Fandom: Super Junior / TVXQ / Big Bang / SHiNee / Bleach
Featuring: The entire cast so far. And it's kind of extensive.
Warnings: Harsh language
Genre: Action, Adventure
A/N: This is basically a recap chapter, a chance for us to catch up on what's happening to the cast after latest developments, and a chance to tie up all the separate plots into a single ongoing one.
Summary: Sometimes, the heaviest consequences are the ones that nobody talks about. Sometimes, you just have to find the right person to talk to. And sometimes, there may be no such person at all.
Word Count: 8,417
"I'm starting to get worried," EunHyuk mumbled around a mouthful of sautéed bean sprouts. "It's not like him to just up and vanish like this."
RyeoWook rolled his eyes as subtly as he could. When JunSu asked him to be EunHyuk's voice of reason, he didn't expect it to be a round-the-clock job. "DongHae didn't vanish. I'm sure he's perfectly fine," he said soothingly. "We had dinner with him three days ago and he seemed okay, didn't he?"
"Yeah, but that's the thing with DongHae," EunHyuk insisted. "If he seems okay, then he's not okay."
RyeoWook gave him The Look.
EunHyuk paused, took a deep breath and spoke dejectedly. "I just want to be sure he's... not breaking down. Like I did." He put the lid back on his unfinished lunch and sulked at the Division's rock garden. He felt RyeoWook's arm slide around his waist, and he leaned in to the hug. "Am I overreacting?" he asked softly.
"A bit, yes," RyeoWook admitted delicately, "but if it'll make you feel better, we can swing by the 2nd Division headquarters after classes."
EunHyuk smiled faintly at RyeoWook. It wasn't anything like his usual one, but it was his first positive expression since morning.
RyeoWook wondered if he was underreacting. He'd only been in a battle situation once, and even then he'd been running around trying to make sure people were okay while EunHyuk, Lieutenant JunSu and Lieutenant DaeSung were the ones taking the heat. Perhaps it was natural for combat agents to develop neuroses about the safety of their friends. Perhaps that was the reason EunHyuk became so touchy and affectionate, as if he always needed reminding that RyeoWook wasn't a hallucination.
If I get traumatized, how will I behave? RyeoWook wondered dispassionately.
A gong chimed. EunHyuk sighed and pushed apprehensions about DongHae out of his mind lest he fail this afternoon's practical exam. EunHyuk was a professional worrier. Very few people controlled their worrying like he could. He's had a lot of experience. If there was ever an Inter-Division Worrywarts Championship, he would be at the forefront.
But even professional worriers drew the line at something. EunHyuk's was drawn at RyeoWook's frustration of staying up all night to tutor him for just a failing mark.
"No, I don't think that's quite how it works," SeungGi said slowly.
"Aww." DaeSung squinted at the textbooks around him and tried to think. Somehow, being in a place so saturated with knowledge wasn't very conducive to thinking. For him, anyway. SeungGi had the advantage since this was his mess of an office.
There was an unspoken competition among most of the Lieutenants about who could still function despite a complete lack of organization. Unspoken, that is, until He-Who-Is-Too-Clean-To-Be-Named – and even this pseudonym they spoke in hushed tones lest they catch the germaphobia epidemic by word of mouth – got promoted as the 8th Division Lieutenant. It was a matter of pride, almost all of the Lieutenants felt, to be capable of doing your actual job without concerning yourself with sideshows like Division cleanliness and weekly organizational restructuring reports.
ChangMin of the 3rd had a comfortable lead, but his confidence shattered the moment the other Lieutenants set their minds to disorganization. DaeSung, whose natural inclination to be disorderly was tempered only by his Captain's penchant for losing things, was completely unprepared for the chaos that his normally order-minded colleagues raised to an art form. In one week, JunSu somehow managed to turn his paperless office into a trash dump of old reports that now resembled a hedge maze of classified information. SeungGi's office, as Lieutenant of the 12th Division and second technician of the Research Institute, turned from pleasantly soot-stained to life-threateningly random as the remains of more and more failed experiments began to pile up: visitors were wise to wear iron-soled boots if they wanted to keep the same number of appendages as they did before they entered.
But the leading participant came from an unexpected direction. HaeJin, of the aseptic 4th Division, was chastised by his Captain when the pile of used cotton wipes he'd been cultivating met with his other pile of discarded reagent bottles, and the blob that resulted began showing signs of sentience. Being banned from the normal modes of play, HaeJin resorted to psychological germ warfare by inviting Lieutenant He-Who-Is-Too-Clean-To-Be-Named over to his clinics and regaling him offhand with tales about resistant microbe cultures that he was experimenting on exactly where the visiting Lieutenant was seated. Watching the person fidget and come up with any reason to end the meeting abruptly was as much fun as HaeJin's newly-discovered game of Keep SungMin Here As Long As Possible.
(The Lieutenants were good at bluffing with bad cards at hand, but they weren't prepared for HaeJin who could bluff with no hand at all.)
SeungGi wiped his hands on his much greasier uniform (what he hoped to accomplish with that, DaeSung will never know) and tied his Lieutenant's badge back on his arm. He always put it back on whenever he felt he needed to wield the authority of his rank. "Listen: Hollow spirit energy and Shinigami spirit energy are not polar opposites. I can't just put a component the wrong way around and suddenly use the tampered device to go fishing for potential Shinigami among civilians."
DaeSung blinked a couple of times. "That just sounds like a hypothesis. All I'm saying is that you – and by 'you' I mean 'we' – should try it out before dissing it."
It took every bit of SeungGi's will-power to stop his hand from slapping his own forehead. Something about DaeSung just inspired that reflex in many people. "DaeSung. Lieutenant. I designed the detection system we installed in those wards. I was present at all the field tests and I was the one who smoothed out the bugs for three generations. I know everything there is to know from the first working prototype to the mass-produced model we distributed among the high-risk districts in the north. I've memorized exactly where glitches are liable to occur and at what conditions. If there is so much as a single-"
"Alright, I get it, no need to brag," DaeSung interrupted urgently. Techies always got worked up if they thought their competence was being challenged. "What if we just turn the Hollow repulsion thingy upside down? Could we use it as bait instead?"
There was a resounding slap as SeungGi's self-control failed to catch up on recent events quickly enough.
"Hey, are you okay?" DaeSung asked, full of concern.
"Lieutenant, I'll say this only once and I beg you to please listen first and complain later." SeungGi took a deep, calming breath. It didn't work. His hand was already crumpling the title page of his 3rd seat's report before he realized that he was displacing frustration. (It was a brief, sixty-page essay on fluctuation frequencies expected of varying decay rates among recently discovered particles. Dry reading for many, but ground-breaking work for 12th Division techies.) "Are you listening?"
"Very intently," DaeSung answered, leaning in conspiratorially.
"Very good. Now please – and I won't say this again – get out of my office."
"But I-" DaeSung began, but he fled at the beginnings of a low growl from SeungGi's throat.
HaeJin ran his hands over the corpse presented to him. A body from the human world, frozen in time by the best spells the 12th Division had been able to invent. Fresh, they claimed, as an hour after death, has remained so for two weeks now, and will remain that way until the spells are lifted. It had been brought to his private clinic (the 12th had labs, the 4th had clinics even though they were basically the same – it was an inter-Division thing) with the missive that only he or the Captain were allowed to even know of its presence.
It was the automatic assumption, anyway, since the case was being handled by the 9th.
He reviewed the data that his spirit senses returned to him. They weren't very puzzling. "Cause of death: high-speed impact with a blunt surface. Broken ribs, pierced lung, dislocated jaw, subcutaneous hemorrhages all over the face and chest, which is the area I assume where the impact occurred. But you already know this." HaeJin glanced at the shinigami sitting silently at the corner of the room.
The figure nodded. There was an unspoken appeal to proceed with the examination.
HaeJin grimaced in irritation. Members of that Division always paraded their rank around. They were good, sure – but they weren't that good.
Still... he'd best indulge his guest. They had a misplaced sense of importance, but their hearts were in the right place. Most of the time. Usually. For a given definition of "right".
HaeJin took a beat to think if he should be forward. It didn't take long to decide. "I'm sure the 12th Division gave you a comprehensive write-up about the state of this body. I'm also sure you damn well know of my reputation, so why don't we cut this 'sizing up the asset' chase short: the tests we are capable of running in our clinics are very extensive, but only if you point out which kinds diagnostics you need. And if you want us to run everything, expect a few months before we can submit a comprehensive report as tall as you are. Yes, we can be that anal."
The agent's eyes unfocused as he considered this. He spoke by opening his mouth to the absolute minimum needed to shape the sounds. "Focus on the left forearm. Look for clues on chronic stress effects and the inclusion of alien spiritual particles."
Why do they always insist on playing it tough, as if we can't see right through to who they really are underneath the façade, HaeJin thought very quietly. It wasn't that his guest could read minds – HaeJin was just capable of thinking really loudly. He recalibrated his mental sensitivity, sustained another burst of spiritual pressure and focused it on the aforementioned body part. The tendrils of energy snaked their way all over and around the different tissues, fell neatly into every fold and crevice, and grew longer or thinner as the terrain required.
Ah, here's something. HaeJin narrowed his eyes. "Abundance of microtears in the muscles along the left forearm, accompanied by an onset of partial muscular calcification. Some of the ligaments and tendons are growing too thick or too brittle." HaeJin moved his hands closer to the extremities. "Yeah, there are signs of tendonitis, maybe even carpal tunnel syndrome." He touched the very tips of the body's fingers. "Thick calluses. This kid was a musician. Strings, probably."
The guest remained decidedly impassive.
"We can determine which instrument," HaeJin went on plainly. He transferred the focal point from the left forearm to the upper vertebrae and left shoulder muscles then compared the data with those of the other side. "Violin," he said confidently.
Nothing from the other shinigami.
HaeJin rehashed the only clues he'd been spared. "You want to me establish a link between playing the violin and some... unfamiliar spiritual activity?" He stared coldly at the guest's eyes, forcing its hand in his own way.
"If possible," the shinigami murmured.
HaeJin pursed his lips. They had come to an interesting junction. "Will you accept circumstantial evidence predicated on a privative?"
"Depends on the strength of the privative."
HaeJin nodded. "I can't positively establish the connection due to the absence of spiritual evidence in the sample."
The guest looked confused.
Never send a seated officer to do a Lieutenant's job, HaeJin thought harshly. Then he remembered DaeSung. Unless you're from the 7th, he amended. "There are no traces of spiritual particles anywhere in this body. Which is odd. When a spirit detaches itself from the body, it leaves certain... traces. That I can often detect. This body doesn't have it. The absence of spiritual traces on a once-living creature is suspicious."
"But you can't link it to his alleged violin playing," the guest said. Almost tauntingly.
HaeJin wasn't having any of that in his own lab. "'Alleged'?" he asked, smirking, without turning to look. He felt the shinigami's glare on his back. HaeJin smirked. "I can run some other tests."
"How long will it take?"
"How long can you spare?"
The agent consulted his schedule. "Two hours."
HaeJin stood straight and turned to him calmly. "Come back in two hours."
"I'm staying right here."
Zhou Mi knew the intricacies of non-violent confrontation: everything was about body language and force of will. He was good at it. He can even win fights by simply not fighting.
But it certainly helped if the opponent played by the rules.
Not that this was a confrontation. At least, the shinigami in front of him didn’t make it feel as such, what with the disarming smile that could have disassembled nuclear bombs all over the world. Then there was the impeccably timed wink exactly when Mi was about to vocalize his defenses.
And now the shinigami was reading the report on the Opera House incident with (as Mi thought fiercely) suspicious interest. Somehow, Mi was convinced that reading reports was something that happened to other people, not to those claiming to be the Lieutenant of the Special Ops Division.
Mi cleared his throat and reminded himself that he had the home court advantage. They were, after all, in his shop, he had hundreds of spirit weapons hidden all over the place, and his guest was seated on a particularly destructive one and didn't even know it. "I don't think it's within protocol for any Shinigami to communicate with me without the presence of a representative from the 6th Division," he ventured. "They're the ones in charge of liaising with our world, correct?"
JunSu raised his eyes to face him and slowly put the report down. "That's standard procedure, yes," he admitted. "I could have the shinigami posted in this area to oversee this meeting if you want to make it official."
Mi clammed up even more. "You mean you're here on a non-official capacity?"
JunSu's stare never wavered. "There are gradations to 'official capacity' when it comes to Lieutenants and the Special Ops Division."
"I think I'd rather discuss on a more solid grounding of official capacity."
"I understand." The black butterfly perched on JunSu's shoulder flapped its wings and rose uncertainly above them. "Of course, if we make this official, this tangled mess with DongHae's involvement could be dragged in for inquiry."
Mi paused. He raised an eyebrow sharply. "Bureaucratic and emotional blackmail? You give justice to your rank."
JunSu rested his elbows on Mi's desk, steepled his fingers, and from behind them gazed straight into Mi's eyes. "I'm not here as a persecutor so it would help if you stopped treating me as one. Soul Society agreed that your timely intervention in destroying the Hollow was needed. And in any case, SeungHyun's report detailed that the Hollow resisted all forms of soul burial or purification. So in simpler words, you're off the hook."
Mi resented the latter barb, but conceded to the Lieutenant's earlier point. "Then why is the Lieutenant of the Special Ops Division visiting my shop, if not for official purposes?"
The suggestion of a very faint, triumphant smile showed at the tips of JunSu's lips. "I'm here because one of my men was involved. And I want to know more. You could answer my questions and save us both some time or I could take the hard way. Good for you that everything's in order... but I can't say the same about DongHae."
"You'd throw one of your own men to administrative wolves?" Mi asked, aghast.
"No, and that's the point," JunSu said pointedly. "DongHae is showing severe changes in behavior ever since he returned from his vacation here a week ago. I can't probe him without overt psychological testing, but with the few clues he's shown I'm guessing there's a whole tide of emotions not written into his report."
"So have him tested."
"Not until I'm convinced this isn't some form of delayed shock."
Mi respect for the Lieutenant rose. "If we're talking 'emotional,' there are only two things I can think of that could have affected him. One of them is the boy that your people took. Henry."
JunSu didn't bother to correct him that it was the 5th Division who technically confiscated the... body. "And the other is?"
Me, Zhou Mi thought. "My gigai," he said instead.
JunSu glanced at the report on the desk between them. "Yes, DongHae wrote a section on your gigai."
"As if he knows anything," Mi prickled with ironic plainness. "All he knows is that my invention works."
"Then what doesn't he know?"
"Everything else. Why it works. How it works. What it means to inhabit that model. What it means to have a body." Mi leaned on his desk to emphasize his point. "When I designed that gigai, my goal was to provide means for disembodied souls to somehow feign being alive again. Up to a point. I'm still miles – no, light-years away from constructing a body that's a decent simulation of what it feels like to be alive again. The model I let DongHae use is a step in the right direction, but it's nowhere near as effective as I want."
JunSu laid a hand on the report. "He wrote that the experience of being in your gigai was 'an overflow of sensation that took time to get used to.'"
"Of course he'd write that," Mi sniffed. "He's been dead for... what, three centuries? More? He'd forgotten what it felt like. Take any newly departed spirit – any spirit that can still remember life – and they'd say using my gigai is like having a body made of marshmallows."
"But it was more than DongHae could remember," JunSu said slowly, seeing the craftsman's point.
"And that's why he was overwhelmed," Mi finished. "I'm still optimizing the interface networks between body and spirit. Optimizing around the clock. The most drastic advancements between models are the leaps and bounds I've made in optimizing the interface. Fine-tuning the connection to help whoever would use them fully feel what it's like to be alive."
JunSu's façade of cool self-control cracked. It was extremely slight, like the theoretical dent left on the floor beneath a thick carpet as a plastic teacup fell from the table. But it was there, and he felt it.
Remembering what it felt like to be alive after centuries of being a spirit. Wow.
Even the thought was overwhelming. Of course DongHae didn't see the implications; he didn't have the right type of mind for it. But JunSu did. To remember what it felt like to be alive...
JunSu forced the parasitic thought out of his mind. But he knew it would be back. He turned to another page he'd marked earlier on the report. "This boy that was with DongHae. The one we have. What do you know of him?"
"Henry? I don't know anything. I wasn't with them, not until the very end. And it was too late by then."
"Then the boy who was with them most of the time?"
Mi drew back slightly. "I'm not involving him in this. I've changed his life enough as it is."
JunSu leaned closer. "He doesn't have to know that he may have known something important."
A beat of silence. Mi saw the vast possibilities of the future before him, and most of them were bleak. "But we do."
Mi sighed. Looks like JinKi's about to receive a much higher dose of spirit pressure than he's used to.
Where do things begin? Can anything be absolutely isolated from the motions of time and still be allowed to play the same way as it truly did? Much human effort has been placed towards finding the ultimate beginning, yet this has been there forever.
When a baker bakes a cake, does he start when he washes his hands? Or is it when he dons his apron? Maybe it's when he goes to the market for the flour? But what of his oven? What of his craft? What of the flour, which would not have existed had the farmer not harvested the wheat? What of the honey, had the bees not fed on nectar? And the nectar itself had the flower not bloomed exactly when it did, where it did? That cake is one infinitesimal point in the course of history that has been in existence since time itself was born.
One small change – one drop of rain at the wrong place, one gentle breeze blowing the wrong way, one strand of hair out of place – changes everything. The difference may not be pronounced – the difference may in fact be so subtle that only an entity outside of space and time may notice, but it is there.
Or the difference can be so pronounced that a war that should have been lost was won. That a princess that should have lived was instead assassinated. That a hero that could have saved the world had never been born.
That a boy who should have been a first-seat violinist in a premier orchestra took the shortcut and bargained for skill that wasn't his to use. Or perhaps a boy who paid for the reality of his dreams by living in a nightmare could instead wake up and escape the horrible contract of spirit and music. History could go both ways. Maybe, in one sense, it did.
And, in another sense, it didn't.
But every once in a while, with probabilities that could be explained when words that do not evoke time are invented, history bears a child. And history dotes on it, like a new parent on a long-awaited first-born. Because at a point outside of time, in a way that our limited words cannot explain, that boy was, is, and will be History itself.
There lived a boy who was, one day, just your average child in an average neighborhood who lived during an uninteresting period of time. And the next day, he was the child of history, and has been so forever.
History gives gifts to those it favors. And its idea of a good gift is living an interesting life. Or at least a life History finds interesting.
ChangMin strode down the deserted road. Silence and empty buildings surrounded him. He surveyed the scenery with sharp eyes that looked both at the world and beyond.
He stopped in front of a street stall that sold takuyaki once upon a time. "I was here," he said half to himself, half to the shinigami task force following him on the rooftops.
One of the agents noted ChangMin's position on a map of the deserted district while another leapt down and placed an interactive marker at his feet. They waited a few seconds for the marker to glow red before proceeding.
"I sensed the Hollow about thirty, maybe thirty-five feet off in –" ChangMin closed his eyes in the throes of remembering and pointed a finger to the northeast "– that direction. Unit Two was the closest to it, I think."
There was some muttering among the accompanying death gods while they spoke to their hell butterfly about Unit Two's location. ChangMin had no doubts about his memory, and neither did the task force tracking him, but they had to do things by the book.
"Noted," one of the shinigami said.
ChangMin nodded and jumped to the rooftops. The task force followed him as he traced his own steps months in the past through a town that once thrummed with the beating thousands of hearts. There were buildings where there used to be space, and spaces in memory of buildings where lives ended during the first Hollow attack. There were new poles, new colors, new fences, new faces that didn't belong. And one that belonged everywhere.
"I tracked the spirit energy here," ChangMin told the team that followed him. "I stood on this rooftop and the hollow attacked me with its projectile. See how this part of the roof has new tiles? The hollow blew the original ones away. Over there, I saw SangJa's body with its arms torn off."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Captain JaeJoong glance at him from his spot several rooftops away. The Captain was accompanying Unit Two during its group trace, paying respect in his own way to the member he lost because he wasn't there to protect them.
"Noted," the note-taker said, interrupting the swell of ChangMin's emotions.
ChangMin pulled himself back to the present. "I aimed a binding spell at it, but it evaded. It started attacking from the air. It threw energy blasts wildly. Five, all over the place, before I got its attention with a Flame Cannon. When I saw it focus on me, I ran west and instructed Units One and Three to follow behind it cautiously."
ChangMin leapt from rooftop to rooftop and stopped at the wide patch of grass that separated the village from the wild forests. There used to be nothing but a spindly fence running along the demarcation. He remembered it clearly. The repellant wards were new. Somewhat new.
He heard the task force land softly behind him. "I led it out there. The rest I already covered in my combat report."
The note-taker, a representative of the 10th Division, transcribed every word of ChangMin's trace. He was of another breed of shinigami: more an investigator than a fighter. Obsessive about details. A stickler for rules. Not someone you'd look for in a fight, but definitely useful any other time. "Do you still remember your track through the forest?" he enquired.
"I'll remember if it's still there." ChangMin sighed. He knew he should have expected a full recount, even about things that he'd already submitted. The Internal Intelligence Division was, after all, very thorough. Even to the point of tedium. "Come on."
Units One and Three, accompanied by their task forces, arrived soon after. They had nothing more to add: everything worth saying had already been said, sometimes even more than once, and most of those came from the Lieutenant.
Back at Ground Zero, where the hollow first made itself known, JaeJoong let Unit Two and its task force peel off as they continued their investigation. He stood by the flag that marked the loss of one of his team. The breeze played gently, and the cloth flapped in answer.
"I didn't even know him very well," he said to the silence that landed behind him.
YunHo didn't answer. Really, what good were words for times like this?
JaeJoong spoke on without turning to look at his companion. "I kept reading the report over and over. Kept thinking, maybe I could have spent more time with them. Him. Maybe I could have taught them more. Maybe he'd still be alive."
YunHo kept his gaze fixed respectfully on the ground. This was common sentiment among the Captains every time one of theirs was taken. Maybe. Could have. Should have. Then... maybe.
But he knew better than to affirm JaeJoong's could haves or to remind him why Captains were discouraged from spending too much time with their men. He'd had his own share of losses, and this wasn't JaeJoong's first. He just had to let the guilt pass, even if it was several months late.
"I dug up his old reports, you know?" JaeJoong went on. "From his training days. His mentors praised how quickly he could assess situations. Said he had a good grasp on how conduct applied to the battlefield."
YunHo looked up to see JeaJoong drawing his sword. With the very tip of the blade, he drew the 3rd Division's symbol on the ground – then beside it: a name, a short message.
YunHo looked away once more.
"You think I'm being foolishly sentimental," JaeJoong asked the air.
"I'm used to it." YunHo drew his own sword and added a word to JaeJoong's note.
JaeJoong gave him a brittle smile that slowly melted to self-conscious laughter. "Don't tell anyone I'm such a sop."
YunHo gasped in feigned surprise. "You mean nobody else knows?"
More laughter. "Fine, all the Captains know. But it helps if nobody talks about it, okay? I have a cool image to protect in front of my Division."
YunHo drew him in a one-armed hug. "You know you're our favorite sop. Everyone would agree with me."
JaeJoong pinched him on the waist. "Come on, we'd better go back to the 10th's headquarters. Time to talk shop."
Both Captains vanished in a flurry of white robes.
The flag played gently in the breeze. Beneath it was written, SangJa. He was one of
A gong sounded over the Academy.
Minutes later, the hallways were filled with students rushing to their next classes before the gong sounded again. Tardiness in a military school was dealt with extremely harshly.
MinHo emerged from his classroom more exhausted than almost everyone else. Lunch break. A really ("Hey.") delayed lunch break.
He walked close to the wall so he wouldn't be an obstruction to people rushing and coming and going everywhere. A few weeks back, when he was a new face among the throng of students, he'd entertained the vague hope that somehow, some way, he'd have friends amid the hundreds of other hopeful youths who apparently shared a dream.
But as the days went by, he still walked the hallways alone. Now he knew better than to expect anything else.
At first he thought it was because he didn't even dream of being a shinigami until he was recruited, unlike most of the other students who had their hearts set on rising up the ranks and holding their swords and fighting battles at impossible odds. He thought they saw him as a nobody who didn't fit in, as if his lack of passion and ambition shone off him like an aura. It wasn't until his second week, when ("Hey!") Lieutenant DaeSung came to him in person during Introduction to Sword Combat to give him the schedule of his supplementary classes at the 7th Division headquarters while his classmates either glared at him or refused to look at him at all, did he realize that his initial assumption was wrong.
What few people who were willing to talk to him then withdrew their ("Hey!") offer of friendship. Resentment was a powerful repellant.
MinHo felt thankful that his schedule was so full. It was hard to feel lonely when you were completely busy.
MinHo faltered in mid step. For weeks he'd been navigating the Academy on autopilot, sticking closely to a routine so that he could send his mind elsewhere while his body did what it had to do. Nobody had ever called out to him before. Not outside of class, at least.
I'm probably just imagining things, he told himself. He reestablished his location (just a few feet away from the exit to the rock gardens) and readied to go back on autopilot. Someone poked him sharply on the back.
"Are you deaf or something?" spoke an irritated voice so close to him that MinHo had to admit that the possibility of someone talking to him just turned absolute. He turned slowly and looked down.
"Huh," the speaker – a boy with fierce eyes and thin lips – said in between disappointment and relief. "You don't really look that tall up close."
"I'm sorry?" MinHo said softly, confused.
The boy raised an eyebrow. "You're apologizing for not being taller?"
MinHo was too well-bred to fidget, but this was one of the few times he wished the urge hasn't been polished out of his system.
The boy grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him the rest of the way out. "Come on, we don't have all day for lunch."
MinHo was too surprised to resist. But eventually the sunlight stimulated his brain and caught up with his body, and MinHo realized that being strung along in the middle of the Academy gardens wasn't really a dignified state of affairs for him. He hurried his walk until he and his captor were on equal pacing.
The boy kept on talking. "Really, if you're planning on working for the 7th, you should be more vocal. That Division's in charge of maintaining diplomatic ties with Rukongai, you know, and if you just keep quiet like that you'll be transferred out like a snap." And the boy snapped his fingers to illustrate his point.
The boy stopped so abruptly at MinHo only realized when they were already few feet apart. He was being stared at by a stranger who was shorter than him and had his arms crossed. MinHo felt like he was being... appraised.
"Right," his captor said. "I'm going to call you MinHo the Apologetic." He walked to the shade of an expansive mango tree, where he sat and took out a bento wrapped carefully in red and purple cloth. He glared at MinHo, who took the hint and sat down beside him.
"How do you know my name?" MinHo asked.
"Everybody knows your name," the boy said as he unraveled the knotted cloth on his bento. "Lieutenant DaeSung wasn't exactly discreet when he called you out to talk to you."
"Oh." MinHo tried to cram interrogative expectation into that syllable, hoping his companion would take the hint.
A breeze blew. A sparrow landed on the branch above them and started chirping. The boy inspected his meal. MinHo looked pointedly at him. A minute of silence passed.
The boy held up a sliver of beef and eyed it critically. "I'm not gonna say it unless you ask first."
MinHo resisted the urge to sigh. "May I know your name, please?"
"KiBum," the boy said promptly. "But there are plenty of KiBums and I'm not sharing a name with those losers."
MinHo started unpacking his own lunch. "You're not?"
"Nope. Call me 'Ki'."
Ki. MinHo tasted the name in his head. It sounded like someone confident. Definite. Determined. Outspoken. All those things MinHo didn't come across to others, even if he was deep down. And when he thought of it even more, that Ki could decide to change his name so simply meant they were worlds away from each other.
He was always MinHo, had always been MinHo. He'd never even thought of being anyone else.
"That's your lunch?" Ki asked in a tone overflowing with disbelief.
"Erm. Yes? Is there anything wrong?"
"Well, for one thing, it's half the size of mine even though you're way bigger than me."
MinHo looked at his bento of rice and salted fish. Then he looked at Ki's sautéed beef, shrimp tempura, pickled vegetables, stir-fried rice, and a couple of mochi on the side.
Ki regarded him with narrowed eyes. "Funny, you don't look poor."
MinHo's hand froze as he was about to raise some rice to his mouth. "I'm not," MinHo admitted truthfully as he put his chopsticks back down. He followed Ki's eyes as they darted pointedly towards MinHo's sorry fare, and he felt compelled to add, "I just live a very simple life."
"Living a simple life while attending the Academy in such impeccably styled 'uniforms'." Ki shrugged and bit off a chunk of tempura. "Sounds simple enough to me. No questions there, none at all. Really obvious, even."
MinHo didn't have much practice with confronting irony, particularly from strangers whose idea of being friendly was to point out dissonant images. His immediate reaction was to blurt out the truth. "I'm not allowed to grow fat."
Ki froze in mid bite and turned incredulously to MinHo. He let his speechlessness do the talking.
"It's not that I don't like fat people," MinHo clarified quickly. "But none of my clothes would fit if I grow any bigger."
Ki swallowed his mouthful and pressed a finger to his cheek. "So... can't you afford new clothes? Bigger clothes so you won't have to starve yourself?"
MinHo sighed. Just this morning nobody wanted to talk to him (and he had a growing suspicion that maybe his obviously altered uniforms had something to do with his isolation) and suddenly he's having lunch with someone who had a very convincing tone of voice that he was being an idiot. All in all, he didn't expect summarizing his life story for someone he just met minutes prior.
"My parents are tailors," he explained, his voice dipping lower in case Ki was one of those people who came from military families.
"So?" Ki asked. "My mom's a nurse and she isn't exactly controlling my diet. Don't tell me they'll throw you out if you don't fit in the stuff they make."
"No, nothing like that! They'll make new clothes for me, but..." MinHo shrunk just a bit from embarrassment "... they'll be disappointed."
"Erm. Run that by me again?"
"I'm sort of... you know how parents dote on their children by giving them toys or food? Mine dote on me by making me look really good. That's how they think. And I don't mind, really, since I appreciate it." MinHo blushed at the self-compliment. He wasn't used to praising himself. Come to think of it, he can't remember having done it before.
"Well, you do look good," Ki agreed nonchalantly, as if complimenting someone's appearance was the most natural thing in the world.
"Thanks. I guess."
But before MinHo finished talking, Ki had already placed some slices of sautéed beef on MinHo's rice. "And you also look hungry, and in my opinion as the son of a professional health worker: that's not a good thing. So eat up."
Ki glared at him. It was a most impressive glare. MinHo shut up and raised a sliver of beef to his lips.
Ki nodded, added some tempura to MinHo's lunch, and focused on his own meal. Unnoticed by anyone, MinHo's lips rose to the first smile he's worn in weeks.
JinKi was finding it hard to breathe. Literally. He collapsed on the floor.
"Tone it down," Zhou Mi hissed as he propped JinKi up.
JunSu flailed about in his mind. "I'm already at a fifth of my strength! Lieutenants' limit in the human world!"
"He's only just starting. Tone it down, I said!" Zhou Mi insisted.
"Fine, I'm doing it. Geez!"
An instant later, JinKi's eyes shot open and he breathed deep in huge lungfuls. He pushed himself away from Zhou Mi and crawled to the nearest wall. He leaned against it and tried to focus on not suffocating.
"Sorry about that," JunSu told him from the other side of the shop.
JinKi's good manners wanted to tell him that it's fine, nothing's wrong, it's no big deal... but he was still struggling for air, which meant it wasn't fine, something's wrong, and it was a big deal. He tried to recollect what happened before everything blacked out. The latest he could remember was walking into Mi's workshop, and suddenly everything went asphyxiated. He must have been attacked! There must have been a hollow! "What... happened?" he managed to ask by properly timing his gasps.
"Well. You walked in through the door and you collapsed," JunSu answered helpfully.
JinKi shot a look at Zhou Mi.
"It was a graceful collapse," Mi added, unsure. "Very... graceful. If I ever collapse, I'd like to collapse like that."
JinKi pounded himself on the chest. "What happened to the hollow?"
Mi and JunSu glanced at each other. "Hollow?" Mi asked.
JinKi glowered at them. "The one that attacked me!"
"No one attacked you," Mi said soothingly.
"I'd never run out of breath in your shop before!" JinKi insisted urgently.
JunSu coughed, slightly more embarrassed than he knew he should be. "That's... kind of. Maybe my fault."
"Is your fault," Mi said helpfully.
"You attacked me?!" JinKi almost shrieked. He realized what it meant. He turned to face Zhou Mi in terror. "Are you in league with him?"
Mi clucked his tongue like JinKi was being slow with memorizing a tune. "Oh, get a grip on yourself. JunSu is a shinigami. Remember what I told you about them?"
JinKi nodded, but his mind was still replaying the no-I-wasn't-attacked part of the conversation. "They're... the good guys?"
"Most of them," Mi corrected.
JunSu nodded at JinKi while frowning at Zhou Mi. "I'm the Lieutenant of the 2nd Division in Soul Society. See?" He angled the badge on his sleeve so JinKi could see the whole thing. Not that the kid would know what it meant, but sometimes badges were symbols in and of themselves.
JinKi nodded, breathing once more in his usual rhythm. "A Lieutenant? That means you're ranked pretty high, right?"
JunSu blushed. "Almost." Zhou Mi coughed pointedly but was ignored.
"Wow." JinKi pulled himself up on a chair as steadily as he could and tried not to fidget. He wasn't part of Soul Society, but something about being in the presence of a high-ranking officer made him feel self-conscious. More than usual, at least, and that was considerable. "Is that why I couldn't breathe? Some sort of automatic defense system for ranking officers?"
Zhou Mi muffled his chuckles with his hand as he sat back down. JunSu blinked repeatedly at the question behind Mi's desk. JinKi waited for his teacher to stop thinking he was an idiot – which, he admitted to himself, happened a lot.
"Spirit pressure," Mi said as his shoulders gradually stopped shaking. "Now that you're spiritually aware, you're more sensitive to spirit pressure. JunSu's pressure was too strong for yours, so your pressure caved in and you blacked out."
"Oh." JinKi wilted in his seat.
JunSu smiled encouragingly. "Don't sweat it, kid. Most aware people probably wouldn't even have felt it."
JinKi wilted even more.
"What the Lieutenant means," Zhou Mi interrupted, shooting a dark look at JunSu, "is that people with spiritual awareness but no training wouldn't have lasted the two seconds you did."
JunSu wondered what it was about the human world that made him lose his unbreakable composure. If HyukJae learned about this, he'd never live it down. "Exactly what I meant. That's why Lieutenants and Captains are rarely allowed into the human world: we could kill people without knowing it."
"But Zhou Mi..."
"I wonder why," Mi gloated with sarcastic plainness, smirking as he crossed his arms.
"Your teacher could take on our ranking officers," JunSi acknowledged. "Maybe some of the Lieutenants, even."
"Back to business," Mi announced, his ego having fed enough for the day. "JinKi, do you remember that errand I sent you on a week ago?"
JinKi perked up. "The one where I had to play tourist guide to a spacy friend of yours? I'll never forget that. For a lot of reasons." He liked that errand. He hadn't heard from DongHae or Henry since he last saw them. He'd asked Zhou Mi about DongHae at least, but there was no end to the vagaries in the answers.
JunSu cut in. "We were wondering if you could tell us more about DongHae when he was here."
"DongHae?" JinKi asked, surprised. "But he's a shinigami, right? I thought you wanted to talk about Henry."
It was JunSu's turn to be surprised. "Henry?" He heard Mi smack himself.
"Because DongHae ran after him that day. I don't know where they went. DongHae's one of you guys, so if anything really bad happened to him you wouldn't be messing around with humans. So I thought maybe you're having trouble dealing with a human. So what happened to Henry?" JinKi asked, forgetting about rank and respect. "If you haven't talked to him, that means he isn't dead, right?"
JunSu shot a glance at Zhou Mi, who studiously ignored it.
JinKi went on. "But if he's alive, I'm sure you could trace him. So is he in hiding?" He turned to Zhou Mi. "Does he have powers too? Is that why the shinigami can't find him?"
The Lieutenant raised his hands to try and calm JinKi down and retake control of the discussion, but Zhou Mi spoke first. "I was hoping you may be able to find him."
JinKi looked thoughtful. "I dunno. If he's hiding, maybe he has a good reason for not wanting to be found."
JunSu narrowed his eyes. "Are you saying-"
"JinKi can track spirits," Mi intoned quickly. "That's his power. Dead or alive, if the spirit he's looking for is in the same world, he can find them. The distance doesn't matter."
"That's useful," JunSu admitted. JinKi's cheeks flushed red. "How quickly can you do it?"
"He's not here," JinKi answered preemptively. "Not in this world. As soon as Mi helped me learn how to use my powers, I tried to look for him and DongHae. But they're not here."
"DongHae is back in the spirit world," JunSu reassured him once more. "Henry... Are you sure he isn't here?"
JinKi was much too good-mannered to huff in indignation. Instead, he closed his eyes and let his mind wander. "There's a shinigami at the radio tower about a mile and a half northwest from here. He was with DongHae before they chased Henry down the street. He's been on duty every night, except three days ago."
JunSu pursed his lips.
"He's tall. Built large. Taps his foot or nods his head to some rhythm." JinKi opened his eyes and looked doe-eyed at Mi and JunSu. "I can go on. I can tell you which way he's facing, if you want. How he's playing with his fingers. How his hair is blowing in the wind."
"Show off," Zhou Mi muttered. "Go ahead. Overexert yourself."
"No need. He's proven his point," JunSu said. He was looking at both humans with guarded suspicion.
JinKi shook his head. He swallowed loudly.
"Go get some water," Mi commanded.
"Parlor tricks. You trained him to do parlor tricks," JunSu said accusingly once JinKi excused himself to the kitchen, though Zhou Mi knew his little act was going to be followed by an intense migraine. That gave them a few minutes, at least.
"I didn't. It's his natural gift. Disappointed that you can't tap him as a weapon?" Mi asked with a smile dripping with venom.
JunSu didn't dignify that with an answer. "If your boy is right that Henry isn't here in your world, he could be in ours."
"Or in the hollow world," Zhou Mi pointed out. "But there's another possibility. I don't do soul burials. If DongHae's report is accurate – if Henry's and the hollow's spirits really are bound together – then I could have destroyed them both with my attack."
JunSu shook his head as he grasped at complexities beyond his experience. "It's also a matter of power and intensity. SeungHyun's combat report detailed a hollow with very high spirit pressure. If their two spirits were bound together, that means Henry's spirit pressure should also be about the same as the hollow's. Symbiotic relationships only work if there's a balance between both parties. Was your attack strong enough to destroy two entities with that much pressure?"
Zhou Mi shook his head. "I calculated my attack. It was exactly enough to destroy the hollow in its weakened state."
"Then they both still exist."
The machinist and the shinigami stared at each other, both comprehending the implications of their discussion. "JinKi can find Henry if they're in the same world," Mi said flatly.
"Why are you suddenly so helpful?"
"Because Henry's human. You people don't care much about us humans, but I do. We care about each other because no one else does."
JunSu remained silent.
Zhou Mi went on. "If there's a way to rescue Henry's spirit, I'll find it."
"I'll help." JunSu touched his badge, swearing by his rank. "For your reasons, too. But also for mine and DongHae's."
Zhou Mi nodded. "Truce."
"Train you student. We'll need him." JunSu got up, opened a spirit gate and leapt in urgently. He had some research to do. And maybe a visit to the 9th and 12th Divisions as well. Those were stressful visits by themselves.
JinKi peeked from behind the kitchen door and spoke softly. "Is he gone?"
Mi beckoned him in. "He'll be back soon. Let's work on your spirit pressure. Is your headache gone? Don't want to embarrass ourselves again, do we?"
For the fifth time in as many minutes, HyukJae knocked dejectedly on the door of DongHae's apartment. There was, as the four earlier times, no answer. But that was expected. If DongHae was going to open the door, he'd have done so at HyukJae's first knock. But he couldn't believe it. So he just kept on knocking.
He'd sent RyeoWook home after their sojourn to the 2nd Division headquarters resulted in neither the Lieutenant nor their quarry. RyeoWook gave him a knowing look, a nod that seemed like it came from a much older person, and the promise of a good dinner at home. EunHyuk knew that RyeoWook was covering his bases: he could invite DongHae over for dinner if he was home (Why wouldn't he be? he thought loyally), or if the apartment was empty then at least he had the prospect of a good meal waiting for him to cheer him up.
Knock, knock, knock. "DongHae?" he added for good measure. 6th time wasn't the charm. He'd try for 7th in a minute.
HyukJae stood there. Waiting. Not for DongHae's response, but for a decision. He felt like he was at the edge of something, and at the very edge there was always uncertainty. At the very edge, there had to be a decision.
Eventually, it came.
He laid his palms flat against the door and felt for any vibrations coming from inside. Everything was still.
He poured his spirit energy from every inch of his skin and let it seep beneath the floor, through the gaps in the doorway, through the-
He kicked the door open. He walked into a barren apartment. Completely empty. Devoid of anything that made it DongHae's.
There was a note on the floor with his name on it, written in a neater version of DongHae's untidy scrawl, as if the writer didn't want to take the risk of it being misread. HyukJae unfolded the paper with trembling fingers and read the message with disbelieving eyes.
RyeoWook's cooking cooled, uneaten, that evening.
[Continue to Chapter 7]
A/N: So now we've met the major cast... but I still have a couple of slots or so for some minor roles. Any suggestions?