that way. One more thing, though.” He hesitated, looking uncomfortable. “I got a message from Grimmjow.”
There were murmurs of surprise, and Zaraki Kenpachi laughed. “He’s still alive? Hadn’t heard anything about him for what, a hundred years?”
“About that, yeah.” Ichigo’s mouth twitched up in a wry smile.
Zaraki’s grin bared too many teeth for comfort. “Bet he wants a fight.”
“How did you guess? Yeah, he wants a rematch, but for him that’s like talking about the weather. The interesting part was--”
“What, the challenge wasn’t interesting? Yer gettin’ soft.”
“--shaddap. He also said-- Zaraki, shaddap, this is serious!” Ichigo scowled, looking uncharacteristically grim. “He said there’s something in the living world that smells tasty enough to tempt even him out. Don’t ask me what, I sent back a message asking for details but haven’t got a reply yet.”
“…Well,” Ukitake said after a long pause. “That may be the most useful information we’ve obtained yet, and it fits with the reports of ‘unusual reiatsu’. Captain Kurotsuchi, please do your best to analyse whatever readings Captain Soi Fon’s squad members have managed to obtain for you.
“As for everyone else…” He paused again, then went on decisively. “This is a general order. All Shinigami on patrol in the living world are to retreat and request assistance immediately upon detecting three or more Hollows in one location. When such a transmission is received, Captain Soi Fon’s reinforced squads will be despatched--”
“--accompanied by either Captain Kurosaki or Captain Abarai.”
“…Not that I’m complaining, Ukitake-san, but why me?” Ichigo asked, a little uncertainly. “Renji’ll whine like a little bi-- kid if you don’t send him, fair enough…”
“I would like you to have first-hand experience of this reiatsu,” Ukitake said gravely. “Examine it from your… unique perspective.”
The orange-haired shinigami snorted. “Let Shirosaki have a sniff and see if he drools, you mean?”
“Eloquently put. Dismissed.”
* * * * *
“Duo? Have you got a moment?”
“Mmph! Nrr hmph m’rmph-- peh!” Duo’s response became intelligible as he took a screwdriver out of his mouth, wrinkling his nose at the oily taste. “Yes, I have a moment. I even have several minutes if you don’t mind talking to my rear end while I recalibrate this. Wassup?”
“Have you… I mean, lately…” Quatre’s voice was suddenly uncertain, and Duo backed out of the access panel on Deathscythe’s leg to eye him face-to-face.
“Q-bean? Spit it out.”
The blond pilot swallowed, looking around to make sure they were alone, then leaned in and lowered his voice. “Have you seen anything… different… recently?”
“Different how?” Duo asked, matching his volume.
“Not ghosts.” Quatre swallowed again. “Things. Monsters with white masks.”
“…A couple times, yeah,” the long-haired boy admitted, voice dropping even further. “I went the other way in a hurry.”
“Me too!” Quatre laughed breathlessly, sounding a little relieved. “I usually feel them before I get too near, but a couple of times I haven’t been able to double back. They feel wrong.”
“Sound wrong, too,” Duo muttered. “I didn’t want to mention it in case I was the only one seeing them, y’know? Maybe we both see ghosts, okay, they’re not just in my head, but that doesn’t mean I’m sane all the way,” he added, grinning.
Duo had always seen ghosts. For as long as he could remember, they had been hanging around on the edges of anything he was involved in; quiet, pale-faced people with broken chains dangling from their chests, drifting a few inches above the ground. Nobody else could see them, and he’d learned not to mention them long before the Maxwell Shrine took him in. After he’d met Doctor G he started seeing another, livelier spirit in and around Deathscythe, and just figured that his delusion was expanding into a personification of his Gundam.
Then one day he caught Quatre watching a teenage ghost on the sports field of a school they were attending, and discovered that someone else could see his ‘delusions’.
…Some of them, at least. Quatre couldn’t see Deathscythe.
“Just because I can’t see Deathscythe doesn’t mean he isn’t real,” Quatre said, echoing Duo’s unspoken thoughts. “You’ve seen ghosts all your life, but I only started seeing them a few months ago; maybe I just can’t see him yet.”
Duo mock-glared at his friend. “You sure you’re an empath and not a telepath, Q? ’Cause you took the words right outta my head.”
“If I were a telepath, intelligence gathering would be a lot easier,” he sighed. “So. We’re both seeing the white-masked monsters, so they’re real too. Somehow I’m not enormously happy about that.”
“Yeeeah, I wouldn’t really mind if they were hallucinations. Not sure what we can do about ’em if they aren’t…”
Quatre grimaced. “Me neither. Maybe we don’t need to do anything?” he went on, looking hopeful. “The ghosts don’t do any harm.”
A leather-clad arm draped itself around Duo’s neck, and long loose hair tickled his cheek. “The masked jerks do harm all right,” Deathscythe’s deep voice purred in his ear. “You can feel it. They’re hungry.”
Duo sighed, one hand coming up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Uh, yeah, Q? Given that you’re willing to believe that ’Scythe might exist? He says the mask-thingies are not harmless.”
“Oh, lovely. Does he have any useful advice on what to do about them?”
Duo twisted to eye the tall spirit smirking back at him. “Well?”
Deathscythe shrugged. “Guns won’t work. You need to put your heart into the strike. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine,” he grinned, and faded out of view before Duo could swear at him.
Quatre winced when Duo passed that helpful tidbit on. “I suppose I’d better borrow a couple of knives from Trowa, then. Just in case…”
* * * * *
When the Senkaimon opened, Ichigo had to jerk to a halt to avoid running straight over Renji.
“Well?!” the red-haired shinigami demanded, arms crossed over his tattooed chest. “Didja catch anything?”
“No,” Ichigo growled, stiff-arming him in the shoulder. “Outta the way, Renji, I gotta go report. You might as well come too, I’m gonna have to tell you anyway.”
Renji eyed the crease between Ichigo’s eyebrows as they walked, long practice at judging the younger shinigami’s mood telling him all was not well. “You look pissed,” he said bluntly, and was rather surprised when Ichigo laughed.
“Nah, this is Shirosaki,” he explained, bringing one hand up and rubbing his thumb over the wrinkle. “He’s being an asshole, won’t shut up. I’m just kinda tired. Going to the living world always feels like I’ve got a blanket wrapped around my head or something.”
Renji grunted sympathetically. “Yeah, that seal’s a bitch,” he muttered, punching his friend in the shoulder as they swung into the First Squad’s compound.
“Were you planning to learn to speak like a captain any time soon, Renji? It’s been nearly five hundred years; the rank has to affect you sooner or later,” an acidic female voice interrupted from behind him.
“Same time you learn how to speak like a vice-captain, Rukia!” he grinned, flipping her the bird without looking. “What happened to your high-class Kuchiki manners?”
“I don’t waste them on people who are too low-class to appreciate them,” she sniffed primly, coming level with his shoulder and walking with them towards the main doors.
“What a surprise! Me neither.”
“Ooh, well done! That was nearly witty repartee,” she snickered, cool expression giving way to a smirk. “Captain-General Ukitake is expecting you, Ichigo, and he probably won’t kick out this uninvited freeloader either.”
“Give it up, Renji,” Ichigo snickered. “You’re never going to live that one down.”
Ukitake Juushirou looked up with a smile as they entered, putting a stack of paperwork aside. “Kurosaki-kun, welcome back. Any news?”
“Yeah, some,” Ichigo told him, sitting down with a sigh. “And I’m glad you’re being informal, Ukitake-san, because it’s probably quicker if I let Shirosaki make this report and he doesn’t do formal.”
“I see,” Ukitake blinked. “He -- er -- drooled, then?”
Ichigo choked on a laugh. “Oh, yeah! If he’d been in full control of our body, I’d have a wet streak all the way down my front.” He ducked his head for a moment, closing his eyes, and when he opened them again they were blazing black and yellow.
“Yeah, well if I’d been in full control of the body we mighta actually seen something, ’stead of just smelling nummy treats,” he went on, mouth stretching into a sharp-toothed grin.
Renji and Rukia shifted uncomfortably as Ichigo’s Hollow side came to the fore and his reiatsu shifted, curdling into something dark and dangerous. ‘Shirosaki’ might have mellowed considerably in the centuries since he and Ichigo had come to some sort of agreement, but he still wasn’t a restful presence to share a room with.
Ukitake nodded gravely, seemingly unaffected. “Shirosaki-kun, thank you for your help. Could you describe what you sensed, please?”
“It’s a human,” Shirosaki shrugged. “Not that that’s really a surprise. Powerful, completely untrained -- which just makes it more attractive -- and tasty.” His grin widened, long tongue flicking out to lick his top lip. “I woulda got a better sniff at it, but one of the Hollows waiting for it was fuckin’ stupid--”
“That’s why the Hollows have been gathering like this?” Renji interrupted incredulously. “They’re trying to ambush one human soul?!”
“You wouldn’t be so surprised if you could taste it the way I can,” Shirosaki snorted. “I’m talkin’ serious nummy treat here, rich as a Shinigami but with no defences. This soul’s a fuckin’ buffet. Anyway, one of the Hollows didn’t get the memo that ambushes are meant to be sneaky and howled. Nummy treat musta heard it and started goin’ the other way fast, the Hollows started chasin’ it, and King hadda be a hero an’ take ’em out instead’a going after the treat for a better look.” He shrugged, almost pouting. “By the time we’d got ’em all, treat was either out of range or shielding.”
Ukitake frowned, rubbing his chin in thought. “Are we dealing with a living soul, or a Plus?”
Shirosaki hesitated, then shook his head. “Couldn’t tell. I’d say Plus, ’cause you don’t get that kinda strength in the living often and it smelled of death, but… it smelled of life too, somehow.” His grin returned, lopsided and almost wistful. “That’s what makes it so damn attractive. Life and death at the same time, what a Hollow is and what it wants rolled up into one juicy little package…” He shivered, voice dropping to a whisper. “I don’t get hungry the way they do, but I really want a taste. Just one lick…”
He shivered again, then straightened up, expression back to his normal homicidal leer. “You got any more questions? ’Cause if not, I want a nap.”
“No, thank you Shirosaki-kun. Your assistance is appreciated.”
* * * * *
Padding quietly through the dawn twilight towards their hidden getaway car, Duo didn’t realise Quatre had stopped until he nearly ran into his back.
“Q? What’s up?” he breathed, voice pitched to carry no further than the blond’s ear.
“Masks,” Quatre breathed back, one hand sliding into his jacket to grasp a knife-hilt. “Feel them?”
“You’re the one with the space-heart, dude,” Duo groused. “I normally hear ’em first… but yeah,” he sighed. “Now that I’m looking for ’em, yeah, they’re there all right. Turn around?”
Quatre hesitated. “What about the car?”
“I didn't leave anything in it that I can’t live without. You?”
“Then we steal a new one. The base commandant’s car looked shiny.”
“And memorable,” Quatre snorted, turning to go back the way they’d come. “I say we take something boring but fast from the carpool.”
“There’s two of them!”
“Keep your voice down,” one of the Second Squad members hissed. “You won’t get your precious readings if the Hollows hear you!”
The three scientists from Twelfth Squad barely seemed to notice the admonishment, hunching over their portable screens as they recorded everything possible, but they did at least keep their excited discussions down to a whisper.
The creep might have demanded we drag somebody from his squad along so they could take ‘proper’ readings, but it’s gonna backfire on him if we don’t get good data ’cause the science geeks haven’t been out in the field in decades, Renji thought, not sure whether he was annoyed or amused.
=Ambushing an ambush is tricky enough when you know what you’re doing,= Zabimaru’s deep baboon-voice agreed in the back of his head.
=The only thing they could ambush is a microscope,= the snake-voice snapped. =If that.=
=Give them credit, Hebi,= the baboon rumbled, amused. =They could do it. Their microscopes are clamped to the tables, after all.=
Renji resisted the urge to fidget, feeling reiatsu from the nearby Hollows prickle along his skin. All the Shinigami had their own reiatsu suppressed as far as possible, camouflaged by kidou bindings, but it still wouldn’t take much to give them away.
=The nummy treats are going the other way,= Hebi announced, sounding bored.
Oi, don’t you start calling them that! You’re not a fucking Hollow like Shiro-- wait, what?
“They’ve turned around!” one of the scientists announced in a strangled whisper, twisting to look over his shoulder at Renji. “Captain Abarai, what should we do?”
“Captain Kurotsuchi will kill us if we don’t come back with more data than this,” one of the others muttered, swallowing hard.
And with Mayuri-the-freak involved, she’s probably not exaggerating. Renji grimaced, then made a wide circling gesture with one hand. “We’ll go around the Hollows and try to catch up with the, uh, subjects once we’re clear,” he said softly. “Give them a wide margin,” he added, looking at the leader of the Second Squad personnel and jerking his chin pointedly towards the scientists; the onmitsu nodded back, and more Second Squad members fell in between the scientists and the Hollows, ushering them along.
“One’s much stronger than the other, but they share similar qualities,” the first scientist murmured under his breath, letting himself be guided by a hand on his arm as he concentrated on his screen. “Fascinating…”
Renji and the onmitsu shared a look of complete understanding, brown eyes under tattooed eyebrows meeting steel-grey eyes over a black facemask, and silently agreed to give the Hollows a little more room.
“They’re fading,” the female scientist hissed, tapping frantically at her handheld sensor. “Some sort of stealth ability, or-- I’m losing lock on them!”
“I think I can refine the scan, now that we’ve got at least a partial profile,” the third scientist mumbled, sweat glistening on his forehead as he hammered virtual keys. “Switch to an active mode, tune it to their ki signatures -- plant a tracer once we get closer -- this should do it--” Smiling in triumphant relief, he hit one last key, and his screen flashed as it accepted the new parameters.
…And it beeped. One long, loud, piercing tone that carried like a whistle.
“I don’t think they noticed us,” Quatre whispered, crouched beside a car in the base parking lot as Duo picked the driver’s door open. “They aren’t following, at least.”
“That’s because Shinigami is the god of stealth as well as death,” Duo grinned, fingers making tiny, precise adjustments. “I tiptoe in, I tiptoe out, and I tiptoe the fuck away without anyone noticing a thing. Unless I blow shit up,” he added, tugging at the door handle and smirking as it opened with a soft click. “Awright! Time to--”
Something howled, a long wail of hunger and loss sending chills down their spines.
“Time to leave,” Quatre agreed, diving across to the passenger side.
“Time to leave fast,” Duo said fervently. Abandoning finesse for speed, he demolished the plastic around the steering column with one well-targeted kick and grabbed a handful of wires, yanking some loose and twisting others together with feverish haste.
“That’s not a Mask,” Quatre gulped, twisting in his seat to stare into the night.
Duo’s hands shook and he resisted the urge to cringe. It was like fire on his back, a presence hot as the sun, and though it didn’t feel wrong the way the white-masked things did it didn’t feel friendly either. “You wanna stick around to find out what it is?” he panted, slamming the car door shut as the engine purred to life.
“Good, ’cause I wasn’t planning to,” he half-laughed, and floored the accelerator.
The first Hollow was bisected in mid-air, halves dissolving into nothingness before they hit the ground, and Renji let his reiatsu flare.
=Told ya. Can’t ambush shit,= Hebi snickered in the back of his head.
The scientists were cowering and the third one was practically sweating ice, no doubt envisioning having to explain to Mayuri-the-freak that they hadn’t been able to get good data and it was all his fault, and Renji took pity on them. “You three, go after the nummy treats,” he snapped, pointing. “You, you, you, you and you, escort them. Everyone else, we’re stopping the Hollows-- what is it now, Zabimaru?!”
The snake was hissing like a teakettle, laughing so hard it was choking, and the baboon-voice wasn’t much better. =You called them nummy treats!= it chortled.
“…Oh, shut up.”
The scientists and their escorts trailed back some time later, and Renji stood up from the rock he’d been sitting on to greet them.
“Manage to catch up to ’em?” he asked, stifling a yawn, and the scientists shook their heads.
“No, Captain Abarai. We did get some more readings, and we’ve confirmed that they’re almost certainly alive, though!” the woman said, looking cautiously optimistic. “We think they stole a car to escape in, and we found another abandoned vehicle with a clear ki signature on it.”
“That’s something, at least,” Renji nodded, and swung Zabimaru up to rest against his shoulder. “Think you got enough to keep your captain happy?”
They glanced at each other, shrugged, and nodded. “Probably, Captain Abarai.”
“All right then!” Renji stretched and closed his eyes, yawning openly this time. “I call this a reasonably successful mission. Hollows located and scanned to within an inch of their unlives; preliminary scans of the nu-- of the subjects obtained; subjects retreated, presumably upon sensing the Hollows; pursuit complicated by the Hollows reacting to the subjects’ movements--” One eye popped open, looked pointedly at the third scientist, swivelled to look at the lead onmitsu, then closed again. “--but detailed readings were still obtained, yay us. Anybody want to add anything?”
“…No, Captain Abarai,” the onmitsu said slowly. “I believe that is an admirably clear and succinct summary of events.”
“Good!” Renji grinned and opened his eyes, twirling Zabimaru. “Let’s get back, make our reports, then go research or poke targets or whatever floats your boat. Me, I want a beer.”
* * * * *
Duo groaned, flopping into the squishy, broken-springed chair that Trowa had hauled back from somewhere to furnish their current bolthole. “Is it my imagination, or are we getting all the field missions at the moment? Wufei’s on that long-term surveillance thing for O, fair enough, but Heero and Trowa could take some of these!”
“Heero’s doing prep for something big that Doctor J wants them to coordinate for, I think,” Quatre said tiredly. “They were supposed to start a couple of weeks ago, actually, but they’ve had to reschedule at least three times.”
“So they’re stuck doing ‘hurry up and wait’, huh?” Duo made a face. “That’s what career military are supposed to do, not dashing freedom fighters! Make the OZ grunts do it!”
“I would if I could. Speaking of us getting all the field missions…” Quatre’s voice trailed off as he looked at Duo meaningfully, and the braided pilot groaned again.
“Another one? We just got back! At least tell me I get to stomp shit in Deathscythe!”
“Sadly, no, but you do get to blow things up.”
“Well, that’s something at least. What are you doing?”
“Hacking the base computers from just outside their perimeter while you blow up the aforementioned things,” Quatre smirked, eyes glittering for a moment. “You will not believe the hole in their security I found.”
“I can believe a lot of stupid from OZ. Give,” Duo said, reaching out for Quatre’s laptop.
“…Okay, even for OZ, that’s special,” he snorted a minute later. “What bright spark came up with that idea?”
“It was probably a cost-cutting measure,” Quatre pointed out, taking his laptop back. “It does make a certain amount of sense to co-locate a lot of your computerised security infrastructure in one spot.”
“Not when that one spot is a telecommunications node outside your perimeter!”
“I said ‘a certain amount’ of sense, not ‘a lot’.” Quatre grinned, then sobered, looking down at his keyboard. “I have to wonder, though…”
“Do you think we’ll run into those masked things again?”
Duo shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Dunno. Hope not,” he admitted.
“They’re showing up all the time now. Were they always there, and we just couldn’t see them? Or--”
“Ugh, that’s a creepy thought!”
“Or,” Quatre persisted, “is there some reason why they’re turning up now? Are they chasing us?”
“Oh, man, you had to come up with something even creepier, didn’t you.” Duo bit his lip, thinking hard. “…Creepy or not, I think I prefer option two,” he said eventually. “If those things are chasing us, specifically, they’re less likely to turn up around the other guys.” Who couldn’t see them, and wouldn’t know anything about it if they needed to run, both pilots understood. “And ’Scythe says they’re hungry,” he added, voice dropping to an indistinct mumble.
Quatre looked queasy. “You accuse me of saying creepy stuff, and then you tell me that? I wanted to sleep tonight, you know!”
“Captain Abarai!” Rikichi skidded through the door and crashed to one knee, breathing hard. “Mission!”
“A mission? You mean one of those Hollow parties?” Renji jerked to his feet, then hesitated. “Isn’t it Kurosaki’s turn--?”
“He’s already gone,” Rikichi puffed, waving a folded paper. “There’s two groups this time, fairly close together. Maybe because there’s two nummy treats?”
“Fuckin’ hell, not you too! We are not calling them ‘nummy treats’, okay?!”
“Er.” Eyes wide, Rikichi unfolded the paper and pointed to a paragraph in the middle. “Captain Kurotsuchi is…”
“He would,” Renji snarled, stomping out.
Quatre’s side of the mission had gone well. Maybe too well, he thought; it looked like his invasion of the base computers had gone completely unnoticed, and as a result nobody was chasing him. Normally this would be a good thing, but the shouts and gunshots from the other side of the compound were making him feel rather guilty.
“Duo?” he said cautiously, moth close to his short-range scrambled com. “Would you like a distraction?”
< < I am a distraction, Q-bean, > > a laughing voice replied. < < Don’t worry about me; in about thirty seconds the OZzies are gonna have something better to think about. You good to get clear on your own? > >
“I am if you are,” Quatre sighed, smiling despite himself. “Are you sure?”
< < Yup. I can-- wups! Duck! > >
< < Told ya, > > Duo said smugly, and Quatre had to laugh.
“Okay, okay, I’ll stop fussing. See you later.”
Half the base was rubble, burning, or both; emergency vehicles from the nearby town would be arriving soon, and the blond pilot decided that it was time to leave before his concern for Duo got him trapped between the civilians and the soldiers. They’d plotted out tentative escape routes through the local scrub forest, and he headed for the nearest one, picking his way carefully through the undergrowth by the light of the moon.
Five minutes later, he slid to a stop as an unwelcomely familiar feeling crept queasily over him. Oh, not again...
Clicking his com on, he took a couple of cautious steps backwards, trying to work out how close the white-masked monsters were. “Duo?” he whispered. “Be careful, those things are out and about again. …Duo?”
No answer. Duo must be out of range.
He can take care of himself, Quatre told himself firmly. He knows to be careful-- well, he knows to watch out, at least, he corrected the thought. Worry about yourself right now. Which way can I go?
If he cut left through a slightly thicker stand of trees, there was an alternate route on the other side, a lightly-used walking track that curved well out of his way before swinging back around. Most importantly, it would take him well away from the dark and hungry feeling ahead of him.
Decision made, Quatre turned and stepped forwards -- and froze, as he felt predatory eyes on him from somewhere far too close.
=C’mon, King,= Shirosaki purred. =I won’t hurt the nummy treat. Just a lick!=
No, Ichigo thought firmly, watching as the short blond teen whispered into a small walkie-talkie or something similar. No licking! You’d give the poor guy a heart attack. And did you have to start calling them that? You’ve got Mayuri doing it now!
=…I’m not sure whether I’m proud or horrified,= Shirosaki muttered.
I’m going for ‘massively creeped out’, personally. Shifting his weight on the branch he was perched on, Ichigo glanced sideways at the nearest Twelfth Squad member. The small shinigami had porcupine quills instead of hair and was wrapped awkwardly around a branch, clinging on for dear life, but he was grinning like a loon and chortling under his breath.
“Good scan?” Ichigo murmured.
“Perfect!” the scientist whispered back, waving a multi-pronged antenna at him. “Perfect placement, Captain Kurosaki. Couldn’t be better if we’d sent Treat 2 an engraved invitation!”
Ichigo stared blankly at him for a moment, then turned to watch the teenager again. I give up. They’re treats. Everyone’s doing it. It’s on official paperwork, even. See what you caused?
=Switching back to ‘proud’ now,= his Hollow snickered. =And they are so very, very nummy. You sure about that lick?=
Positive. No licking.
=Fine.= Shirosaki sighed, then pushed himself forward, an almost physical pressure behind Ichigo’s eyes. =At least let me get another good sniff before the buffet walks out of range, hey? If they’ve got all the scans creepazoid wants, I might not get another chance.=
Ichigo hesitated, then shrugged. Fair enough. Knock yourself out. He relaxed and the Hollow pushed forwards again, not far enough to take control or visibly affect him, but far enough to get better access to his senses. Like this, he could get an echo of what the little blond felt like to Shiro, the perfect meal laid out in front of a starving man who couldn’t -- quite -- reach it, and he shivered.
=Hrrrrmmmm.= The noise Shirosaki made was midway between a growl and a moan, and Ichigo’s eyes widened as the blond human jerked to a stop barely ten feet away from the tree he was standing in.
…Shiro? he thought tentatively. I think he heard you.
=No way. Can’t have,= Shirosaki replied incredulously. =Okay, maybe I pushed a little hard, he might have felt me a bit, but he’d have to be damn sharp to sense anything through all the kidou you’ve got layered on you, and-- huh. I guess the nummy treat is pretty sharp,= he went on slowly, =because I think he sees us.=
There was a ghost in the tree.
Quatre squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head, and looked again. The ghost was still there, indistinct around the edges and harder to bring into focus than anything else supernatural he’d seen so far, but feeling far more real.
So why didn’t I feel him before? he thought nervously. Was he hiding? ‘In ambush’, part of his mind supplied helpfully, and he shivered. The ghost didn’t have a mask, but for a few seconds there it had felt like he should.
He didn’t have a chain dangling from his chest, either; his feet were planted solidly on the branch instead of drifting above it, and he wasn’t dressed in everyday clothes the way ghosts tended to be. Instead, he was wearing a long white sleeveless open coat over a black outfit that looked archaic and Japanese, in complete contrast to his shock of spiky orange hair. There was something on his back that might be an impossibly huge sword wrapped in a cloth, ridiculous as that seemed, and--
--and he was staring straight back at Quatre with a surprised expression on his face.
Quatre shivered again. ‘Normal’ ghosts also didn’t usually pay attention to the living, and it certainly didn’t feel this ominous when they did.
There ware dark flickers in other trees, and he resisted the urge to back away as more black-clad ghosts wavered into view. Some were dressed like the orange-haired one, minus the white coat; one seemed to be wearing a lab coat; others were wearing form-fitting black clothes like stereotypical movie ninjas, and Quatre decided that he would really like to stop seeing new and unusual things every time he turned around thank you very much!
He and the orange-haired ghost might have kept staring at each other for quite a while if the white-masked Things lurking near his first escape route hadn’t picked that moment to rouse, the queasy-painful feeling of their presence swelling into something far more immediately threatening. The ghost looked that way instantly, right hand going up over his shoulder as the white cloth twirled away from, yes, that was definitely an immense sword; then he snorted and looked back at Quatre.
“Keep going,” he said, and the feeling of his presence was suddenly a lot friendlier. “We’ve got this.” Then he was gone, flickering out of view too fast to follow.
There were black shadows keeping pace with Quatre in the trees beside the path as he ran. He did his best to ignore them.
“This was not in the plan,” Duo muttered, running along the narrow, twisting path at breakneck speed -- possibly literally breakneck speed if he tripped on something in the dim light, but slowing down didn’t seem to be a good idea. “Dogs are cheating. They weren’t meant to be chasing me at all, but if they’ve got to try it then they should do it themselves, not bring in the damn dogs. I didn’t even know they had dogs! Kennels were not listed on the base maps!”
=Perhaps their lax attitude towards computer security carries over into their data update policy?= Deathscythe suggested, running beside him.
“Shit!” Duo lurched sideways and ricocheted off a tree, stumbling a few steps before getting back in his stride. “When did you show up?! And why are you turning up so much lately?”
=I never went away,= the spirit said cryptically, effortlessly keeping pace. =As for why you’re seeing me right now… can’t you feel them yet?=
“‘Them’? ‘Them’ who? Oh, don’t tell me, let me guess. Which ‘them’ do I really need to not turn up tonight?” Duo sighed. “That ‘them’. Pardon me if I don’t break out the pompoms.”
’Scythe didn’t reply, and Duo slowed to a jog, biting his lip as he concentrated. Oh yeah, there they are. Great. Now what?
“Can’t go back,” he muttered, glancing sideways at Deathscythe. Distant barking proved his point better than any number of words. “Going sideways is just going to get me stuck in one of those glorious blackberry tangles that’ve taken over out here, or possibly eaten by kudzu, at which point the dogs will get to snack on whatever the thorns leave behind after they catch up. Not much in the way of options, hey?”
=Not really.= Deathscythe tilted his head to one side, black hair swinging away from his eye patch, and smiled. =So?=
“Masks to the front of me, OZzies to the back, here I am, stuck in the middle with you,” Duo half-sang, grinning. “Straight ahead it is. Got any advice on how I can do that ‘putting my heart into the strike’ thing you were talking about?”
“Their numbers are increasing,” the lead onmitsu murmured, voice barely carrying to Renji’s ears.
“Yeah,” he muttered back, surveying the collection of Hollows in the bowl-shaped clearing below him. There were already at least twenty assembled there, including one hulking shape half-buried in a muddy spot; Renji eyed that one warily, wishing he could feel its reiatsu better. Between the Hollow’s efforts to hide and his own suppressed energy, he couldn’t get a solid grasp on it, but it felt even more ‘wrong’ than normal.
=That one is close to becoming a Menos,= Zabimaru’s baboon-voice growled in the back of his mind.
…That’s what I thought, he agreed, scowling. Gillian?
=Perhaps. It feels individual enough that it might manage to become an Adjuchas instead,= his sword mused.
=Take it out first,= Hebi hissed. =Take it out now.=
The Hollows aren’t what we’re meant to be ambushing here.
=Oh, so we’re just gonna watch ’em eat the nummy treat? As if!=
I didn’t say that--
=Good,= the baboon-voice rumbled, =because the treat is on its way here.=
I swear, I’m gonna find out their names just so I can stop people calling them that!
The snake snickered, and Renji rolled his eyes. Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. I’ll do it, you just watch me.
“According to our previously collected data,” the female scientist whispered, “Treat 1 should be within range to sense the Hollows soon. If it follows established behavioural patterns, it will then retreat; are we to pursue, Captain Abarai?”
“Yeah.” Renji nodded to the onmitsu. “Same division of escort and extermination parties as before, and leave the big Hollow to me. We ain’t leaving that one to get nastier.”
=Damn straight,= Hebi muttered.
“Treat 1 has slowed down,” one of the scientists murmured, squinting at his screen. Around the clearing, Shinigami tensed, preparing for action.
“…Treat has sped up again.”
Still coming this way? Renji’s head snapped up as he tried to peer through the trees toward the oncoming bright reiatsu. Why? They can’t not feel the Hollows now, why head straight for--
“Gangway! Clear a path! Shinigami comin’ through!”
A slender form dressed all in black burst out of the trees, running straight for the Hollows… which all turned towards it like sharks scenting blood. The biggest one reared up out of the mud with an obscene squelching noise, tentacles unfurling from beneath it, and bellowed.
“Ohhhh shit,” the running human said in almost cheerful tones. “Man you fuckers are huge; twenty guys with guns and dogs doesn’t seem like such a bad idea now. Too late. Here we go, ’Scythe!”
Renji stood frozen, mouth agape, as the human charged straight into the middle of the Hollows, dodging strikes and insulting their aim. A long plait whipped behind him as he ran -- “Oh you do not try to grab the hair, dude!” -- but the voice was very definitely male; he hadn’t been hit yet, Hollows were crashing into each other as they tried to grab him, several had started to fight as they got in each other’s way and the human was making a beeline for the biggest--
=We gonna help or not?= Hebi asked abruptly, snapping Renji out of his daze.
“Fuck. Escorts stay with the scientists,” he snapped, drawing his blade. “Everyone else, back each other up, don’t get bogged down, and the big one’s mine. Get ’em!”
What the-- holy shit it’s the whateverthefuckthatwas from the last mission! Duo staggered as the fire-hot presence made itself known, Deathscythe vanished with a startled noise, and the momentary distraction was all it took for one of the lunging monsters to land a solid hit.
In a way, it was lucky; a second monster jumping in from the side missed Duo’s head and bit down on the hand that had just slapped him into a tree instead, distracting monster-the-first from following through with a bite of its own. From the perspective of someone who’d just tried to fly through the aforementioned tree shoulders-first, however, it was difficult to properly appreciate it.
“Duo, meet tree,” he muttered, mouth on autopilot as he struggled to focus. “Tree, meet Duo. Play nice… ow.” He’d lost a knife in the collision, but he had spares -- he always had spares -- and he reached for the sheath in his boot as he looked up to see a mouth full of teeth descending towards him.
A segmented blade lashed down, chopping the mask and the body behind it into pieces, then snaked back together with a series of metallic noises as each section clicked into place. It was a mean-looking sword, spikes on every segment making it look like it had fangs, and Duo had an excellent view as its wielder stepped protectively in front of him.
“Dude,” he snickered, looking up from his position on the ground. “You look like something out of Rurouni Kenshin. At least you aren’t wearing pink, it’d totally clash with your hair, not that that ever stopped Kenshin…”
The red-haired man spun around to face him, eyes wide, displaying an impressive collection of tattoos that seemed to be a stylised representation of his sword’s shape. “You-- you can see me?!”
“Well duh,” Duo snorted, starting to lever himself up with a groan. “You’re right there. Plus it feels like I’m gonna get a sunburn just standing next to you,” he added, resisting the urge to squint.
“Uh. Sorry,” the redhead stuttered, still looking flummoxed.
“Hey, given that you just saved my ass I’m not gonna complain,” he shrugged. “Nice sword, by the way.”
The guy was still staring at Duo like he had two heads, and given that he wasn’t the one dressed like a reject from a shounen manga and holding a magical stretching sword, it was starting to grate on his nerves just a bit. Being Duo, he went on the attack.
“While I realise that I’m devilishly handsome and probably the sexiest thing you’ve seen in years,” he said sarcastically, “could we save the ogling for after all the bitey monsters are dead? --Like that one,” he added hastily, pushing away from the tree and throwing himself sideways as something froglike crashed past the redhead towards him.
The guy with the sword swore, chopping the frog and the tree down together, and Duo had a moment to see what was going on around them. Black-clad figures were everywhere -- more manga rejects, he decided, a mix of ninja and monochrome Shinsengumi -- fighting the mask monsters with an assortment of oddly-shaped swords.
“Sorry,” the guy apologised again, clearing his throat as he turned to scan the melee. “The living generally can’t see us, so it’s a bit of a shock when it happens-- actually, no, it doesn’t happen, so ‘shock’ really doesn’t cover it,” he finished in a grumpy voice.
“Seriously? Never happens?”
“Seriously.” The guy eyed him, raised eyebrows making the tattoos on his forehead move, and Duo couldn’t help grinning back.
“Yeah, well Shinigami’s special, man.”
For some reason that got another startled look, but Duo had more important things to worry about. “Whoa. Cthulhu at two o’clock,” he pointed out, flipping his knives into a ready position.
Is he calling himself a Shinigami -- no, just Shinigami, no ‘a’? Renji wondered, staring at the crazy human. Going up against Hollows with no zanpakutou, just a pair of mundane knives, completely blasé about seeing both Hollows and Shinigami… the kid was nuts!
=Never mind that,= baboon-Zabimaru interrupted. =What’s he calling Cthulhu?=
Renji turned to look. Ah. That would be the big Hollow with all the tentacles, I’m guessing.
=So why ‘Cthulhu’?=
If he sticks around long enough I’ll ask, okay? “You stay back,” he said aloud, flicking Zabimaru to one side and extending the blade in preparation for his first strike.
“Happy to let the man with the bigger weapon go first!” the teenager told him, mock-saluting. He muttered something else, sounding like “I wish I had my scythe,” but Renji was already jumping forwards.
The tentacled Hollow was fast despite its bulk, jerking to one side and only losing the tip of one limb instead of taking the first blow in the centre of its mask, but the strike at least succeeded in focussing its attention on Renji. The other Shinigami present had taken their cue from him and were making sure that their opponents couldn’t break through to threaten the human, so that was one less thing to worry about. He wondered for a moment where the scientists had gotten to, but a quick look over his shoulder soon located them, perched like vultures in a tree near the treat -- the human, he corrected himself firmly as Hebi snickered in the back of his mind -- dangling sensors in his direction and chortling together over their readouts. Then the Hollow lashed out at him again, and he had no more attention to spare for anyone else.
This thing’s got more tentacles than Matsumoto’s bag of dried squid had last time we went drinking, he snorted to himself, carving a few more off as the Hollow’s main bulk dodged again.
=It’s a pain fighting it like this,= Hebi grumbled. =Even limited, one Baboon Bone Cannon would take it out.=
You wanna go Bankai with the kid right there? We’d fry him with our reiatsu alone even if he didn’t get splash damage from the beam, Renji objected.
=…Point,= Hebi sniffed. =Don’t wanna fry the nummy treat; he looks like fun.=
Cut that out, will you?!
Zabimaru’s snake-voice sounded genuinely bewildered, and Renji sputtered, next strike going a bit haywire. For a moment he thought it was going to miss completely, but the Hollow shuffled sideways at the wrong moment and lost another tentacle, backing away with a low moan.
Saru, you wanna explain it to him? Renji asked plaintively, directing the thought at the baboon side of Zabimaru’s personality, and got a deep chuckle back.
Figures, he sighed, pressing forward after his retreating opponent. I get no respect.
The Hollow lost two more tentacles, and the snake-voice snickered. =We’re going to peck this thing to death without even chipping its mask,= he muttered. =Dumb thing isn’t even bright enough to look worried.=
Something about that seemed off to Renji, and he hesitated, sword clicking back into its shorter configuration. The Hollow stopped retreating, eyeing him with no sign of fear -- no sign of pain, either, despite having lost nearly a quarter of its bulk, now lying around the battlefield in twitching pieces.
=…It’s still got just as many tentacles as it started out with,= baboon-Zabimaru pointed out uneasily, =and it’s not bleeding…=
The warning came from the human behind him, and Renji spun around with Zabimaru at the ready, just in time to be smacked backwards into the Hollow instead of being thrown into it face-first. The various disconnected tentacles had joined up into a tangled net and leapt back to the main body, trapping him and at least two of the onmitsu, judging by the muffled swearing somewhere to his left. Zabimaru was equally trapped in the stretchy web, and he could feel himself starting to sink deeper into the Hollow’s squishy flesh.
Damn thing wasn’t dodging, it was strategising, he realised, struggling to get a hand free, and I don’t think it’s going to be as easy to cut this time… He was going to have to go Bankai, he decided, and hope that the human was far enough away to handle the reiatsu overflow.
“Spit ’em out, asshole!”
The long-haired teenager was suddenly in his face, moving faster than anything mortal he’d ever seen before, grabbing at the webbing around Renji’s chest with one hand and trying to hack at it with a knife.
“Idiot! Back off, you can’t hurt it like that! Get away before it eats you, moron!”
The boy hesitated for a moment but didn’t run; he blinked, frowned slightly, and then nodded. “Right,” he muttered, licking his lips. “Heart, huh? This better work.”
His reiatsu flared, bright lively surface suddenly augmented by a darker, more serious force, and his knife was surrounded with a purplish-black aura as he brought it down again. The fleshy webbing shrivelled away from the contact like a spiderweb touched by a flame, dropping Renji and the onmitsu on their asses, and the Hollow screeched, flopping clumsily away.
=Now can we kill it, before it comes up with any more stupid Hollow tricks?= Hebi snapped. =If the human can do that he can take a little pressure!=
Ha! Renji grinned as he rolled to his feet, and felt Zabimaru’s surprise.
You stopped calling him ‘treat’, he snickered, and pushed his reiatsu to the limits of the seal restraining it.
“Bankai! Baboon King Zabimaru!”
As it turned out, snake-Zabimaru had been overestimating the Hollow’s strength a little; it only took a couple of bites and one head-butt from the sword’s released form to finish it off, after which Zabimaru settled back into its coiled ready position around Renji, skull rearing above his head and radiating smugness.
“…Nice snake,” the human said, a little wild-eyed but otherwise doing a good job of pretending to be calm.
“He is, isn’t he?” Renji said proudly. Zabimaru rattled its segments, preening a little.
“Definitely impressive,” the human agreed, sticking one finger in his ear and wiggling it around a bit. “Likely to send you deaf if he screams like that all the time--”
Shaddap. It’s true, isn’t it?
“--but way cool even so, and why didn’t you do that before Cthulhu got all rubber-band-y on your ass?”
“Because Zabimaru gets a bit carried away sometimes, and I was worried about frying your skinny ass,” Renji told him bluntly.
=Oh, sure, blame us,= Saru pouted.
“Speaking of motivations, what the hell did you think you were doing, running in like that?”
“Hey, I saved your butt, don’t complain!”
“No, before that,” Renji elaborated, waving the hand that wasn’t holding Zabimaru’s hilt. “Why’d you come charging in right at the start? You had to know the Hollows were here, so why not avoid ’em?”
“Hollows? Is that what they’re called? Huh.” The human looked around at the trashed clearing, now populated only by silently watching onmitsu (and three ecstatic scientists, but they were keeping their transports of delight fairly quiet). “I didn’t really have a choice; I was kind of running away from-- oh. Uh. Yeah. I should probably get back to that. ’Bye!”
“…Well,” Renji said slowly after the human had disappeared back into the trees, dismissing Zabimaru back into its sealed form. “I don’t know what I expected when we started looking for this guy, but that was not it.”
“Captain Abarai!” The scientists were now crawling around in the remains of the tree the human had been thrown into, and one of them had pounced triumphantly on a splintered branch end. “We have a blood sample!”
“And hair!” another announced, still nose-down in the debris but waving one hand in the air. “This is wonderful!”
“Good to hear. You just… keep doing your thing, there, and let me know when you’re finished, okay? In the meantime--”
“What the hell was he doing here?” a new voice cut in, a little shaky with tension. Bobbing lights were visible through the trees, and something whined.
“It didn’t sound like a Gundam taking off,” someone else said doubtfully, “or explosives. The dogs are going nuts!”
“So he did something as a distraction, and it worked,” a third, harder voice snapped. The speaker stepped out into the clearing and scanned his devastated surroundings, torch and gun tracking together. “Get the dogs past it and they’ll pick up his trail again fast enough!”
The rest of the uniformed squad sidled out after him, looking around nervously at the mess. Several of them were half-dragging reluctant dogs that whined and tried to back away as the Shinigami came into view, but the humans’ eyes passed over the spirits without reacting.
Which is a good thing, I guess, Renji decided, scratching his chin thoughtfully. I’m really not ready for humans in general to start seeing us all over the place…
“Sir?” the leader of the onmitsu squad murmured, stepping up to stand at Renji’s side. “Should we prevent their pursuit?”
“I wanna,” he muttered, “but deliberate interference with oblivious living humans…”
“…is a crime,” the onmitsu finished with a sigh.
Renji grinned evilly as a thought struck him, and the masked shinigami looked sideways at him. “Captain Abarai?”
“Well, we can't do anything, so never mind,” he said innocently, turning his back on the oncoming humans. “Back to our duty!”
“Duty is, of course, paramount,” the onmitsu agreed, looking a little dubious.
“So we should check to see if there are any more Hollows in the vicinity before we return to Seireitai, right?”
“A sensible precaution, Captain Abarai. We can search--”
“Naaah, don’t waste your effort like that,” Renji drawled, feeling his grin widen. “I’ll just have a look.” And he released his reiatsu, letting it blast out into the surrounding area.
The dogs went nuts, breaking loose from their handlers and running yelping into the woods, heading back for home and their safe kennels. The humans swore, scattering to chase the dogs, and the pursuit squad’s cohesion dissolved into chaos.
“Nope,” Renji said thoughtfully, looking back at the onmitsu. “No Hollows nearby.”
“…That’s very good to hear, Captain Abarai,” he said solemnly, and turned away to assemble his squad members in preparation for departure.
=Darn,= baboon-Zabimaru said thoughtfully.
=You didn’t ask him what ‘Cthulhu’ meant.=
Later, back in Seireitai, Renji and Ichigo presented their reports to a hastily-convened Captains’ meeting. Not everyone was present -- Kurotsuchi Mayuri, for one, was secluded in his lab poring over the scanner readings and samples brought back by his squad members -- but those that were found their information disquieting to say the least.
“If things are left as they are, sooner or later a Hollow is going to catch them,” Ichigo said grimly. “The one Renji met might have enough control over his reiatsu to get in one or two hits, and the one I saw has really good perceptions, but that won’t save them from what’s after them forever. They’re too strong to go unnoticed, they don’t know how to hide -- if they’re eaten, either some Hollows are going to get a serious power boost, or they’ll Hollowify themselves, at which point they could be a serious problem.”
“Indeed,” the Captain-General sighed. “Captain Kurotsuchi’s initial report states that they have comparable strength to a later-year Academy student, or an inexperienced Shinigami. Even leaving aside our moral imperative to protect the living, allowing them to be Hollowified would be extremely unwise. Suggestions?”
“Bodyguards?” Soi Fon shrugged.
“We don’t have the spare manpower,” Komamura rumbled. “Certainly not if they are to have guards strong enough to defeat the number and level of Hollows being drawn to them. Almost Adjuchas-level, you said, Abarai-kun?”
Renji grimaced. “Yeah, and they’d know they were being watched, too. Ichigo’s one saw him before he dropped his kidou.”
“Train ’em to shield themselves,” Zaraki suggested. “Train ’em to fight, too. Ain’t like we don’t got precedent,” he added, grinning at Ichigo.”
“It’s not exactly a common precedent,” Ukitake said slowly, “but…”
Kuchiki Byakuya raised one perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “Given the upheaval caused last time, I’m reluctant to support that idea.”
“Hey, at least this time it’d be legal and on purpose!” Ichigo grinned at him, then shook his head. “I didn’t exactly have anything better to do at the time, and even so Rukia -- Vice-Captain Kuchiki -- had to argue me into it. From what Renji saw, these guys are fighting a war already. Even if they want to learn, they likely don’t have the time.”
The shortest captain snorted, folding his arms across his chest. “You’re all missing the most obvious option,” he noted, rolling his eyes.
Everyone turned to look at him. “Oh? Would you care to elaborate, Captain Hitsugaya?” Ukitake asked politely.
“They need to hide. Fine.” Hitsugaya shrugged. “Nobody said they have to manage it by themselves.”
* * * * *
Two weeks later, after yet another dual mission, Duo and Quatre made their weary way back to their newest safehouse.
“Think we’re done for a while?” Duo yawned, checking the telltales they’d placed on the door before unlocking it.
“I hope so,” Quatre muttered, uncharacteristically grumpy. “Heero and Trowa are back tomorrow, Wufei should finish his current mission next week, and quite frankly if we don’t get at least a few days off I for one am going to refuse any new missions on grounds of exhaustion!”
“Ooh, mutiny,” Duo grinned. “I’ll be right there beside you with a knife in my teeth, yelling ‘arrr’ in all the appropriate--” He stopped in mid-sentence, staring at a small paper package on the low table in front of the couch, and Quatre nearly ran into his back.
“What is it?”
“Someone’s been in here,” Duo whispered, looking around. “That wasn’t there when we left. Bail out?”
“…Check first. One of the others might be back early.”
“They woulda let us know so’s we wouldn’t accidentally shoot ’em,” Duo muttered, but joined Quatre in a fast check of the other rooms, gun in hand. Search over, they returned to the living room.
“Nobody’s here, and there’s no sign of forced entry anywhere that I could see,” Duo reported, holstering his gun but leaving one hand hovering ready near it.
“Ditto.” Quatre eyed the innocuous-looking paper, folded to approximately the size of a long, thin envelope. “Are we going to see what that is, or just run?”
“Well, I’m curious enough to look,” Duo smirked, and picked it up, holding it at arms’ length as he flipped open the first fold. A moment later, he laughed and relaxed, flopping onto the couch with a relieved sigh. “Phew! False alarm, Quat, no OZ booby traps here.”
“What is it?” Quatre asked, holstering his own gun and moving to join Duo on the couch.
Grinning, the long-haired pilot pointed to a stylised drawing of two swords, one jagged like a saw, the other shaped like a very large butchers’ knife with hardly any hilt. “Tats-man was carrying that sword,” he explained, “so I’m guessing your orange-haired guy’s sword is this one?”
“…We got a letter from ghosts?!” he asked incredulously.
“Looks like it! Let’s see what they’ve got to say,” Duo shrugged, unfolding the long piece of paper further.
Something dropped out of one of the folds as he reached a section with writing on it, and Quatre picked them up; two small cloth bags with something hard inside them, tied firmly shut with beaded cords. They tingled in his fingers as he held them, and he frowned, examining them more closely.
“Huh. ‘Carry these, and most Hollows won’t be able to find you’,” Duo read out. “That’s all, no signature, nothing else. Would it have killed them to write more? ‘Hi guys’,” he sing-songed, “‘sorry for nearly giving you a heart attack by showing up like that, it was nice meeting you. We should do dinner some time’?”
“If these actually work,” Quatre breathed, “they could stick one to my forehead with a nail gun and I’d smile and thank them.”
“…Oookay, you have a point,” Duo admitted, dropping the paper onto the table and turning his attention to the objects in Quatre’s hands. “No more looking gift horses in the mouth from me, I promise. --What, they gave us o-mamori? They really are out of a manga or something!”
“You’re the one who reads them all the time,” the blond pilot snorted. “You’d know better than me. They certainly feel like they’re doing something,” he added.
“Hey, I’m willing to give ’em a try. Which one d’you want?”
“This one,” Quatre said without any hesitation, holding up the one that was made from blue-embroidered gold brocade. “It… feels right, even beyond the colouring, and this one ‘feels’ like yours.”
“Purple on black? Stylish,” Duo snickered.
“Emo,” Quatre corrected him sweetly, and dodged a swat.
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